It was one of those winter days when the rain was relentless and unforgiving – but for the nearly 200 people who gathered in a big white tent on a farm in Langley, the atmosphere was anything but gloomy.
The group was comprised almost entirely of visiting American women. They’d travelled from all over the States to converge in this white tent, to stand on plywood planks while the rain pelted down on the canvas roof and the portable heaters did little to warm the space. But they were there because they were dedicated Hearties, and this is what Hearties do.
Hearties is the term adopted by fans of When Calls the Heart, a wildly popular Western family drama that films in Langley and airs on Hallmark Channel and CBC-TV.
The television show is based on a series of books by Alberta author Janette Oke.
Set in 1910, the hit series stars Erin Krakow as Elizabeth Thatcher, a young teacher from a wealthy Eastern family who migrates to teach school in a coal mining town that has been devastated by an accident that killed most of the men. Australian Daniel Lissing (who plays a Mountie), Lori Loughlin (Aunt Becky from Full House), and Jack Wagner (Melrose Place) also star.
In addition to the out-of-town stars, When Calls the Heart is packed with Vancouver actors, including Martin Cummins, Johannah Newmarch, Loretta Walsh, Erica Carroll, and Pascale Hutton (Arctic Air).
To say When Calls the Heart is a hit with fans is an egregious understatement. Since launching in 2014, When Calls the Heart has grown to become Hallmark’s top-rated show – and these Hearties, who number 30,000 strong on social media and work to get the show trending on Twitter each week, are integral to the success of the show.
Their passion was front and centre at January’s Hearties Family Reunion, an event organized by Hallmark during which 175 fans descended upon the set in Langley (specifically Jamestown, a recreation of a frontier Western town) and participated in set tours, Q & As, and autograph sessions with the cast, crew, and creators.
“You are in our mind at every moment in the process,” Brad Krevoy, one of the executive producers, told the crowd in the tent, adding that the writers have a photo of a group of fans in the writing room that they pull out whenever they hit a wall. “They ask themselves, ‘What would the Hearties want to see?’”
Later, in the Jamestown saloon set where the cast and crew signed autographs for Hearties (who’d travelled from all over the States: Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Idaho, Michigan, New Jersey, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama; there was even one fan from China who watches the show via illegal downloads), executive producer Michael Landon Jr. told Reel People that the show is popular because it accomplishes something no one else is the television sphere is even trying to do these days: turn back the clock to a simpler time and make a show that the whole family can watch together.
“[Networks and studios] dismiss it,” said Landon Jr. “They only want to make things that they want to watch. They’re very dismissive of the show and this audience. Think about it: What other show is anything like this show? If it’s doing well, why not make another one like it? We have a lot of cop shows, a lot of procedural shows, a lot of darker stuff.” He sighed. “Especially in this genre, you kind of at times want to give up on it, because it’s so hard to sell.”
Landon Jr. knows the family drama genre. His father was Michael Landon, star of Little House on the Prairie, another frontier family drama.
“Because of my father, I grew up in the family genre, so it’s really near and dear to me,” says Landon Jr.
The Hearties make it worthwhile. “They’re 30,000-plus strong now. You just don’t anticipate anything like this,” he says, motioning to the long line of Hearties waiting for autographs and photos. “You think you’re going to make a movie or a TV series, it’s going to air, people will respond to it, and that’s that. But to see this level of passion and care and work and effort…” He broke off to sign a poster for a Heartie who erupted into tears as she described to Landon Jr. how much his father meant to her.
The Hearties have not gone unnoticed by Hallmark.
“The fact that you’re there keeps them [Hallmark Channel] thinking about us even more,” Krevoy told the crowd.
What’s the appeal? Why have these fans come from all over the States to a tent in the Langley mud?
“It’s the family values,” said Heartie Sarah Wilkins, who drove up from Washington State to visit the set with her mother and infant son. “The actors are wonderful, too. It’s brought a lot of people together.”
When Calls the Heart is one of countless Hallmark projects currently filming in Metro Vancouver. In 2015 alone, Hallmark shot more than 69 productions locally, including original movies for the Garage Sale Mysteries, Murder She Baked, Gourmet Detective, and Signed, Sealed, Delivered franchises.
• When Calls the Heart airs Sundays at 9pm on Hallmark Channel.