JUDGING BY THE BELL RINGING, THERE WERE PLENTY of angels getting their wings during the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade on Nov. 28. But nobody was flying higher than the four featherless mortals sitting atop the Bedford Falls float. Nearly 50 years after playing the four Bailey children in Frank Capra's holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, the onetime kid stars were once again the toast of the town. "Baileys! Baileys!" chanted the crowd of more than 750,000 lining Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. Says Larry Simms, 59, who played Peter Bailey in the 1946 film: "The effect this movie has on people is just astounding."
The four, who, besides Simms, include Jimmy Hawkins (Tommy), 52, Carol Coombs Mueller (Janie), 58, and Karolyn Grimes Wilkerson (Zuzu), 53, have found out just how astounding as they have toured the country this holiday season in a promotion for Target department stores. (Jimmy Stewart, 85, and Donna Reed, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1986, played their parents.)
Ironically the tour coincides with Republic Pictures' efforts to limit Life showings to a few per holiday season. But that hasn't dampened fans' enthusiasm. At one appearance a couple showed off their wedding rings inscribed with lines from the film. (One read, "I love you"; the other, "Till the day I die.") A Tampa man told the Baileys that seeing the film had slopped him from committing suicide. "Things like that happened everywhere we went," says Hawkins, now a film and TV producer living in Los Angeles.
The tour—which includes the sale of Life memorabilia to benefit the Donna Reed Foundation, which provides scholarships for young actors, and the Motion Picture and Television Fund—was also a reunion for the actors, who hadn't seen each other since 1946. Hawkins went on to play Shelley Fabares's boyfriend on The Donna Reed Show (1958-66) before moving into producing. Last year he cowrote the It's a Wonderful Life Trivia Book.
Grimes, who also appeared in The Bishop's Wife with Cary Crant and Loretta Young, gave up Hollywood at 15, when both her parents died, and went to live with relatives in the Midwest. She now lives outside Kansas City with contractor Mike Wilkerson, her husband of 25 years, with whom she has raised a family of seven, including five children from their previous marriages. She acts in community theater and talks to groups about her Life experiences. "I love it," she says. "I carry pictures from the film in my purse and sign them when people ask."
Coombs retired in 1988 after a 31-year teaching career. Now living near Crestline, Calif., with husband Chett Mueller, also a retired teacher, she has passed her love for Life onto her three children and five grandchildren. "They find it hard to grasp how it could be Grandma up there on the screen, but I think they enjoy it," she says.
And while Simms acted occasionally after Life, he has devoted most of the past 47 years to a technological career inspired by watching the soundman on the Life set. The divorced father of three now works as an independent engineering consultant in the Pacific Northwest. Surprisingly, he is one of the few people who has never watched It's a Wonderful Life in its entirely. "I'm just not a movie watcher," he says. But Hawkins thinks Simms will come under the film's spell eventually. "Everybody sooner or later feels, I don't make a difference,' " says Hawkins. "It's a Wonderful Life offers hope against that."
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