In the fall of 2017, Ellen Travolta was sad.
Her husband of 34 years, Jack Bannon, died on Oct. 25 after a short illness, and Travolta sat in their home above Lake Coeur d’Alene in deep mourning. Looking for a salve for her wounded heart, she turned on the Hallmark Channel. Then she heard a meowing at the door.
She looked up and saw one of the feral cats that roamed their place sitting at the door, something he’d never done before. It was the orange one Bannon had named “O” – he named all the feral cats, Travolta said.
“For half a minute I thought, ‘Is Jack back as a cat? I can’t ignore this,’ ” she said. “So I let him in. He came up on the couch and we watched Hallmark. And that was the beginning of the rest of that year. From Oct. 25 on through, O and I watched Hallmark movies and I fell in love with them.”
Not only did the escape into Hallmark help ease her grief, it inspired in her a strong desire: to appear in a Hallmark Christmas movie.
“I wanted to be part of it because they’re hopeful, and sometimes not so realistic, but I didn’t care,” said the longtime stage and screen actor.
This weekend, that desire is coming to fruition when “Haul Out the Holly” debuts on the Hallmark Channel at 9 p.m. Pacific on Saturday.
Filmed in Salt Lake City this past summer, “Haul Out the Holly” stars Lacey Chabert (“Party of Five”) as Emily, who finds herself spending the holidays alone at her parents’ house, where the homeowners association has strict rules about Christmas, and insists that she participate in the neighborhood’s many holiday festivities. Travolta plays a neighbor, Mary Louise, who really gets into Christmas. The cast also includes Wes Brown (“True Blood”), Melissa Peterman (“Young Sheldon”) and Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned Ryerson from “Groundhog Day”).
“It was a happy, happy set,” she said. “Hallmark is generous, they’re considerate, and it was just a pleasure.”
They filmed this Christmas extravaganza in August on location in a cul-de-sac of lovely homes.
“It was winter coats, scarves, hats and gloves, and snowballs, in 100-degree heat,” she said.
Between takes, rather than head to their dressing rooms, which were 15 minutes away at the production’s base camp, the actors would hang out in one of the beautiful homes. It was one of her favorite things during her three weeks on set.
“We would sit in the living room, or in the den, or downstairs in the rec room, and we would have wonderful conversations,” Travolta said. “And we really got to know one another, and laughed and cried, and that was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
To get a Hallmark gig, she first asked everyone she knew how to go about it, including her agent and friends who had appeared in Hallmark films. Finally, her brother John helped her make a connection.
“I was away with John in Austria and all I did was talk about being on Hallmark. So when we got back, he called his agent and asked, ‘What do we have to do to get Ellen in a Hallmark movie? All she wants is one line,’ ” she said, laughing.
Her brother’s agent called Hallmark, explained that appearing in a Hallmark film was a bucket list item for Travolta, and “Lo and behold, they called,” she said.
This was in 2020. She had an interview with Hallmark, she said, and they told her they’d love to have her in a film.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed things a bit, but two years later, they called back and offered her a small part in “Haul Out the Holly.”
Soon, Maclain Nelson, the director, called and told Travolta he’d been a fan of hers since he was a kid, when he would watch her in the sitcom “Charles in Charge.”
“I was so thrilled to do it. When I got there, everybody included me. People were so kind and respectful, and they knew everything I’d ever done,” she said. “They weren’t even born when I was doing television!”
She had such a good time that she would love to make more Hallmark movies.
“I really believe in this day and age we are looking for more of that hope. Hallmark is hope. I loved every second of it,” she said.
As for the film itself? “I’ve heard it’s funny.”
She hasn’t seen it yet, and won’t be able to catch it when it premieres on Saturday night, because she’ll be at the Coeur d’Alene Resort performing in her annual cabaret, “The Best of Christmas.” She plans to watch it in reruns.
Her viewing companion from five years ago, O the orange cat, won’t see it, either. Travolta said he wandered away shortly after Christmas in 2017, and she never saw him again.
Maybe he was a messenger from her late husband, sent as a companion during those early days of grief. Or maybe he was just a cat seeking a reprieve from the cold.
Either way, it sounds like the plot of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
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