Gilmore Girls. It is the television sensation that has warmed the hearts of fans young and old for seven seasons through the 2000s, with a revival miniseries produced by Netflix in 2016. Today, the show is no less adored than it was more than a decade ago, with episodes broadcast and streamed in syndication around the world. If you’re a fan, then you may have heard of the Gilmore Girls Fan Fest in Kent, Connecticut. But did you know that this year marks the first time the festival is adding a Canadian location? It’s right here in Unionville where, you might be surprised to learn, the pilot episode was filmed.
Believe it or not, I did actually know this fact before sitting down to write this article. The reason for that is because I was an extra in the pilot when I was in my late teens. No joke. Hand on heart. Unfortunately for me, it was the unaired pilot, which ended up being reshot for television, so I cannot honestly claim that this was the start of a prolific career in moonlighting as a Hollywood extra.
Nevertheless, here’s how it went down: A youth group with which I was involved was contacted. A show was being filmed, and casting needed band uniforms… and maybe a few teenagers to wear them on camera as well. At the time, I had no idea what the show was or, more importantly, what it would become. But a legitimate day off school, and I was going to get paid? Sweet! I was there in the distance when Rory and Lane walk up the steps of Stars Hollow High School (locally known as The Varley Art Gallery, of course). I was also in the more immediate background for the infamous hallway-book-drop scene, where Rory meets Dean for the first time. You know that long slow stand and those awe-struck blue eyes? That’s seventeen-year-old me right there… blocked from view by the meet-cute closeup of Alexis Bledel.
I might be wrong, but I suspect she may have been slightly more important than me to the plot. Meh. It’s all good. It was a day off school and I got paid.
It is also a story which I get to tell with pride because Gilmore Girls has made its mark as a beloved institution since that time. It has a die-hard fan base and its very own festival, which is run by Jennie and Marcus Whitaker from Austin, Texas. You true Gilmore Girls Fans all know that Stars Hollow is a fictional town in Connecticut. Sadly, it doesn’t exist. But the inspiration for the show’s setting rests throughout the Litchfield Hills region. Towns like Washington, New Milford, Bantam and Lichfield have drawn GGFs for years.
It was a random drive from New York City to Maine in the summer of 2016 that sparked Jennie’s interest. “My husband and I were stuck in traffic in Hartford when I wondered aloud if there has ever been an event in the town off of which Gilmore Girls is based,” she says. “I know it’s not a real place, but it was modeled after Washington, Connecticut. I looked it up, and surprisingly they had never done an event there.”
Jennie, who with her husband owns and operates a small Texas public relations firm, is a big fan of the show. She is, if you will, a true GGF. And what does one whose career is firmly entrenched in the world of PR do when they are a huge fan of a television show that has never hosted a fan festival in the town where it was based? They start one, obviously. Upon returning home, Jennie emailed the town to see if there was any interest in creating an event that her firm might be able to help with on the PR side. “I kind of threw it out there, a shot in the dark, thinking there is no way I’m going to get a response,” she recalls. “In the course of about six weeks, we sat down with the town, and they asked us if we wanted to put on an entire festival.”
Four years later, the festival is still growing strong, and momentum continues to grow.
This year, attendees at the Unionville event can expect to celebrate alongside cast and crew members like Caesar from Luke’s Diner (Aris Alvarado), Madeline Chilton (Shelley Cole), Valerie Campbell (Gilmore Girls Costumer) and Robert Grimaldi (Nick Holmes). Sixteen of your favourite show members in all have been confirmed including… drumroll please… Scott Patterson. That’s right, Luke Danes returns to the very spot where we watched Lorelai Gilmore get her first cup of coffee in the pilot episode. “They love it,” Jennie says of the cast and crew. “They are so incredibly generous with their time, and they treat the event as an opportunity to connect with their fans. Every year, if I haven’t reached out to them about the festival, they reach out to me and ask what the plans are.”
But why has Gilmore Girls attracted such a loyal fan base? Jennie suspects it has as much to do with the setting as the characters. “I’ve always felt that Gilmore Girls is this imaginary place that makes everyone feel good,” she explains. “It’s a place where there is not a lot of pain, not a lot of death or violence. It’s just a really lovely place to be.”
If attendance is any indicator, then it would seem that fans agree. They travel from far and wide each year, coming from places as far as Germany and Australia, and leaving with lifelong friends and heartwarming memories.
By special request from Jennie herself, we’d like to give a genuine “Hats Off” to Sarah Gratta of Too Good General Store and the Unionville BIA for making the Gilmore Girls Fan Fest happen in Markham. “The local Unionville BIA has been such an incredible gift to this festival,” Jennie says. “Knowing there is a team of people that have worked together to see this come through has been amazing. Sarah has hung the moon for me. She has gone above and beyond what any volunteer should be expected to do. She has my unending gratitude.”
The Gilmore Girls Fan Fest is coming to Unionville on the weekend of October 4th. To find out more or to purchase your tickets, check out the festival’s official website at www.gilmoregirlsfanfest.com. We hope to see you there!
Story by Katherine Ryalen