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Fallbrook's charms woo two talented wordsmiths

An appreciation

by Tim O’Leary

Hello, again, dear reader. I pray that only sweet water has filled your cups since the last time we supped.

Today we shall focus on Fallbrook’s second great man, Frank Capra, a war hero, movie maker and fierce local champion. Another day I will write about Fallbrook’s first great man, Medal of Honor recipient Union Sgt. William Pittenger.

It is Mr. Capra who brings us to the table today, although both men have, as we all must at our appointed times, sadly passed from this mortal coil.

The two men had much in common. They shared a fierce love of the spoken and written word and a rich reverence for the restful land that surrounds us all.

It’s a tucked-away community that is green in the spring and gold in the fall. It is anchored by a slow-growing village of wise, wonderful people. It is framed by two rivers that flow from mountains and hills into the sea. Its winds are alternately soft, swift and strong. It is a land both coastal and inland. Many days here are laced by cool, morning mists and then followed by crackling afternoon heat.

And now comes me, the least of we three finger flickers. It is my hope that you will let me be your guide as I detail the lives of Mr. Capra and his beloved biographer, Gary Vix.

Mr. Capra was born in Italy in May 1897. With his parents and six older siblings, he emigrated to the U.S. six years later. He served in two World Wars, rising to the rank of colonel in the Army Signal Corps. Along the way, he reaped six medals that included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the WWI and WWII Victory Medals.

He worked his way through high school and then college at the California Institute of Technology by working a string of oddball occupations that included hawking newspapers, playing the banjo, waiting on tables, cleaning power plant engines, selling books and working at a campus laundry.

As quoted by Wikipedia, Mr. Capra once wrote that his perspective on life changed “from the viewpoint of an alley rat to the viewpoint of a cultured person.”

Mr. Capra studied chemical engineering and was the only member of his family to receive a college degree. Yet he was also chronically unemployed, typically down on himself and often adrift amid swirls of depression.

He fast-talked his way into the fledgling film industry, and scored a $75 gig to direct a one-reel silent movie that was made by amateurs and filmed in two days. He parlayed that performance into such 1930s and ‘40s writing and directing masterpieces as “For the Love of Mike” (1927), “The Younger Generation” (1929), “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).

The fabulous flick “It Happened One Night” was the first film to nab all five top Academy Awards. In all, Mr. Capra was nominated for six awards for directing films and he netted three directing Oscars. He served as the president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences from 1935 to 1939.

Mr. Capra died in September 1991 in La Quinta. He was buried in the Coachella Valley Public Cemetery.

But, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) has become his shining star and it stands tall as my second-favorite movie. It trails, just by a hair, the masterwork “Sergeant York,” the 1941 classic that told the true story of Sgt. Alvin York and blended the talents of Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, Noah Beery Jr. and Joan Leslie.

It is the amazingly upbeat, fictional movie that brings your humble narrator to Mr. Gary Vix and his lifelong love affairs with the word, with Fallbrook and with Mr. Frank Capra.

Mr. Vix was born in Florida in 1943. His family bounced around California for many years until it landed in Fallbrook, where he enrolled in elementary school. He loved music and played the trombone in the Fallbrook High School Marching Band. His brother, Marlin, also played the trombone. They loved to perform polkas and other popular songs.

Gary Vix earned the title of drum major of his Fallbrook High School band prior to his 1961 graduation. He left Fallbrook to attend San Jose State University. After graduation, he became a band teacher, started a family and eventually moved back to his beloved Fallbrook, which became his final home.

He planted deep roots in his old/new community. He became active in the Fallbrook High School Alumni Association. His favorite local stops included the hardware store and the Donut Pantry. His faded, yellow 1973 Ford Courier pickup was a familiar sight around our friendly village. He brought many a smile to a great many faces.

His love of Fallbrook, of course, included Mr. Frank Capra, Sgt. Pittenger and the rest of our community’s legend and lore. His love of history caused him to contemplate and write about much of what he heard, saw, sang, felt and tasted.

Perhaps his crowning written glory was a 5,000-word piece titled “Is Fallbrook the Actual Bedford Falls?” It was printed in the 2022 edition of the greater Fallbrook area’s Sourcebook, an annual magazine published by Reeder Media Inc.

I know that the piece tapped into the hearts and minds of many Fallbrookians. We were all amazed that we learned so much about our native or adopted hometown in a single newspaper story. I – a ham-handed columnist who can barely write my way out of a wet paper bag – was intensely jealous that this Gary Vix guy had scooped me so thoroughly.

Sadly, Mr. Vix died suddenly on Sept. 21. He left behind his beloved wife, Susan Vix, an abundance of children, grandchildren and other kinfolk and, finally, his 1947 Ford Sportsman.

I leave you now with the words that Mr. Vix wrote to convince us all that Mr. Capra was writing about us when he told the story about how love conquers all adversity, all poverty, all tragedy and all evil.

Capra creating a fictional town named Bedford Falls was a brilliant marketing strategy. Bedford Falls, by not being any particular community, became practically any small town in America.

Almost every small town has a drugstore, hardware store, movie theater, school, church, etc. In order for an existing community to claim the title of the “Real Bedford Falls” requires some concrete and irrefutable evidence. Perhaps Fallbrook cannot claim the title of being the “Actual Bedford Falls” and neither can Seneca Falls [N.Y.] claim to be the “Real Bedford Falls.” However, only one of these two small towns can claim that Capra actually lived there.

Although lacking a New York state location and snowfall is such a rare event that photos of the white stuff reaching the ground appear as a front page spread in the local newspaper, much of Bedford Falls can be found in the DNA of the village of Fallbrook.

Another Capra film which provides fuel for the Bedford Falls – Fallbrook relationship is a true story and a typical Capra format: the triumph of good over evil. The film is titled “The Fallbrook Story” which you can find on YouTube.

Capra’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the film’s credits for obvious reasons. It’s the story of an average guy, a war veteran and his struggle to combat an evil foe.

Like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” G.I. Joe Edman, who actually represents the entire community of Fallbrook, is forced to resist the overreach of a Henry F. Potter type villain in the very real United States Attorney General James H. McGrath.

AG McGrath filed a suit and claimed that Fallbrook’s water, which the community had been using for around 100 years, actually belonged to the United States government. Fallbrook fought the U.S. government, retained their water rights and won.

The simple fact that Capra would create a motion picture titled “The Fallbrook Story” is in itself a testament to the affection and attachment he had to the community and its residents. There is no known Capra film titled “The Seneca Falls Story.” The film begins with none other than award-winning director Cecil B. DeMille providing the introduction.

The year 1952 was a time in U.S. history when former Sen. Joe McCarthy led a witch hunt attempting to expose Communist activities, especially in the entertainment industry. Capra could be scrutinized under the magnifying glass held by McCarthy’s committee seeking out un-American Hollywood types.

It was well known that Capra was a patriot who loved the United States. However, his films occasionally projected a somewhat negative view of the system by exposing corruption in the political landscape, especially among U.S. government bureaucrats and politicians…

In the end, Democracy always prevails and the political system works, especially for the “little guy.” Capra films favored the average American instead of the large political machine which was gaining power during the Great Depression. Capra did not vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

… It has been written that Frank Capra didn’t think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a Christmas film when it was released in 1946. That may be true. However, Capra himself soon realized the Christmas holiday season is when interest in the film and its message had the greatest resonance with viewers…

The Capras would invite family members to their Red Mountain Ranch home on Christmas Eve for dinner, then Uncle Frank would screen “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the home theater. The evening would conclude with everyone attending Midnight Mass at the local Catholic church. Back in the 1950s, Capra still owned the film rights to “It’s a Wonderful Life” making the availability of the film to any audience extremely limited.

Bedford Falls is a fictional town. It is not any particular town and therefore it can be almost any town U.S.A. which is likely exactly the way Capra wanted it.

However, Fallbrook, California can claim the fact that Frank Capra lived here and a number of similarities actually exist connecting Fallbrook and Bedford Falls. Fallbrook can at least be considered the “Real West Coast Bedford Falls.” Frank Capra’s Red Mountain Ranch, the Ellis Hotel, James E. Potter, Reineman, real estate salesman, oak trees, his children, the Fallbrook town name and the film “The Fallbrook Story” all point to Fallbrook and its residents having at least some relationship to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the fictional town of Bedford Falls.

Could Fallbrook be a primary inspiration for the actual Bedford Falls? You decide.


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