Produce Iowa
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Produce Iowa

It’s a Wonderful (Bilingual) Life in Denison

Every December for the last 20 years or so, the Donna Reed Center for Performing Arts in Denison has hosted a free screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 holiday classic that features the theater’s famous namesake.

Over those same 20 years, Denison has changed. Hispanic immigrants have arrived, initially drawn to jobs at the meatpacking plants, and now make up almost half of the western Iowa town’s population of 8,500.

So this year, for the first time, the theater is hosting a second screening of the Christmas movie with Spanish subtitles on Dec. 16. Folks can see “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Que bello es vivir.”

In either language, they’ll watch an angel save good old George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from suicide and show him how life would have been different for his wife (Reed) and his hometown of Bedford Falls if he had never been born.

“It’s a wonderful idea,” said Lorena Lopez, who runs the local Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa. “It’s a really good movie with a really good message. Part of it, I think, shows how hard it is to live in a small community, a rural community, and at the same time encourages young people to pursue whatever they can reach.”

Reed herself learned that lesson as well as anyone. Born in 1921, she grew up on a local farm, graduated from Denison High School and moved to Hollywood, where she eventually won an Oscar for her role in “From Here to Eternity” and starred as a housewife in “The Donna Reed Show.” Her hometown fans founded the Donna Reed Foundation after she died of pancreatic cancer, in 1986.

It was her daughter, Mary Owen, who came up with the idea for the Spanish screening. She lives in New York City and was visiting Denison a few years ago when someone mentioned a local campaign to repaint the water tower. Some folks wanted to replace its old tagline, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with the Monarch, the high school’s lion mascot.

Photo: Denison Bulletin Review

The idea failed, but it got Owen thinking: Did the younger generation know that old tagline wasn’t just a slogan from the chamber of commerce? Did new immigrants make the connection to the old movie?

Every December, she visits dozens of “Wonderful Life” screenings in New York to participate in Q-and-A sessions and talk about her famous mom. One of Owen’s favorite venues is an old movie palace in Washington Heights, a Hispanic neighborhood in Manhattan, where hundreds of people show up every year to watch the movie in Spanish.

She figured Denison could do the same thing.

“I’m really excited this is finally happening,” Owen said. “For the last few years, I’ve really wanted to figure out a way to reach out to the Hispanic community that is growing and growing and growing.”

Liz Gilman, the executive producer at Produce Iowa, is also excited to see Denison use film to create a cultural experience and to bring in more visitors.

“I’ve seen this become a trend across Iowa in towns such as Keokuk and Marshalltown, where people put a relevant spin on their heritage to connect to future audiences,” she said. “And, of course, there’s a real sense of community when people see a movie together in a theater.”

Pat Fleshner, who works at the Donna Reed Foundation, hopes the Spanish screening will become a new tradition. For years, folks have driven in from as far as Sioux City and Des Moines to see the movie in the old theater that German immigrants built in 1914.

“I don’t think you have to know Donna Reed to feel like you have a wonderful life in your community,” she said. “Everybody can strive to make a wonderful life wherever they are.”

Denison native Donna Reed won an Oscar for her role in “From Here to Eternity” but is best known for her namesake sitcom and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

But in Denison, already, more people are learning about their town’s claim to fame.

Lopez, the newspaper editor, said she often hears the actress’ name come up at social events, like weddings and quinceaneras, the traditional parties to celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday.

She said that “some mothers, when they see their daughters all dressed up, they say, ‘Oh, you look just like Donna Reed!’”

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources. iowaculture.gov