I Spent a Weekend in Stars Hollow with Thousands of Obsessive Gilmore Girls Fans

Washington, Connecticut is known for being the inspiration for Stars Hollow, the idyllic town in which "Gilmore Girls" is set. I made a pilgrimage there—along with 1500 other people—to honor our impossibly chipper, coffee-swilling TV gods.

by Molly Oswaks
Nov 4 2016, 5:15pm

In early August, an announcement tailor-timed for the legions of Gilmore Girls fans on high alert for the show's November Netflix revival spread across the internet: A fan festival would be held in Washington, Connecticut, the real-life town that famously served as inspiration for the fictional Stars Hollow. The excited masses acted quickly, and tickets, which ranged in price from $175 for general admission to $250 for VIP access, sold out within the first hour.

Two months and many pleading emails later, I arrived at the fan festival, having had to negotiate media access in a manner I only assume is similar to arranging a meeting with ISIS. The scene was remarkably idyllic: Mother-daughter duos and best friends strolled arm-in-arm, clutching steaming Styrofoam coffee cups and unwieldy umbrellas. Unlike, Stars Hollow—which is always pleasantly sunny because it is actually located on the "Anytown, USA" set on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California—Washington was freezing and wet all weekend long.

Not that the weather stopped anyone from taking in the scenery or waiting in prohibitively long lines for the opportunity to purchase a tee-shirt screen-printed with any one of a range of insider-y Gilmore Girls references: "Copper Boom!", "Oy, With the Poodles Already," "I Love You, You Idiot," etc. Others took shelter in two large white tents, where episodes played from a pair of projectors. In all, nearly 1500 people (fans, super fans, and a few obliging boyfriends) descended upon the bucolic town for a three-day immersive experience.

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Nearly ten years after the show went off the air, Gilmore Girls (which originally aired on the WB, and later the CW) has been given new life, with a much-hyped revival of four ninety-minute episodes, featuring the same cast and much of the original crew. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life premiers November 25 on Netflix. But let's be honest, if you're reading this article at all, you definitely already know this.

The Fan Festival, planned in response to the Netflix revival, was the idea of Jennie Whitaker, herself a superfan, and her husband Marcus, who together executed the whole thing. "This town held special meaning for me years before I ever came here, but the second I did, it felt familiar," said Jennie Whitaker, in a press release sent out a few days after the festival had ended. "There were several moments that brought me so much joy I could burst."

This is a sentiment many attendees echoed. "Gilmore Girls is the only show I've ever had such a strong feeling for, so when I saw that they were [doing a fan festival], I immediately texted my best friend Ashley, and was like 'We're purchasing tickets right now,'" says Christina Tassi, 23, who says she bonded with her friend during their freshman year at the University of New Haven while watching Gilmore Girls DVDs in the common room of their dorm. "I've had a connection with the show since probably sixteen years ago...I still watch it on repeat," she adds. For a long time she refused to watch the 2007 series finale because she could not bring herself to face the possibility of the show being over.

Just about everyone in attendance shared this enthusiasm, including many of the literally 89 or so press outlets granted credentials to cover the event. Reporters from three Hearst publications even arrived in Rory Gilmore cosplay: skirts of various plaids, white blouses, and navy neckties. Costume supervisor Valerie Campbell gave these women dismayed elevator eyes in the green room prior to the crew panel, as if to communicate that she could have done better.

There were several moments that brought me so much joy I could burst.

The event's main draw—other than the mystical allure of the real-life Stars Hollow—was the presence of the over a dozen original cast members who were flown in from LA for the weekend. The crowds had gathered to see the actors who played their favorite characters in the flesh; at times, the gulf between fictional character and actor felt a bit incongruous. Vanessa Marano, who plays Luke Danes' deus ex machina of a daughter April Nardini, gave a talk about the Christopher Reeve Foundation, a cause near to her heart after acting alongside Reeve shortly before his death in a film about a young woman who becomes a quadriplegic. Keiko Agena, who plays Rory Gilmore's hometown best friend Lane Kim, sold original ink drawings and posed for pictures with every poncho-clad and umbrella-clutching person who waited in line to meet her adjacent to the Hickory Stick Bookshop. Sean Gunn, a series regular, whose perpetually awkward character Kirk Gleason was a Stars Hollow townie of all trades, helmed a cat adoption and fundraiser for the New Milford Animal Welfare Society inside the main tent.

"The idea was for the actors to show something about some aspect of their personal lives that was separate from the character that they played," said Gunn. In a season three episode, Kirk adopts a cat whom he names Cat Kirk; in real life, Sean Gunn is passionate about and deeply involved with the animal rescue community in Los Angeles. (He also grew up sharing a name with the family dog, Shawn or Shawnee.)

Sean Gunn and some rescue cats. Photos by Chela Crinnion courtesy of Gilmore Girls Fan Festival

Fans flocked to the display of real-life Cat Kirks, though not everyone found what they were looking for. A middle-aged woman named Diane had come to the festival from Torrington, CT, with her 25-year-old daughter, whom she credits with getting her into the show. ("It gave us something to do together," Diane told me. "For one hour, we didn't argue.") Diane and her daughter were waiting in line not just to meet Gunn, but because they were genuinely interested in adopting a cat that day. "Are there any Maine Coons?" Diane asked a festival volunteer. There were none. Then, to me: "We want a female and it has to be a Maine Coon; we have specific criteria." Another woman asked whether she could move to the front of the line just to get a photo of Gunn––not with him, merely of him and the animals. Eight of the 12 cats found homes that day. "A very good number," Gunn said happily.

There was also a cake-tasting at the Washington Food Market, meant, I believe, to reference Lorelai's own wedding-cake tasting at the town bakery; and tea and a tour of the gardens at the Mayflower Grace Hotel, famed for inspiring Amy Sherman Palladino to dream up her beloved characters and their dreamy little world. For fans, visiting the Mayflower was as close as one could get to visiting Lorelai Gilmore's fictional Independence Inn, which in actuality existed on a soundstage.

"Visiting the Mayflower was pretty unreal," said Christina. "I wanted to be just like Lorelai. I know that sounds absolutely crazy––but I went to school for hospitality, because I was a huge fan of the fact that she was a manager and that she created her own inn, and that was kind of something that I wanted to do." Christina is currently a sales and catering administrator at Ethan Allen Hotel, in Danbury, Connecticut. "I'm kind of living the dream, but it's not my own Dragonfly Inn," she says, referring to the inn Lorelai Gilmore opened in season four.

As a fan myself, it felt like an important life marker to spend the weekend at a festival dedicated to a show that I had grown up with. I was 11 when Gilmore Girls premiered and Rory started at the prestigious (and fictional) Chilton School; a year later, I started at a similar prep school, uniforms and all. When Rory graduated from Yale, I graduated high school. The show, and Rory's character in particular, served as a sort of guidepost for me, and for the path I wanted to follow. I became a journalist, after all. Imagine if I'd gravitated to Gossip Girl instead. That said, I've always felt a bit suspicious of the idea of fan culture: To love something so much, and to know that it can never love you back––the story lines, the fictional characters, the actors with their own lives––feels strange.

Despite the show's wholesome, All-American––I hesitate to say basic––feel, the Gilmore Girls fan base is of a kind with the cosplaying, convention-going fandoms of Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter. As an employee behind the counter at Washington Pizza was overheard telling another local at the end of Fan Fest day one, "Just think of the nerdiest white girls you know."

But there is something about the Gilmore Girls fandom that sets it apart. For one, at the time that it was originally on the air, Gilmore Girls was not the ratings success that it might be today, if Netflix binge-watching were any indicator of a show's performance. Gilmore Girls also seemingly lacks the obvious fantastical nature of most shows with cult followings. Its late-blooming hold on the cultural zeitgeist has been a surprise to everyone involved. "It really wasn't until it was released on Netflix," explained Sean Gunn, when asked about the show's late acquisition of rabid fans. "It's the binge-watching, I think. Binge-watching does something to viewers that no other way of watching something does. It makes that world start to seem as realistic as your own world."

John Cabrera, who reprised his role as Lane Kim's asthmatic bandmate Brian Fuller in the Netflix revival, has his own theory. "The word fandom, if you think about it, it kind of sounds like kingdom... I imagine something that has a sense of boundaries––obviously geographic boundaries, but also historical boundaries, as well. The characters themselves have a history in their worlds that goes back really far," he told me.

"Gilmore Girls is a perfect example. Not only does it have a distinct set of geographic boundaries––we can actually imagine where everything in Stars Hollow is––but it has this really rich historical set of boundaries," he continued. "We can get a sense of who all of these characters are by tracing their history back through four generations of women on the show: We've got Rory, and then her mother, and then her mother, and then her mother-in-law."

The famed Mayflower Grace Hotel

This sense of history, combined with the richly defined fictional locality, is what Cabrera sees as distinctive of shows that are not just weekly episodics, but richly defined "story worlds," existing in a very real way for their fans in the time and space between episodes. The math might go something like this: history + place + very good writing + great characters = a TV show that lives on beyond the screen—beyond syndication, even.

"Sci-fi and fantasy really have a monopoly on this," said Cabrera. "What Gilmore Girls is doing is sort of unique in that way, because it's a genre that doesn't typically live in this sense of world and place and history. And I think that lets a lot of insight into how this show could foster such a large community of fans... I can only really compare it to a show like Game of Thrones."

Old feuds between alien races, in a fictional sci-fi world like Star Trek, become analogous, Cabrera suggested, to old feuds between a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law on a show like Gilmore Girls. "That's unique to Gilmore Girls in this genre, though you could compare it, I suppose, to the nighttime soap operas of the 80s, like Falcon Crest, Dallas," he said. "They were worlds with place and boundaries and a sort of mythology."

"I've heard people say that the appeal of Stars Hollow is that it's this idyllic places and it's this sort of comfort to go to it, and I don't know if I necessarily agree with that," continued Cabrera. Like the soaps, Gilmore Girls also trades in emotional stakes. "It was a lot of drama... it was a lot of intensity and tears, and fear, and all of that kind of stuff... and that's kind if like riding a dragon or getting threatened with a sword. All of the things that are life and death stakes on a show like Game of Thrones, in Gilmore Girls, they're emotional stakes," he says. "The season where Lorelai and Rory aren't talking to each other, that's like the Gilmore Girls version of Jon Snow dying."

A legion of Gilmore fans

On the nature of fandom, Gunn offered another perspective. "I think that the reason that fans are as crazy as they are about Gilmore Girls is more about the wish-fulfillment of living in a place where you know all your neighbors and the streets are safe and there's something easygoing about the pace of life," he said. "Community is family, and when Lorelei goes to watch a play in town, she knows all these people sitting in front of her and to the right and left of her...The safety that you feel––obviously, Stars Hollow is a lot safer than Westeros." For the matter, it's a lot safer than even the Upper West Side.

Maybe it's escapism, the chance to make yourself at home in a world that feels and looks like a place you might one day get to visit. Maybe it's a family dynamic saner, or safer, or more excitingly chaotic than your own. One thing was clear at the Fan Festival: no matter what the show meant to you, the fandom has reached a fever pitch, and the revival can't come soon enough.

Christina Tassi plans to binge watch all four movie-length episodes in one sitting, "with coffee, burgers, pizza, Red Vines, and Pop Tarts," she said, referring to the Gilmore girls' scientifically impossible ability to consume massive amounts of junk food without gaining a single pound. "I hope these are not the last episodes," she added.

Fortunately for her, there's always hope for Stars Hollow. "If the schedules can be worked out, and the viewers are there, and the money's there... I know I'm not supposed to say any spoilers, but the Earth doesn't explode in a giant meteor at the end," Gunn joked. "There's always ways to fire the thing back up, I think."