by Amy Catania
"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole.” — It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946
This is a good time of year to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Set in a fictional town in upstate New York called Bedford Falls, the movie tells the story of a man named George Bailey who discovers how much his life matters. The movie brings to mind the wonderful life of Saranac Laker, Alton “Tony” Anderson.
Tony Anderson fell ill with tuberculosis while working as a toolmaker in Southington, Connecticut. As a member of the Masons, he received financial help to come to Saranac Lake for treatment in 1919. “I came here to die,” Tony used to say.
Facing death, Tony received a gift, a chance to imagine the world without him. He made his home here and dedicated his life to giving back. He served as village mayor for nine terms. He worked as the volunteer ambulance driver and as a plane spotter on top of the Hotel Saranac during the war. He was a member of the Masonic Lodge, the Elks Club, the Rotary, the Boat and Waterway Club, the hospital board, and the blood bank.
Mayor Anderson could always be seen around town, no matter the temperature, in his sport coat and tie, doing the informal business of holding the village together, one personal relationship at a time. He was a Republican in a time when political party didn’t matter much in small town politics. People voted for Tony time and again, because he was a good man who worked hard for the people of Saranac Lake. Mayor Anderson had a delightful, quiet sense of humor. He did the right thing without apology. If you needed something, he was there.
The gem of Tony’s eye was the beautiful Pontiac Theatre. The theater had the largest screen in upstate New York, an orchestral organ valued at $12,000, velvet curtains, and gorgeous chandeliers. It wasn’t just a theater; it was an experience. Famed theatrical agent William Morris, here with his own case of TB, brought some of the most famous talent of the day to perform benefit shows at the Pontiac.
Tony Anderson first worked as an usher in the balcony, which was reserved for TB patients. He went on to a long career as theater manager. Tony was always there at the door, warmly greeting each patron. After the Catholic Church burned, Tony opened the theater for Sunday services. Parishioners gave him the friendly appellation, “Father Anderson.” The business of managing the theater was hard work, and Tony liked to say that he “never missed a day and never saw a movie.” He kept a record of the date of each winter’s first snowfall on the doorframe of his little office under the theater stairs.
Each afternoon, Tony went home to his modest house on South Hope Street and sat on his porch in a cure chair. “Best seat in the house,” he called it. After his afternoon rest, he would go back to the theater for the shows. Tony’s wife Helen is remembered as a lovely person. She took care of the books at Newman and Holmes hardware store. They had two children, Charlene and Bailey.
Saranac Lake in the 1950s was a picture postcard of Bedford Falls. Everyone knew each other. Kids played together outside through all seasons. Downtown shops bustled year-round. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise was five times thicker than it is today. The theater, the radio station, civic organizations, and places of worship knitted the community together. Like the shadow of death cast by tuberculosis, the horrors of WWII inspired an appreciation for life and a sense of civic responsibility.
But forces were afoot that were beginning to devastate small towns around the country. Everywhere, industry and manufacturing were closing up shop. In Saranac Lake, the TB business came to an end. Jobs dried up and families left. Across America, suburban development was eroding downtown retail. Television offered solitary entertainment that took the place of public activities like going to the movies.
By the late 1960s, Tony Anderson’s beloved theater had fallen on hard times. The impeccably dressed ushers were gone, and, much to Tony’s chagrin, on Wednesday nights the Pontiac was showing titillating foreign films that reflected changing social mores. It seemed that only the bars were prospering. The town was on track to become like Pottersville, Bedford Falls’ evil twin in the movie. The forces that were changing the village were bigger than the efforts of the good men and women of Saranac Lake.
But things have a way of coming full circle. Many former TB patients credit their brush with death for shaping their sense of civic duty. As we emerge from a global pandemic, perhaps we have more than one Tony Anderson in the making. Good people and places are still with us. Cross the bridge by the Left Bank Cafe. Turn the corner, and walk past the Hotel Saranac, the museum, and the library. You just might see glimmers of Bedford Falls.
Sadly, some things are indeed lost forever. On December 19, 1978, a massive fire devastated the Pontiac Theatre. Three years after the fire, Saranac Lake’s longest serving mayor died at the age of 82. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise obituary stated, “Will Rogers said, 'I never met a man I couldn't like.' With apologies for the paraphrasing, we say, 'We never met anyone who didn't like Tony Anderson.’”
It’s true, no man is a failure who has friends. George Bailey and Tony Anderson had a lot of them, regular people who in small ways make up the wonderful life of a small town. George Bailey’s friends in Bedford Falls bring to mind the regular people of Saranac Lake who look out for each other — people like Ernie the taxi driver, Bert the policeman, Mary the devoted wife and mother, Mr. Gower the pharmacist, Martini the barkeep, Harry the war hero, the woman at the bank who asks for only $17.50, and Clarence the angel.
“Merry Christmas, movie house! Merry Christmas, Emporium! Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!”
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, Saranac Lake.
Special thanks to those who shared their memories for this story: Chris Brescia, Jan Dudones, Jim Griebsch, Bunk Griffin, Howard Riley, Jim and Keela Rogers, and our dear friend, Natalie Leduc, who, on December 8 came to the end of her truly wonderful life. We won’t be the same without her.
Stay up to date on all the news and happenings from Historic Saranac Lake at the Saranac Laboratory Museum!