'Gilmore Girls' fans bring zeal — and a dash of Comic-Con — to the real 'Stars Hollow'

John and Krystal Leedy, husband-and-wife Presbyterian ministers, are devoted fans of the 2000s-era WB series "Gilmore Girls."

Their relationship took root when they bonded ‎over the show. They maintain an annual tradition of re-watching all seven seasons when the weather turns chilly. They even named their infant Lorelai after the ebullient single mom played by Lauren Graham.

But their commitment reached another level this weekend, when the two‎ made a pilgrimage from their home in Austin, Texas, to this New England town that partly inspired the dialogue-happy series.

The couple shelled out nearly $200 each for event tickets, stashing 9-month-old Lorelai with the grandparents. Then they boarded a plane to hang with Miss Patty, catch an impromptu performance from Hep Alien and ‎photographically reenact ‎a key scene that involves (really) a box of corn starch.

"'Gilmore Girls' shows that love and family are complicated and not easily resolved," said John Leedy, who began watching the show a decade ago. "So we came here to connect with other people in our own special language — at 120 words-per-second, of course."

The Leedys had plenty of company.  On a damp, skeleton-chilling Saturday, more than 1,200 people descended on this small leafy town (pop. 3,600) in upscale Litchfield County for a religious experience at the Gilmore Girls Fan Fest.

Their enthusiasm helps explain why Netflix next month will reboot "Gilmore Girls" with a miniseries consisting of four 90-minute episodes. And the event, in turn, demonstrates the streamers' power to fuel fandom. A culture of zealotry has historically been reserved for genre franchises such as "Star Trek" or cult comedies like "The Big Lebowski.” But thanks to digital platforms, a fervent community has sprung up around a modest, small-town dramedy long ago forgotten by network television.

Though Amy Sherman-Palladino's mother-daughter saga ended its run in 2007, fans practiced Gilmania, pouring into locations that may or may not have informed the show's fictional town of Stars Hollow. (The creator was inspired by a trip to the town, but how and to what extent isn't entirely clear. It was shot on the Warner Bros. lot.) More than a dozen supporting cast members also arrived, unpaid, to share their experiences amid what might be called genial intensity — think Comic-Con by way of a knit-a-thon.

Sometimes, even, quite literally: Yarn was distributed from large cardboard boxes, and people knitted at mass screenings, in homage to a late-series episode. Meanwhile, the show’s costume supervisor Valerie Campbell held court as episodes played on a giant screen behind her, "1984"-style.

Campbell worked the room like a tent revival, sharing on-set stories and trivia while people professed their faith and asked questions of a certain...specificity ("Are the flowers from the Renaissance Faire wedding real?"). All yardsticks were Stars Hollow yardsticks — one young woman gave her age by saying "I wasn't born until the fourth season."

At one point during the session, Star Hermmann, the widow of Richard Gilmore actor Edward Hermmann, who died of brain cancer in 2014, spoke movingly from her seat about her husband's ardor for the series.

"He loved this show and what it means to people,” she said. “He had hopes people would seem value in families and putting lives together that seem un-reparable." Herrmann had been cleaning out her late husband's possessions and found a stack of black-and-white glossies he would sometimes send to fans; she gave a P.O. address where people could write her for one

The event was the creation of a boutique p.r. executive named Jennie Whitaker, with an assist from her husband Marcus. Whitaker hatched the idea this summer while, en route from her former home in Austin to her new cabin in Maine, she and Marcus stopped off in Washington Depot on a lark.

"I'm an avid, rabid fan," said Whitaker, a perpetual-motion machine in her mid-30s. "And so when we drove through I thought, ‘How come no one has done anything before? We should do something.’”

Even before she could reach out to many actors, Whitaker sent out a press release and posted the event for sale. Within hours, more than 1,000 tickets were snapped up. She set out securing permissions, space and actor cooperation.

Though stars Graham and Alexis Bledel (Rory) didn’t attend, many supporting players did, including Mike Gandolfi, Vanessa Marano, Liz Torres and Sean Gunn, as well as Keiko Agena, Todd Lowe and John Cabrera —  three-quarters of Hep Alien, who like the others couldn’t walk more than ten feet without hearing and indulging a selfie request. The band also “reunited” for a performance that included a cover of “Single Ladies” on the town hall steps. “I can’t believe you’ve taken over my town,” Lowe said, in character, before noting he’d never been there before.

Cabrera later said in an interview that “it’s great to be here—like you can see the whole house instead of just the piece of it you had on set.” “Or walking around in a circle on the same block,” added Agena.

At a panel, a dozen cast members fielded questions from the audience about matters emotional (Q: “When Rory and Lorelai weren’t speaking, was it as hard for you as it was us?” A: No) and profane (Q, to Gunn: “What was it like to run naked through the town square?” A: “As enjoyable as it is running naked anywhere.”)

Then they heartily debated Rory’s romantic fate in the revival and the small matter of Teams Jess, Logan and the suffocating Dean. The last choice was decidedly the crowd’s least favorite; bad-boy Jess elicited spirited cheering and screaming.

What makes the show so enduringly popular was a matter of debate for fans. Among the various answers were wit, female empowerment, small-town charm, taut drama, pop-culture references, family values — and simply that ineffable quality that makes people see certain shows as a figurative soundtrack to their lives.

Or, in the case of ‎Kaylyn Ahrenstein, an actual soundtrack. The 22-year-old journalism student from Stony Brook, N.Y., who traveled with her mom, has watched each episode dozens of times. She often puts it on as background while doing something else.

"I know every scene by heart. Sometimes if I can't watch an episode I just play one in my head. It's almost like watching it,” she said. 

Local vendors, equal parts perplexed and opportunistic, got in on the action.

At the high-end Dawn Hill Antiques in nearby New Preston, owner Paula Peden had not really heard of the show or its local connection until some younger relatives had filled her in. They convinced her to put a sign in the window calling the store ”Kim’s Antiques,” along with the signature line from that Stars Hollow business, “You Break You Buy.” “People have been coming and taking photos all day,” Peden said.

Few of the businesses in the area even have a direct connection to the show—there’s no old-style diner like “Luke’s, for instance.  But to fans "Gilmore Girls" has a kind of primal power. The idea of affiliating with it, even distantly, is meaningful, like taking photos with rock-star lookalikes just for some referred aura.

Alan Page, a resident of nearby Newtown who opened a high-end crafts store in August, was handing out free Dixie cups of hot beverages outside his shop. He playfully scrawled  "Luke"s Apple Cider" on a chalkboard, an homage to the eponymous diner owner and sometimes-Lorelai love interest from the show.

"People have been coming up all day wondering if I'm Luke,” he said, “I think because I have a backward ballcap,” referring to the character's signature fashion choice. “One person wanted to take a photo of me. I said ‘I’m not Luke.’ They said, ‘we know.’ They didn’t care. They just wanted to connect.”

Michelle Carfi, a 29-year-old salon manager from Elmwood‎, N.J., had first come on a hajj to the town 12 years before with a friend and fellow fan. Corfi had slightly alarmed her mother when, as a teenager, she began watching the show and emulating the rapid-fire Lorelei-Rory banter. "She would ask me 'are you on drugs?' And i would say 'No, I'm on Gilmore Girls.'"

Carfi made a point underscored by many: “It's nice to have a show from a woman's perspective because so many are from men's perspectives."

Indeed, even in an age of female-skewing Millennial obsessions like Taylor Swift and "The Bachelor," that level of passion only periodically carries over to scripted television, and rarely with the same cross-generational appeal as “Gilmore Girls.”

Debbie Carignan, a manager of software development from the Riverside County town of Beaumont, had flown in with her daughter, Brittany Eyles, a veterinary student. "I was a single mom for a long time," Carignan said. "Lorelai did things on her own, without anyone else's help, and I related."

Added Eyles: "Growing up I didn't really see my dad. The show helped me understand and made me closer to my mom."

Neither Warner Bros., which produces the series, ‎nor Netflix participated, but they didn’t try to stop the event, either.  Still, the latter did ask that actors not discuss the revival, Whitaker said, and included in materials from the fan fest was a request that attendees refrain from asking about it. (A Netflix spokesperson declined to comment on the event.)

Yet the lack of official involvement also gave the fest an organic feel, like Comic-con when it was still mainly just a bunch of artists and the fans who loved them.

Whitaker, who had to rent out many spaces from the town, said she would be lucky to break even with the high ticket prices.

Fans, however, seemed happy with their investment.

Mark Driscoll, a fireman from Centreville, Md., had come with his wife, Beth, an economist, to connect with other fans. She held a bag that read, "It's a lifestyle it's a religion. It's Gilmore Girls.'" He sported a shirt the couple designed that read, “It’s just a hobby. We’re not Trekkies.”—Gilmore 3:17.”

Others at the festival also chose to express their positions sartorially. Elmont, N.Y., residents Diane Patrick and Khorine Bolling had sweat‎shirts custom-made with "Team Jess" and "Team Dean" emblazoned on the back.

"We don't mean to, ‎but we seem to be starting a lot of arguments for people" Bolling said.

Leedy, wearing his own Yale Divinity sweatshirt in homage to Rory’s institutional affiliation, said that he was careful who he shared his zeal with in the outside world.

“There are certain contexts I wouldn't want to speak about this openly, like in a job interview.”

Even if the interviewer owned paraphernalia  like, say, a Team Dean shirt?

"Oh," he said. “Then I probably wouldn't want the job.”

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