Hallmark Channel's 'The Christmas Heart' was written by a Cleveland reporter inspired by local event

Plain Dealer reporter Michael Heaton writes movie

CLEVELAND - The residents of Arthur Avenue in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood probably never thought their yearly Christmas Eve practice of lighting luminaries and placing them along the street would become a central theme in a made-for-TV movie.  

However, Arthur Avenue in many ways became a star itself in the film, "The Christmas Heart."

The story was brought to cinematic life by Michael Heaton, a reporter for the Plain Dealer, when he wrote a screenplay about the event and sold the idea to the Hallmark Channel.  His story is of a fictional 15-year-old boy, Matt, who has a heart disease.

"The movie does engage issues of faith and loss, and some heavy things," said Heaton as he sat at his computer in the Plain Dealer offices. "But for me, originally, I just saw the spectacular action shot and that's where it all began for me."

In the movie, Matt is in desperate need of a heart transplant. When a heart becomes available, a pilot must fly across Lake Erie to get the donor heart to Matt, a patient at Cleveland Clinic. A bad storm hits and the pilot must brave his way through it and massive power outages in Cleveland. The situation is so bad; the pilot is turned away from Cleveland airports "because our runways are a mess" and told to fly to Pittsburgh.

The pilot looks for any place to land his single-engine plane. The Christmas Eve luminaries of Arthur Avenue play a significant role in getting the heart to Matt.

Heaton said he wrote the script for "The Christmas Heart" 13 years before, but was unable to get a film producer to take his project. He turned to his sister, Patricia Heaton, star of a television sitcom, who was able to sell the idea of her brother's proposal to the Hallmark Channel. The film was made with both Arthur Avenue and the Cleveland Clinic playing starring roles.

However, the film was not made in Cleveland or suburban Lakewood.  It was shot in Winnipeg, the largest city in Manitoba, Canada.  Still, the Lakewood street and the Cleveland Clinic are mentioned throughout the movie. Heaton used the names of several of his co-workers and friends for some of the starring characters in his story.

No pun intended, but the story tugs at the heart. It is filled with references to faith, good works and the Christmas spirit. It shows what a neighborhood can accomplish when its residents work together. 

"Christmas is a special time of togetherness and people pulling together if only for one night or one day a year," said Heaton, a smile spreading across his face.

In real life, the people of Lakewood's Arthur Avenue have long known that fact. The lights flicker brightly on Arthur and its residents always look up, aware their many candles can be seen from far away. In both the real-life story and in Heaton's fictional account of the lighting ceremonies, the residents express their faith in what the lights truly represent.

"The Christmas Heart" airs again on the Hallmark Channel on Christmas Day at noon;  Friday, Dec. 28, at 8  p.m.; and Saturday, Dec. 29, at 6 a.m.

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