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Anacortes’ holiday tradition: ‘The Jimmy Stewart Christmas Run’

Dec 23, 2019, 9:57 AM | Updated: 1:12 pm
Anacortes, Jimmy Stewart...
Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in "It's A Wonderful Life" inspired some Anacortes residents to re-create a classic scene from the film every Christmas Eve since 1991. (Public domain)
(Public domain)

The classic 1940s holiday movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” made quite an impression on a group of friends from Anacortes. On Christmas Eve, they’ll be out on the streets of the Skagit County port taking part in a tradition that’s now nearly 30 years old.

Matt Orr is a third-grade teacher in Chimacum. He grew up in Anacortes, and he’s back there every Christmas Eve to see family and friends, and to preside over an organic event known as “The Jimmy Stewart Christmas Run.”

“It started out in the back of a car,” Orr said by phone, describing the event as a way to blow off steam after sitting for an hour in church on Christmas Eve. “[We’d] roll down the windows, one person was driving, and they would point at a business, and we would all shout ‘Merry Christmas,’ like a Jimmy Stewart type of ‘Merry Christmas.’”

What Matt Orr and various configurations of his two brothers and their Anacortes friends do each year on the streets of their hometown is re-create the famous “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” scene from the classic Frank Capra holiday film “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In the iconic scene, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is grateful to be alive again after seeing what the world would be like had he “never been born.” Stewart, as George Bailey, runs down the snowy streets of his hometown, wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ to the people, buildings and businesses he passes.

Every Christmas Eve, Matt Orr and his friends bike, run or drive up Commercial Avenue in Anacortes doing essentially the same thing for what they have come to call “The Jimmy Stewart Christmas Run.”

Refreshingly, there’s no website or social media page trumpeting logistical details of “The Jimmy Stewart Run.” And, fortunately, there are no t-shirts or other irritating swag. The history of the event is a little vague, too.

“It’s all told verbally, and so nobody keeps any records of who showed up and where we were,” Orr said, while trying to give a reporter a sense of how and when the event came to be.

But this means the memories are even more special.

“There are so many amazing huge memories when you get a large crowd,” Orr said. “I’ve been surprised both ways when I turn make the turn onto 4th Avenue, and I see three or four cars there, and people unloading bikes and riding around in circles getting ready to go.”

Matt Orr thinks the tradition began in 1991, and acknowledges that, with the demands that come with being an adult, there may have been a few gaps, as well as a year or two here and there where turnout was pretty light.

“There was one year where it was just one brother and myself,” Orr said.

In 2018, there was a shortage of bicycles available, so Matt Orr decided to go on foot.

“I ran . . . [and] as I get up there in years, I’m not running the entire length of Commercial Avenue,” Orr said. “[But] I paid for that.”

This year, Matt’s brother is hoping to be on wheels. But not on a bike.

“I think my older brother still is planning this year to somehow put together some sort of old-fashioned wheelchair so he could be Mr. Potter,” Orr said, name-checking the wheelchair-bound villain of the film, played by Lionel Barrymore.

And whether on wheels or on foot, Orr says that in the nearly 30 years of the event, the Anacortes Police Department has only weighed in once.

“We got pulled over because windows were rolled down and people were kind of leaning out of the of the of the vehicle,” Orr said. And, no, the cop’s name wasn’t Burt.

If it had been, Matt Orr says, “we would have invited him along.”

All kidding aside, it’s clear that the “Jimmy Stewart Christmas Run” really means something to Matt Orr and his friends.

“I think it’s nostalgic [and] it’s a resonating movie. The energy of the run, the awakening, [George Bailey] realizing he’s alive, and the joy that he’s feeling,” Orr said. And the anticipation, Orr says, “after having been in a church service for an hour on a late night before a holiday when we were kids . . for me, ‘The Jimmy Stewart Christmas Run’ is about the, ‘Okay, that’s when Christmas begins.’”

When Christmas Eve 2019 arrives on Tuesday, Orr and his friends will gather around 9 p.m. on Commercial Avenue in the heart of downtown Anacortes. The final stop on “The Jimmy Stewart Christmas Run” on that historic street will probably be the Brown Lantern Alehouse, which had already been in business for more than a decade when “It’s A Wonderful Life” first premiered in 1946.

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Anacortes’ holiday tradition: ‘The Jimmy Stewart Christmas Run’