May 19, 2011

Jimmy Stewart Museum fights fading memories

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The Jimmy Stewart Museum, Philadelphia Street, Indiana, Pa. Photo by Mark Daniel Anderson.

 

By Brenna Bonfiglio

 

INDIANA -- Timothy F. Harley, executive director of The Jimmy Stewart Museum, sits in an office filled with memorabilia of the late actor from Indiana.

 

He glances out his window that overlooks Philadelphia Street and the S&T Bank, formerly a hardware store owned by Stewart's father. This is the same store window where Stewart displayed his Oscar for several years after winning it in 1940 ("The Philadelphia Story," Best Actor in a Leading Role).

 

Harley remembers the way Stewart gave back to the community. And now he wants to sustain the museum for him. He ponders the financial future of the museum and brainstorms ways to keep it open.

Stewart (1908-1997), an actor in more than 80 films, didn't forget his origins, and Harley hopes the same doesn't happen to the museum dedicated about him.

 

"Mr. Stewart was a regular good guy," said Harley in a Feb. 24 interview in his office.

 

"Many people are acquainted with him through his personality in films but many other people know him as a World War II hero. He had a lot of impact on our country and around the world as a star."

 

Stewart didn't initially want a museum about him but agreed to it in 1995 after learning that Indiana's downtown was suffering, Harley said. He hoped the museum would help bring people to Indiana.

 

It worked.

 

More than 100,000 people travelled to the museum in its first decade, according to museum documents. The Indiana County Tourist Bureau considers it the town's primary tourist site.

 

But the boom ended, said Harley. Attendance dropped to 5,000 in 2010 from 6,500 in 2009, a decrease of 23 percent in one year.

 

The buses stopped coming. Fifteen to 20 bus tours would arrive at the museum every month during September, October, April and May, said Harley. Last year, bus tours dropped to five between the most popular months.

 

And Stewart's fans are getting older. Not many people from younger generations can relate to him.

 

"Jimmy Stewart was more relevant in our parents' age than today," said David C. Bivens, IUP's 2010-2011 Student Government Association president. "I think appealing to students who would be interested in old movies would be the best route. Perhaps hosting a movie night and advertising it on campus."

 

If Stewart were still alive, he would be 103 years old.

 

"The people that do relate to him are dwindling," said Harley. "And that is part of what has caused us financial challenges in the last couple of years."

 

A bulletin board in the lobby of Harley's office was once full of tour bookings. Now, only one or two potential tours are posted per month.

 

"A mainstay of our operation have been charter buses of seniors, people that were contemporary in age or subsequent generations to Mr. Stewart," said Harley. "Those people have aged out of travelling. That has put a huge dent in our visitation."

 

On The Jimmy Stewart Museum website, the museum is listed as a registered 501-c-3 not-for-profit corporation. The main sources of funds come from admission fees, shop sales, special events, grants and donations.

 

The museum once received funding from the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission. In 2011, the funding stopped.

 

"This year we were unable to apply for money from the commonwealth," said Harley. "Arts and culture-related things are generally the first to go because of budget problems the state is having."

 

When Harley started in 2004, the museum received around $5,500 from the commonwealth. Last year it was down to $1,400, a decrease of 74 percent.

 

"Although $5,000 is significant for us, it's not as bad as losing the senior visitation," Harley said. "It was a significant impact to lose two to three buses of 48 people a week."

  

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Timothy F. Harley, executive director, The Jimmy Stewart Museum. Photo by Amanda Mason

Harley realized the museum might close for good. He contacted Barbara Vancheri, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer. 

 "It was my feeling that even though we lost those visitors that there are still hundreds of thousands of people that think Mr. Stewart is worthwhile and that it's worth saving his museum," said Harley. "I asked Barb if she would write a story that she felt would get picked up by the Associated Press."

 

Vancheri agreed and wrote a Nov. 15, article about the museum's struggles. It got picked up by The Associated Press, msnbc.com, NBC Nightly News and by The Wall Street Journal.

 

"Once those things happened, we started to receive donations," said Harley. "There was anything from one dollar in an envelope to substantial gifts of several thousand dollars from people who have never been here but just feel so strongly about Mr. Stewart."

 

Those thousand-dollar donations were welcomed by Harley. But they won't sustain the museum for long.

 

"Although those gifts were reasonably substantial, they are not enough to resolve the future of the museum, which we feel needs to be done through an endowment fund," said Harley.

 

An endowment fund allows an enterprise to live off interest while not touching the principal of the fund. The museum's annual budget is around $140,000 annually. But it would need about $2.5 million to generate that much interest, according to Harley.

 

Harley, along with three part-time assistants and volunteers, are working to promote the museum. Many people reacted to the news coverage of the museum by saying they never knew it existed, said Harley.

 

"The economy and gas prices have a lot to do with the decrease in attendance," said volunteer Mary Ann Soule in a Feb. 24 interview in the museums store. "But so many people don't know about the museum. Even students from IUP come here and don't recognize his name."

 

They recognize that it will be a challenge to make a man from the golden age of cinema recognizable for younger generations. 

 

"Our challenge will be to make Mr. Stewart and the museum relevant to younger people that may not be familiar with him," said Harley.

 

--Brenna Bonfiglio, a senior majoring in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Murrysville.

 

 

Sidebar: For more information

 

For more information about the Jimmy Stewart Museum, contact:

 

Timothy F. Harley

Executive director

835 Philadelphia St.

Indiana, Pa. 15701

724-349-6112 (office)

Email: tharley@jimmy.org

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This page contains a single entry by Ms. Lee C. Vest published on May 19, 2011 2:17 PM.

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