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In Denison, Making 'It's A Wonderful Life' Available To The City's Spanish Speakers

The western Iowa city of Denison is known as the hometown of actress Donna Reed. And residents have embraced that.

Every year just before the holidays, a theater bearing Reed’s name makes it a tradition to show the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life."


This year, they hosted a screening with Spanish subtitles — a nod to the town’s large Hispanic population.

In the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, or in Spanish, “Es Una Vida Maravillosa”, an angel helps George Bailey see what life in the small town of Bedford Falls would be like if he didn’t exist. It’s a film many can connect to because of its themes of love, family and even dissatisfaction with life.

Donna Reed, who grew up on a farm just outside of Denison, plays Bailey’s high school sweetheart Mary Hatch.

About two dozen people who attended the screening at the town’s Donna Reed Theatre watch as Hatch and Bailey’s relationship blossoms and the story unfolds. Spanish subtitles flash on the screen.

Mary: (singing) Buffalo Gals, can’t you come out tonight… (George joins in)...can’t you come out tonight, can’t you come out tonight. Buffalo Gals can’t you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon. George: (in sing-song tone) What’d you wish for when you threw that rock? Mary: Oh no. George: Come on, tell me. Mary: If I told you it might not come true. George: What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.

Wendy Menjivar took her husband and two children to see the movie.

“There’s quite [a few] of us that don’t speak English. So it’s nice of them to have the subtitles to actually to understand the movie,” Menjivar said.

She says knowing that Donna Reed was such a famous actress makes her proud to be from Denison.

Anyone who visits Denison can feel the widespread pride. The city of 8,000 people even sports the film’s title on its water tower. 

"Reaching out is such a big part of the message of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’," -Mary Owen

Over the years, Denison’s Hispanic community has grown and now amounts to nearly half the city’s population.

But as the population grew, Donna Reed’s daughter, Mary Owen, worried the water tower tagline started to lose its connection to the film.

“I think that when they see it says ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, you know, they probably just think ‘well yes, this is a great place to raise my family’, et cetera. So I wanted a way to connect the foundation to that community,” Owen said.

Owen lives in New York City and serves on the board of directors for Denison’s Donna Reed Foundation. She suggested the theater show the movie with Spanish subtitles. 

Owen says she hopes this screening becomes a tradition. 

The theater is even talking about showing the film entirely in Spanish. Owen says she would be excited about that too.

“Reaching out is such a big part of the message of  ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, so it’s also a really nice fit,” Owen said. 

"No matter how old this movie is, it’s an example that you can reach whatever you want, when you work hard and you have dreams and you are united." -Lorena Lopez

The film’s fictional town of Bedford Falls exudes a comfortable everybody-knows-everybody atmosphere. To Lorena Lopez, the founding owner and editor of Denison’s Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa, the local Latino community shares that. 

“We get along, not as much we would like,” Lopez said. “I think that we all need to continue working on that.”

And Lopez says like Bedford Falls, Denison is a town where people aren’t afraid to dream.

“No matter how old this movie is, it’s an example that you can reach whatever you want, when you work hard and you have dreams and you are united,” she said.

Lopez attended the screening with her friend Teresa Baltazar. Baltazar said the screening made her feel connected to the movie, to her heritage and to Denison. 

“Yes because in Mexico it’s part of our culture, help one each other, no matter if it’s a family or a neighbor,” Lopez said, interpreting for Baltazar.

They’re talking about the end of the film, how the community helps George Bailey raise $8,000 — money that disappeared from the bank that nearly led him to take his own life. It’s a moment the town truly comes together.

In Denison, the screening brought the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities together for a version of the film everyone could understand. An opportunity for everyone to share a piece of Denison’s history.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.