Kelly Bishop in the Catskills, Stars Hollow and S. Orange

Photo Courtesy of Lauren Machalany
Acclaimed actress Kelly Bishop, left, a resident of South Orange, meets with aspiring journalist Lauren Machalany; they take a selfie.

By Lauren Machalany / Correspondent

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The television series “Gilmore Girls” was a hit for Warner Brothers. The small, fictional town of Stars Hollow, Conn., accompanied by its quirky inhabitants, ruled television in the early 2000s, and then gained the attention of a younger audience through its present-day streaming on Netflix. A show about a mom and daughter, Lorelai and Rory respectively, who are more like best friends, living in what seems to be a utopian town seems problem-free; however, throw in a complicated relationship between Lorelai and her mother, Emily, and the show becomes a multigenerational drama. But does South Orange resemble the fictional Stars Hollow?

According to South Orange resident Kelly Bishop, the answer is yes. In a corner diner, similar to the famous Luke’s diner in “Gilmore Girls,” Bishop, who played Emily Gilmore, walked in, sporting a gray jacket with the words “Gilmore Girls” sewn in white cursive on the upper left side, sunglasses doubling as a headband holding her brown hair back, and a light scarf in blue and brown shades was around her neck. It was an overcast day in South Orange. The Village Diner, on the corner of Sloan Street and South Orange Avenue, was quiet, with only three customers following the afternoon rush. Bishop sat down with me and ordered a coffee.

Bishop has a long history of acting and a Tony Award to go along with it, and for the past 22 years, she has called South Orange her home.

Bishop played Marjorie Houseman in the film “Dirty Dancing,” which she said has “turned into a little cult classic.” With regard to the film’s remake, she said she isn’t confident in the final product.

“It’s always so dangerous and when you start messing with stuff like that it’s usually hard to do better, or even as well,” she said, before laughingly adding: “We will see.”

She said she never even discussed a cameo in the remake as “that was a special moment in time.” According to Bishop, the cast and sound of the film were just right.

“It was really beautifully done,” she said.

Bishop grew up in Colorado, where she began her career as a ballet dancer.

“I went to a really good school there, it was just fortunate,” she said. She danced at The American Ballet Theater in Colorado, at the time called the Ballet Theater. “My pediatrician, weirdly, had daughters that were ballet dancers and he managed to associate himself with Ballet Theater and he somehow talked them into, or they were planning to, I don’t know what, but they opened a branch school in Denver, which was amazing.”

In Denver, Bishop was taught “strict Roman ballet,” receiving “really, really good training.” When she was 15 years old, the school closed and her teachers moved to San Jose, Calif. So, she too moved to California, taking the commuter train to her ballet classes.

Just three years later, at age 18, Bishop moved to New York City to perform at Radio City Music Hall. “It was one of the few places a ballet dancer could get work,” she said. “New York City, believe me, was not considered good work by ballet standards.”

But she never gave up, saying “I loved to dance.”

Bishop put her dancing shoes aside to play Emily Gilmore in the “Gilmore Girls” series for seven seasons. She also reprised that role in 2016 for the Netflix revival, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.” During all seven seasons of filming and the revival, Bishop commuted from South Orange to Los Angeles, a city that she says “bothers her eye.”

“It is uninteresting and dry and treeless” she said. “My husband doesn’t like it much better than I do.”

While Bishop was flying back and forth, her husband, Lee Leonard, was doing a show for News 12 New Jersey five nights a week. She rented a furnished apartment in Los Angeles during the filming.

“That’s what I would use throughout the season and then I’d pack up and come home at the end,” she said, adding that though the travel was exhausting, she enjoyed her time on set. “When you are hanging around with a lot of intelligent people who know how to act or write or whatever it is, it’s a pleasure.”

Clearly the rest of the “Gilmore Girls” cast, as well as show’s creator, writer and producer Amy Sherman-Palladino, agreed that it was a pleasure to reunite for more episodes in 2016.

“I’ve been badgering Amy for years about trying to get them to make a film, because I remember when ‘Sex in the City’ made their film,” she said. “I mean, c’mon, we were such a good solid show and we were on for much longer. I don’t think Warner Brothers knew what a gem they had.”

Then, it finally happened — a cast reunion. ATX, a television festival held each summer in Austin, Texas, invited Bishop, Sherman-Palladino and the other two leading women from the show to attend a question-and-answer session a few years ago. But, according to Bishop, that “fizzled out.”

Nevertheless, the following year, ATX invited them back, along with the rest of the cast. According to Bishop, fans at the festival were eager to see most of the cast together again.

“It was really like a rock concert when we walked on the stage,” she said, adding that the show has in recent years gained a new audience thanks to online streaming. This led to Netflix both streaming the show and reviving it for a four-part series.

“Netflix comes along and they apparently have a great deal of money, which kind of baffled me because they don’t have commercials,” Bishop said.

“People seemed to like it, I liked it,” she said of the revival. “I’m getting very good responses from it.”

Perhaps one of the reasons Bishop has enjoyed “Gilmore Girls” so much is that Stars Hollow reminds her of South Orange. According to Bishop, when trying to find a real-life replica of Stars Hollow: “The closest thing I’ve got is South Orange.”

Just like the famous town hall meetings held in the series, Bishop said South Orange “used to have town hall meetings in the town hall. You go up this little staircase into this little room with these little chairs. There was something real small town and funky about it.”

Bishop and her husband moved to South Orange from Wilmington, Del., which she called “a very civilized little town” but “really boring.” In their search for a home with a town center and an easy commute to the city, they looked at towns around South Orange, but “this one really turned out to be the right one.”

Pointing down Sloan Street, Bishop told of the “South Orange Emporium,” where multiple vendors would sell their goods. She said she used to shop there for opening night gifts because she found the items to be so interesting and unique. Bishop also recalled a time when she would have her husband pick her up from the train station at 11 p.m., describing the upstairs platform as being poorly lit and “disconcerting.”

Bishop said she frequently visits South Orange Village.

“I go over to Above a lot, and I do my banking here, and the cleaner is here,” she said. A personal favorite part of the town for her, however, is the reservation. “I walk my dog every day,” she said.

She does wish there were more local shopping spots, saying,“I know it’s hard for shop owners as well so that’s why when a new store opens, if there is anything I could possibly use, I go and buy something just to give them some encouragement,” and as the interview ended she said, “I have shopping to do. I have to go to Ashley’s to get some fish.”

Put aside the Tony Award and multiple roles in television, film, and theater, and Bishop is your everyday South Orange neighbor.

Lauren Machalany is a student in the Class of 2020 at the College of Communication and the Arts at Seton Hall University in South Orange.

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