EXCLUSIVE: Hallmark Men Bond Over Meaningful New Project

Hunks of Hallmark

Hallmark Hallmark Channel actors Benjamin Ayres, Andrew Walker, Michael Rady, and Kristoffer Polaha

When actor Benjamin Ayres first came up with the idea for Romance University, a tongue-in-cheek ode to the passionate and well-versed fans of rom-com movies made popular by Hallmark Channel, he never imagined that in less than two months, it would blossom into a vibrant online community of fans, whom he calls “alumni,” raising significant funds for women’s shelters. But in an exclusive interview with Heavy, Ayres also said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how the effort has turned into a “cool bonding experience” for him and other men who’ve become beloved regulars on the network but rarely get to work together.

After Ayres launched the project on a whim in early 2023, selling hoodies and buttons featuring a spoof design based on Harvard’s century-old crest, Romance University has quickly evolved, raising over $9,000 for women’s and children’s charities. On Valentine’s Day, actor Andrew Walker hand-delivered the most recent donation to Alexandria House, a Los Angeles shelter.

After Ayres’ first sale of hoodies and buttons raised $4,000 for two Toronto shelters, his Hallmark colleagues and excited “alumni” encouraged him to keep making more merchandise. He re-tooled the name to be inclusive of all networks and platforms that now feature the kind of TV romances that Hallmark is known for, and then reached out to Walker, Paul Campbell, and Tyler Hynes — the stars of 2022’s smash hit “Three Wise Men and a Baby” — about creating a Valentines-themed collection. Ayres proposed putting their faces inside the Romance University crest, which they all loved, and Walker got to choose the next shelter to receive proceeds from the effort.

What began as a quirky idea has quickly become a full-fledged — and likely long-term — operation. Ayres, who lives in Toronto, told Heavy that after pushback from authorities in Canada, he recently won the right to incorporate Romance University as an official company, which opens the door for him and his Hallmark peers to expand the brand — and their bond — in exciting ways, including potentially offering actual classes taught by network talent.

Hallmark ‘Hunks’ Bond Over Benjamin Ayres’ Romance University

In addition to becoming a collaborative way to make a difference for women and children in need, Ayres said Romance University has also inadvertently become a way for him and many of his fellow actors — affectionately nicknamed the “Hunks of Hallmark” by fans — to meaningfully connect. While Ayres is very grateful for the support he’s received from actresses who are among his past co-stars, like Taylor Cole and Nikki DeLoach, he’s especially loved the chance to swap ideas or host live online chats with many of his male colleagues, including Walker, Kristoffer Polaha, and Michael Rady.

“You know, the men in the Hallmark universe don’t ever work together,” he said, adding that they occasionally will see each other at fan conventions or a random get-together. “We tend to know all the women because we work with them. So this has, for me at least, kind of created this cool bonding experience for me and some of the guys.”

Ayres thinks that’s happened in part because he started hosting frequent and casual Instagram Live chats for the Romance University community, which many of his Hallmark colleagues have joined to say hi and support the effort.

Ayres explained, “I never really did Lives before and, you know, people pop on and I’m like ‘Hey, come on and chat!’ And I think a lot of them just love the cause, they want to be involved in it.”

The experience of directly impacting women and children in need has also been meaningful to him and his peers, Ayres said, sharing that Walker called him excitedly after taking the latest Romance University donation to Alexandra House in L.A.

He said, “Andrew called me right after and he was just, ‘You were right! I just could not have anticipated how amazing it was. They all came down and we met with everybody, we’re gonna go back and volunteer and do chef days with them!’ So, you know, I think this is a real gift … I want to be able to incorporate the actors that are involved to be able to go to their charity of choice and really bring this community together in that way, too.”

Benjamin Ayres Won Right to Incorporate Romance University as a Learning Community

Not expecting Romance University to take off the way it has, Ayres said he never considered a business model for it — until his accountant told him he had to stop handling all the funds personally. But when Ayres filed to incorporate Romance University as an official Canadian company, he told Heavy, authorities pushed back on the name, saying that it isn’t a real school. But Ayres and his lawyer argued that it is a learning community of sorts, made up of people who have practically become experts in romance movies.

He said, “We worked for hours with all this legal stuff to kind of prove that we are a university teaching romance, and we won! We got it because the alumni are strong. We said, ‘These are all the people that feel that they have learned a lot from our movies. Therefore, in a way, we have taught romance so it kind of makes sense. It was amazing that we got it.”

With that distinction now official, Ayres said he’s considering offering actual classes in addition to the Romance University merchandise.

“I’d love to find a way to be able to,” he said, referencing the tongue-in-cheek images of the actors-turned-professors they’ve featured on the Romance University Instagram account.

“We’ve got Professor Polaha, and Rady, and I’ve been coined ‘The Chancellor,'” he laughed. “So we could have these courses, actually. They’ve even reached out — both Kris and Michael Rady — like, ‘I kind of would like to teach something!’ So (it could) turn into some type of subscription where we are actually teaching something. I think that would be kind of cool. It’d be like MasterClass!”

Ayres now has a team of people working behind the scenes on the effort, including multiple suppliers, his entrepreneurial wife Erin, and a designer and publicist in Phoenix. While there are plans in the works for a March 2023 merchandise collection devoted to one of Hallmark’s top mystery franchises, Ayres said he likely won’t do themed promotions every month, especially when he has to go shoot a movie. But for now, he loves that it’s keeping him creative, connected, and busy.

He said, “It’s been, as a creative person, very fulfilling. A lot of people are like, ‘It must be so much work’ and if it felt like work, I would have shut it down. But I actually really, really enjoy it.”

Even the top brass at Hallmark have been supportive of the effort, with some executives placing large orders, he said.

“The branding is something that brings everybody together … essentially made by us, for all of us,” he said. “That’s why there’s been such a supportive response. It’s a direct way for us to have contact with and build a community with a fan base that is, like, the most incredible fan base ever.”