In the fall of 2017, Ellen Travolta was sad.
Her 34-year-old husband, Jack Bannon, died on October 25 after a short illness, and Travolta sat in deep sorrow at their home overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene. In search of an ointment for her injured heart, she tuned in to the Hallmark Channel. Then she heard a meow at the door.
She looked up to see one of the feral cats roaming her place, sitting by the door, something he had never done before. It was the orange one that Bannon had called “O” — he called all wild cats, Travolta said.
“For half a minute I was like, ‘Is Jack back as a cat? I can’t ignore this,'” she said. “So I let him in. He came on the couch and we watched Hallmark. And that was the beginning of the rest of the year. From October 25th O and I started watching Hallmark films and I fell in love with them.”
Escape to Hallmark not only helped ease her grief, but also gave her a strong desire: to be in a Hallmark Christmas movie.
“I wanted to be there because they’re hopeful and sometimes not that realistic, but I didn’t care,” said the longtime stage and screen actor.
This weekend, that wish will come true when “Haul Out the Holly” debuts Saturday at 9 p.m. Pacific Time on the Hallmark Channel.
Filmed in Salt Lake City last summer, Haul Out the Holly stars Lacey Chabert (Party of Five) as Emily, who is spending the holidays alone at her parents’ house, where the Homeowners Association has, and insists on, strict rules about Christmas sure she attends the many holiday festivals in the neighborhood. Travolta plays a neighbor, Mary Louise, who is really 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 are considerate and it was just a pleasure.”
They filmed this Christmas extravaganza in August on location in a cul-de-sac of pretty houses.
“It was winter coats, scarves, hats and gloves and snowballs in 100 degree heat,” she said.
Between takes, the actors went not to their dressing rooms, which were 15 minutes away at the production’s base camp, but to one of the beautiful houses. It was one of her favorite things during her three weeks on set.
“We would sit in the living room, study, or downstairs in the recreation room and have wonderful conversations,” Travolta said. “And we really got to know each other and laughed and cried and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
To get a Hallmark appearance, she first asked everyone she knew how to go about it, including her agent and friends who had appeared in Hallmark films. Eventually, her brother John helped her make a connection.
“I was traveling in Austria with John and just talking about being at Hallmark. 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 named Hallmark stated that appearing in a Hallmark movie was an item on Travolta’s wish list, and “Look, they called,” she said.
That was in 2020. She had an interview with Hallmark, she said, and they told her they would love to have her in a movie.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed things a bit, but two years later they called back and offered her a small part on Haul Out the Holly.
Soon, Maclain Nelson, the director, called and told Travolta he had been a fan of hers since he was a child, when he would see her on the sitcom Charles in Charge.
“I was so excited to do it. When I got there, everyone locked me in. People were so kind and respectful and they knew everything I had ever done,” she said. “They weren’t even born when I was on TV!”
She had so much fun that she would like to do more Hallmark films.
“I really think we’re looking for more of that hope these days. Sign is hope. I loved every second of it,” she said.
And the movie itself? “I heard it’s supposed to be fun.”
She hasn’t seen it yet and won’t be able to see it at Saturday night’s premiere because she will be appearing at the Coeur d’Alene Resort in their annual cabaret The Best of Christmas. She plans to see it in reruns.
Your companion from five years ago, o the orange cat, will not see it either. Travolta said he wandered off just after Christmas 2017 and she never saw him again.
Perhaps he was a messenger sent by her late husband to accompany her in those early days of mourning. Or maybe he was just a cat looking for respite from the cold.
Anyway, it sounds like the plot of a Hallmark Christmas movie.