The lights dim, and the crowd quiets. When a bright pink pony appears on the projection screen, the eight people onstage begin trotting along with it. One man, wearing a shiny pink hat shaped like a pony’s mane, leads the others in song:

“Come on, every pony, smile, smile, smile! Fill my heart up with sunshine, sunshine! All I really need’s a smile, smile, smile! From these happy friends of mine!”

About 50 people have gathered in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library auditorium to watch and discuss the latest episode of “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.” The event is a meet-up of D.C. area “bronies”: adult men — and some women — who follow the animated TV show religiously. Make no mistake: This is not a small number of fans. Similar meet-ups have taken place across the country and the world since the show first aired in October 2010.

Standing in the semidarkness to one side of the stage is a tall, slim figure with wavy light-brown hair that descends past his shoulders. Eighteen-year-old Andrew Rodgers-Schatz — known as “R.S.” to family and friends and as “Xiagu” to the bronies assembled here — is the organizer.

A first-year computer science major at the University of Maryland at College Park, R.S. wears glasses and has perfect posture — as though he actually listened to his mother when she told him to sit up straight while he was playing his computer games. He is quiet, but when he talks about ponies, enthusiasm creeps into his voice. Many have tried to explain the show’s allure, he says, but they can’t quite put their finger on its wild popularity. The characters are “cute,” he says, and they seem like “actual people.” He continues, “The writing is witty — it’s a smart show.”

Today’s episode centers on three young ponies that join their school’s newspaper. A new editor comes in with guns blazing: “No more namby-pamby like last year’s editor,” she proclaims. “But Namby Pamby was a great editor!” the ponies protest. The bronies in the auditorium hoot with laughter.

Like many of the fans, R.S. got into the show at the prompting of a friend. He and about 90 others attended the first BroNYCon in June. The best part, he says, was hanging out with bronies from across the country.

Riding that high, he founded the D.C. Brony Meetup. He advertised on Equestria Daily, the news site for bronies, and about 35 people attended the first meeting in July. Membership and attendance have increased since. The meet-up has 227 members registered online, about 50 of whom regularly attend meetings. (BroNYCon drew 300 to its September gathering and more than 800 in January.) Such meet-ups have an “amplifying effect” on his enjoyment of the show, R.S. says. Although he usually chats online while watching a new episode, “it’s hard to maintain real friends online.”

During the week, Andrew Singley, 32, models mathematical problems as an analyst for the federal government. On weekends, he watches “My Little Pony” with his wife, Samantha, and 5-year-old daughter, Dayna, in their Silver Spring home. In October 2010, after watching an early episode of the first season on Hasbro’s animated TV channel, the Hub, Singley was hooked. He brought his daughter and wife into the fandom.

Hasbro’s third iteration of the classic TV show was intended for young girls such as Dayna; its creators never expected men such as her father to be a driving force behind its popularity. Lauren Faust, also known for her work on “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,” wanted to create a show that would be enjoyable for parents, too. But neither Faust nor Hasbro was prepared for the overwhelmingly positive response they received from the unusual demographic of mostly 20-something, mostly white men.

In a generation weaned on irony and sarcasm, such fresh-faced delight can seem startling. But bronies thrive on the convivial bonhomie of the show.

“The show just has this effect on people,” R.S. says. “It manages to inspire a community around it.”

Several bronies have clipped small figurines to their name tags or necklaces. Singley carries Trixie, a stuffed pony — known as a “plushie” — that his wife made for him. Catie Gardner, a 16-year-old high school student from Maryland, carries a custom-designed plushie nearly as tall as she is.

Collecting gear is a big part of “My Little Pony” fandom; this is a subculture that literally wears its heart on its sleeve. The majority of the bronies at this meet-up sport T-shirts featuring their favorite characters: Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Twilight Sparkle.

R.S. wears the gear to signal that he’s into ponies, he says. When he’s on campus, he’ll meet other fans and maybe even receive “a random brohoof on the street,” he says. (A brohoof is like a fist bump. A fist bump is like . . . oh, forget it.)

There is no shortage of “My Little Pony” merchandise. This iteration of the show was developed, after all, by toy giant Hasbro to boost sales of its signature toy line. In fact, “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic” first caught on when a Cartoon Brew article criticized it as the end of “the creator-driven era of TV animation.” It quickly became an Internet phenomenon among those who read the article, watched the show and got hooked.

From “My Little Pony’s” consumerist roots has sprung a creative revolution. Equestria Daily serves as a centralized news source, and other sites and networks have sprung up. YouTube is awash with remixes of pony songs, as well as the documentary “Ballad of the Brony” and a presentation on the physics of “My Little Pony.”

At the meet-up, fans are hunting for Easter eggs, some of which contain tickets to a free raffle of T-shirts and figurines from Toys R Us. One brony struggles to comb the mane of his newly won Rainbow Dash toy. “I don’t have a lot of experience doing this,” he says. “I never thought I’d get a brushable.”

Others cut out pieces of felt for a community art board of the District in springtime, complete with the Washington Monument, cherry blossoms and, of course, a herd of ponies. One pony rears up on its hind legs on top of the Capitol. The finished product will be part of the Traveling Pony Museum, which will begin at June’s BroNYCon — expected to draw about 2,000 people, says John Feulner, head of VIP relations at BroNYCon — and will tour various meet-ups and conventions in the United States.

“We decided to do felt this time, because it would be a fun project that even people without art skills could do,” says Gretchen Sprehe, 29, of Arlington. Gretchen, an artist working on an e-book to document the brony movement, is the meet-up’s crafts organizer. She considers herself a mother figure of sorts, because she is older than many of the bronies and because she is a natural leader.

But wait — girl bronies? Is that allowed?

“ ‘Brony’ is unisex,” she says.

Isn’t there something a little weird about grown men playing with rainbow-hued ponies? Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, doesn’t think so. She says, “They’re just a fan base revisiting childhood and some of the things they have left behind” — and, in some cases, the things they didn’t get a chance to experience the first time around, such as brushing a pony’s synthetic mane.

It’s escapist in a positive way, she says: “It really is just different ways people have of fulfilling these very fundamental human needs.”

For all his flamboyant pony shirts, R.S. has received surprisingly little flak. “I would’ve thought it was weird — I did think it was weird, when my friend first told me about it,” R.S. says. “But no one cares.” And if he ever did feel ostracized? He shrugs and spreads his hands. “Haters gonna hate, you know?”

At the end of the meet-up, the bronies gather in front of the library for a group picture. Passersby shoot them curious looks, but the bronies, with figurines and plushies in hand, pay them no mind. They’ve found the very love and acceptance the show promises. Friendship truly is magic.

Wilson is a freelance writer.