Our little corner of the world: the Gilmore Girls get a fan festival
Can you really go to Stars Hollow?
This weekend, I went to the “real” Stars Hollow — the Connecticut town of Washington Depot — for the first Gilmore Girls fan festival. On my first day there, someone gives me a handmade, artisanal pop tart. It’s good: thicker than a normal pop tart, conspicuously dusted with cake flour, and I’m very hungry. I eat it while scaling the front lawn of the Mayflower Inn, where Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino had her stroke of genius and started sketching out the details of one of the most adored TV shows of my lifetime.
If you’re unfamiliar with the cult classic Gilmore Girls, the show was pitched to Warner Bros. with one line: “a mother and daughter who are best friends.” That’s pretty much the premise, and the rest was filled in by the colorful townspeople in the mother-daughter pair’s quirky, beautiful small town in Connecticut. The Gilmore girls are most famous for their uncommonly rapid-fire banter and encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, their obsessions with coffee, junk food, and loud, inaccurate declarations of their working class identity, and of course, their beauty.
The mother, Lorelai, has at least seven monologues where she uses junk food to delineate the difference between herself and her parents — a couple of stodgy, controlling, one-percenters. She has an existential crisis revolving around pop tarts, wherein she can’t decide if anything she likes is really something she likes or if she’s just acting out protracted teenage rebellion against her mother’s taste. She does “experiments” on an entire box, leaving Rory — the daughter — without breakfast, and then launching into a classic Gilmore fit (whimsical, natch!).
While I'm in the "real" Stars Hollow, I try repeatedly to figure out what Rory and Lorelai would think about the proceedings. I imagine a lengthy tirade about this artisanal pop tart, a mismatch of ideals that Lorelai would find repulsive and unnecessary. And I suspect the girls would have no love for this tribute weekend. They're fictional of course, so it doesn't really matter, but the point of being here is to feel near to them — to live in their world, to sit awash in reverie of girls and women who were shaped by their influence, and to take one zillion Instagram shots of New England foliage.
It's an almost painfully obvious fall for this event. There's a much-hyped Gilmore Girls reboot coming to Netflix one month from tomorrow: six hours divided into four parts. Throughout the weekend I'll hear people refer to this fact as "a gift," "the best thing that ever happened to me," and "a fucking miracle." This fall is appropriate in a broader sense, too: Gilmore Girls' main fixations are class, female ambition, intellectualism, and, now that we're reflecting on it, whiteness. I try to think up a polite way to approach people and say "I work for The Verge, who are you voting for?" and decide I can just ask if they think Rory would enjoy reporting on this election as much as she enjoyed being on Senator Obama's campaign bus. Most people laugh ruefully, or offer up a careful "well... she did almost write that speech about Hillary Clinton one time?"
The town of Washington Depot itself is conspicuously apolitical but in each of the half-dozen towns of a similar aesthetic that I wind through en route there are Trump signs everywhere. One lawn has a banner the size of a garage door. (Incidentally, the only emphatic reference to politics in all of Gilmore Girls has been heavily memed. It's when Rory's alt-boy lover Jess yells after her, "Nice spin, you should work for Bush!") But this part of Connecticut really is beautiful. Deeply, poetically, postcard beautiful. The first promise of a Gilmore Girls fan fest is fulfilled 10 times over. You can't stand anywhere without a perfect golden leaf falling into your hair. There are somewhere between four and 400 pristine white Protestant churches. It takes me all of 10 minutes to find the yellow house with the wraparound porch that every girl will declare "Lorelai's house" this weekend — across from it there are six people helping a janitor change a lightbulb on the porch. I grew up in the Finger Lakes wine region and even I am floored by Connecticut's brutal perfection. At times it's so beautiful it's ugly, like an over-saturated Instagram photo of a clear-water coral reef. It looks like a Windows desktop.
I head to the real "Luke's," as we've all more-or-less agreed to call it: Marty's. It sits directly across from a tiny town square where a Saturday farmer's market is held. It has silver-haired co-owners who welcome me to Connecticut even though I never mentioned that I was from out of town. Marty's does not look like Luke's. It's a nice enough coffee shop that looks as though it was decorated by a drunk aunt who just had an uncapped shopping spree at Pier 21 Imports. There are green-beige sofas and coffee tables with fake studded leather. A hoard of women crushes in behind me and I watch one of the owners' faces fall. I ask him if they're going to run out of coffee this weekend (a neighborly little joke between me and my new Luke). He says "I HOPE NOT," with eyes wide. The coffee is distinctly fine, so I sip it in a Cute Rory Way and read a blog post on my phone, written by a woman who took a religious sojourn to this town several years before the fan fest. She quotes Edward Herrmann (the show's patriarch, Richard Gilmore), who says "Washington Depot is nothing like Stars Hollow. It is a weekend haven for New Yorkers."
I shake it off.
At the fest's first big event, a screening of the pilot on the town hall lawn, I see a glimpse of what I came for. Girls everywhere! Girls in Yale sweatshirts, "Babette ate oatmeal" T-shirts, handmade Luke's sweatshirts with shiny fabric paint, and makeshift Chilton uniforms. Dozens of young women are wearing backwards baseball caps and flannel, a subtle Luke cosplay that could also work for any generic apple-picking outing. There's a surprising number of dudes (maybe 15 percent), and an unsurprising number of white people. The average age is 27, or mom.
When I ask women to explain to me why Gilmore Girls meant enough to them to make the trip here (and spend the steep $250 per ticket) they look at me like I'm asking why they went home for Thanksgiving. Moms tell me Gilmore Girls is about Lorelai, her hard work and her optimism. Younger women tell me Rory was their permission to be brainy, ambitious, and a little bit of a snob. On that note, I'm reminded that the Gilmore girls were mean and they often made fun of people for being earnest. They would make fun of these people, and they would make fun of me, the girl in the baseball cap thinking about tweeting that Rory inspired her to be a journalist.
I shake it off.
There's a lot to shake off, it turns out. Saturday morning is bitter cold and rainy, and all the coffee I drank to feel close to the Gilmore girls has given me what feels more like a stomach ulcer. Halfway through the dream weekend I'm feverish, weak, and I think my hair is molding. I sit in the main tent for two hours watching at least 200 women wait for their chance to take a picture with Sean Gunn (Gilmore Girls' oddball Kirk) and some rescue cats. The people behind me are talking about leaving early and getting chili on the way home, which sounds amazing. Next to me, a girl swigs something from a bottle in a paper bag (it's 10AM). She mutters "I'm so fucking cold," under her breath to a friend.
the gilmore girls would make fun of these people, and of me
The biggest problem isn't the rain, it's that the promise of experiencing the authentic small-town life of Stars Hollow is immediately undercut by the act of inviting 1,200 people to do it at the same time. If you're not willing to wait in lines that are 200 or 300 people deep for your chance at a photo with a minor cast member, you'll have to wait behind 30 to 70 people for a cup of (fine) coffee at Marty's. Your only other option is sitting in a tent and watching an episode of television you've probably seen a dozen times already. The festival was a dream come true and a let-down. It was like going back to your hometown when all of the people you love there are gone. "It wasn't exactly what I expected," I hear at least a dozen times, "but it's still a special day."
To get out of the cold, I duck into a small clothing store next to the patently adorable super market and find that it mostly sells really sexy looking flannel nightshirts. They're perfect for anyone who dreams of sleeping with a surly diner owner (and who doesn't!). I finger the hem of a tweed power dress, the kind that Rory would have called "too His Girl Friday," and chat with a mother-daughter team of volunteers in cerulean Stars Hollow sweatshirts. They live in the next town over and signed up as soon as they heard about the festival, to work here as bag checkers in exchange for admission to the weekend's activities. They're radiant with happiness, and I ask them how they think it's going so far. "It's a really good girls' weekend," they agree. "I've never seen so much Vera Bradley or so many Wellies in one place," the mom adds. The three of us know what she means — it's a very specific (white), sort of girls' weekend. We fidget in that for a moment. There's not really a way out of it. It's just true.
Outside, Jackson Douglass (who plays Melissa McCarthy's husband Jackson on the show and is therefore one of the weekend's hot commodities) is autographing pumpkins in the pouring rain. He's beaming. The line for photos is only about 20 people deep for the unplanned appearance, and everyone who caught on is ecstatic. Jennie Whitaker, the die-hard Gilmore Girls fan who organized this festival more or less on a whim is buzzing around him, calling to volunteers for Sharpies and paper towels, rattling off directions into a walkie talkie, and accepting hugs from random festivalgoers who had begged her personally for tickets.
She and her husband own a PR firm and a screen-printing business that makes Gilmore Girls T-shirts with deep-cut quotes written on them in Pinterest fonts. They were driving from New York City to Maine on a rainy day this summer, and while they were stuck in traffic near Hartford, Connecticut she remembered that she had always wanted to make a sojourn to "the real Stars Hollow." Thirty minutes later, she says, she wondered aloud why the town had never hosted any kind of fan event.
She was tickled to find out that Washington Depot had a town selectman, just like Stars Hollow does (though I met him outside the elementary school and he did not seem to be as striving, obnoxious, or shrill as Gilmore Girls' Taylor Doosey). He was on board from the minute she pitched the project, which is completely independent from Netflix or Warner Bros. and exists only as a collaboration between Whitaker and the local government of Washington Depot. I heard murmurings over the weekend that the townspeople hadn't had much of a say, but every business owner I spoke to told me emphatically that the fan festival visitors were polite and kind and more than welcome.
The first 1,000 tickets for the festival sold out in 11 hours, which Whitaker claims didn't surprise her at all. After some finagling, 200 more went on sale the next day and sold out in a minute and a half. She laughs while she tells me that the town was worried they wouldn't sell even 100 tickets and that she might take a huge loss. Then she gets a little worked up, rattling off the story: "I said, this isn't about a profit. We're not going to make a profit. It's for us to bring fans together. There's no profit. It's just a fun idea that turned out to be something wild and great ... The morning after the tickets sold out I woke up to 6,000 emails from people who wanted tickets and I had to respond personally to every single one. It took us two weeks."
The first 1,000 tickets sold out in 11 hours
While we're standing in the rain, a young woman approaches Whitaker shyly and apologizes for sending her so many emails, then adds "and sorry for talking to you about breastfeeding." Whitaker takes her arm and... talks to her about breastfeeding. When she remembers I'm recording her she shouts into the bottom of my phone "Did you hear that?! I breastfed my son until he was two!"
I ask her if the weekend is what she hoped it would be. "I just hope people have fun. We just wanted to get everyone here and we did. I would love to do it again." We agree that most fan fests are for guys, that "super fandom" around most popular properties can be an impenetrable boys' club, and then she tells me about a woman she met who bought tickets for five of her friends and booked a room in the (pricey) Mayflower Inn, justifying the cost by explaining this weekend as "her Super Bowl." "That's what I want people to feel like," she adds, "that this is their Super Bowl. It's an event for women to come together and feel thrilled together, and have fun."
Most of the women I meet do feel thrilled together. A pair of 20-somethings who flew in from Texas gush to me that it's "just like Stars Hollow, you can see everything from one corner." A group of girls tell me they met here randomly and then decided to spend the rest of the weekend as a posse. One of them mentions that she has a two-year-old, and wants her to grow up to be like Rory. Another pair of 20-somethings playing cards in the coffee shop in Luke Danes regalia tell me they loved Rory deeply because she was more into reading and art than going out or flirting with boys. One says her own town was just like Stars Hollow in that it was small and everyone knew each other, but it didn't have any of Stars Hollow's magic. "How could you not come here?" she asks me.
At a panel with some of the original show's creative team, Whitaker kicks thing off with almost the same words: "I kind of thought this was a dream. It's magical here. You can feel it in the leaves." One of the casting directors, Jami Rudofsky, talks about the first table read of the new episodes, saying "It was a huge gift. After two seconds of hearing the voices of these characters, I had goosebumps. It's just like it was." Writer and producer Sheila Lawrence chimes in: "This kind of show doesn't happen once, much less does it ever happen again. It's a miracle."
It's also a miracle I didn't catch pneumonia this weekend. But since I went to Connecticut to feel near to Rory — the cold, brilliant, ambitious, self-proclaimed "freak" who had been pretty close to my best friend for a lot of middle school and early high school — I guess I got what I wanted. Anyone who came to Washington Depot to feel close to the women in their lives they had loved Gilmore Girls with probably got that as well.
I did feel close to Rory, because she's most relatable when she's low. Two months ago I ended a relationship that was buckling under the stress of long distance and a demanding job that I love, and found myself rewatching the Gilmore Girls episode when Rory and Paris sit down for dinner and come to the slow, ugly realization that despite the rending that it will cause them, there's nothing they aren't willing to sacrifice for their careers. Later, Rory tells Lorelai that the pain of breaking up with her college boyfriend "comes in waves. Big ones. Really close together," but then she lands a dream job as a low-level blogger (in 2007!) on Obama's campaign bus (in 2007!) and gets whisked away to live out the dream she's worked for the whole time we've known her. Her brave face is the one I want, and getting whisked away (in my own Hyundai) to record voice memos in the pouring rain in my reporter shoes (a pair of black no-slip loafers like the kind they recommend you buy if you work at Arby's), I felt closer to having it.
I really can't emphasize enough how miserable the weather was. But almost everyone I met used the word "magic." Of course, it's a tradition for fan festivals to involve suffering — suffering that makes the experience feel even more special and marks those who endure it as "true fans." In that way, the Gilmore Girls fan festival delivered on its promise. You can't really go to Stars Hollow — it isn't there. Washington Depot is a beautiful town where Rory and Lorelai never, ever lived. But if you suffer in the rain for long enough with the people you love, or for the characters you love, you might have a brief fever dream of communion. And a stomach ulcer.