By Charles Passy
Bill Murray starred in the 1993 film, but Woodstock, Ill., also played a key part
On Groundhog Day, the nation turns its attention to Punxsutawney, Pa., the small town (population 5,725) where a rodent named Phil is suddenly turned into the country’s chief weather forecaster. The ritual is so revered it became the basis for „Groundhog Day,“ the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.
But there’s just one thing: The movie wasn’t filmed in Punxsutawney. Instead, it was shot mainly in Woodstock, Ill., a larger municipality (population 25,646) located about 65 miles northwest of Chicago. And the city has capitalized on its connection to the now-iconic movie — to the point that it holds its own Groundhog Days festival around the Feb. 2 holiday.
„Move over Punxsutawney indeed!“ event organizers declared on Facebook.
The multiday festival seemingly has it all, from a dinner dance at the Woodstock Moose Lodge to a trivia contest. There’s also a groundhog on hand — in this case, one named Woodstock Willie, who makes the all-important Feb. 2 prediction as to whether we’ll face six more weeks of wintry weather or not.
As many as 5,000 people attend the festival, according to organizers. And others come to the city throughout the year from places as far away as Europe and Australia. They visit key filming locations, such as the spot where Murray’s character stepped into a puddle time and time again. Naturally, the town has plaques to immortalize those locales and also offers visitors a map to help them do their own „Groundhog Day“ walking tour.
„We definitely play into it,“ said Danielle Gulli, former president of the Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce & Industry and now executive director of business development for the city itself.
Gulli added that the „Groundhog Day“ connection inevitably helps the city, which is otherwise perhaps best known as the home of the Claussen pickle factory (KHC). Gulli credits the film with attracting new businesses and housing developers to the area.
„There’s not a developer that comes to town that doesn’t know that,“ she said of Woodstock’s cinematic fame.
As one might expect, this all doesn’t sit quite so well with the good people of Punxsutawney. Granted, the Pennsylvania town isn’t necessarily hurting for publicity: As many as 30,000 attend its Groundhog Day event featuring Punxsutawney Phil. But Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce President Katie Laska decries any town that tries to muscle in on its turf and outshine Phil.
„Fake news,“ she said of Woodstock’s fame. „Everyone knows who the real groundhog is.“
Not that Woodstock sought out its place in the movie world. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Danny Rubin, who co-wrote the script for the film with the late Harold Ramis, said Woodstock wasn’t mounting any sort of campaign to become groundhog central. Instead, the city was chosen by the filmmakers largely because Ramis wanted a location near his home base in Chicago.
„I think that was the clincher,“ said Rubin, who will be appearing at this year’s Groundhog Days festival in Woodstock, which is honoring the 30 anniversary of the film’s release
Of course, there are other towns in Illinois and neighboring states that could have been picked. Bob Hudgins, a now-retired location scout who worked on the film, said Ramis and the production team came close to picking Mineral Point, a similarly historic town in southwest Wisconsin.
But Woodstock won out mainly because of its picturesque town square — and the filmmakers liked the idea of building the movie around such a square even though the Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney is held in Gobbler’s Knob, a wooded area outside town.
Another factor in Woodstock’s favor: It had already been tapped as the location for a few scenes in the 1987 John Candy and Steve Martin film „Planes, Trains and Automobiles,“ so Hudgins knew the terrain.
But as Hudgins noted, some key Woodstock locals were opposed to „Groundhog Day“ being made there. Their thinking: The shoot would tie up parking and interfere with business-as-usual, since the filming was going to take several weeks.
„My job got exponentially more challenging,“ said Hudgins.
Slowly but surely, the locals were convinced, and approval was granted, Hudgins added. And the location scout found all the spots he needed to make the picture, though, to create the critical puddle scene, Hudgins said he had to remove a few cobblestones and fill the resulting hole with a bucket of water.
Many locals ended up serving as extras in the film. Among them: Rick Bellairs, now a local real-estate agent and chair of the Groundhog Days festival committee.
At the time of the filming, Bellairs said locals didn’t really know much about the movie, which depicts a weatherman trapped in a loop in which he relives Groundhog Day over and over (creating a pop-cultural connotation for the holiday that, it’s sometimes hard to remember, didn’t exist previously). And while many in Woodstock certainly recognized Bill Murray, a native of Chicago’s suburban North Shore who rose to fame via the Second City improv troupe, and some of the other cast members, they also knew they couldn’t try to buddy up with them.
„It was frowned upon,“ said Bellairs, who nevertheless got Murray, MacDowell and Ramis to sign a hat he wore during filming.
Bellairs said the town did have pride in the picture when it came out three decades ago. Especially the locals who appeared in it. If you look closely, Bellairs said, you can spot him in one crowd scene, kind of, but his blue Saab has a more prominent role in other parts of the film.
It took a few years after its release for „Groundhog Day“ to become a cult favorite. Similarly, it took a while for Woodstock locals to recognize how their city — an hour and 13 minutes from downtown Chicago via express commuter train — could turn into a destination, so to speak, because of its role in the movie.
Bellairs said the Groundhog Days festival started as a small gathering in 1995, but it became bigger over time.
„We added the polka band. We added the live groundhog. It grew and grew,“ he said.
Rubin, the film’s co-writer, said he’s happy to return to Woodstock for the festival, especially since the core of the town hasn’t changed much since „Groundhog Day“ was made.
„It feels like you’re walking around the movie,“ he said.
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