Life Imitates Art In 'Groundhog Day' Town

Feb 2, 2012

Furry forecaster Punxsutawney Phil woke up this morning and saw his shadow, supposedly meaning there will be six more weeks of winter. It's now been 20 years since actor Bill Murray woke up to Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" in the movie Groundhog Day.

The movie wasn't an Oscar darling, but it did make $70 million at the box office and gave new meaning to the term "Bing!" The lovable, goofy film stars Bill Murray as egotistical Phil Connors, a burned-out meteorologist doomed to relive the same day over and over until he has a change of heart. But for one Illinois town, reliving Groundhog Day over and over again is really not so bad.

It takes an untold number of attempts for Murray's character to finally make it to Feb. 3, but while he desperately tries to make it to the next day, people here in Woodstock, Ill., are pretty much choosing not to.

Director Harold Ramis, a Chicago native, was drawn to Woodstock's quaint town square, where many of the scenes were shot in 1992. The bustling town of about 20,000 people is a friendly place with a coffee shop, a bookstore, and an iconic opera house on the square. You might think you were in Mayberry if it weren't for cartoon groundhogs posted on nearly every corner.

John Scharres is the managing director of the Woodstock Opera House. In the movie, the building is transformed into the Pennsylvania Hotel, but it's someplace entirely different each February.

"I use it a lot as a reference point when I'm talking to agents and people, as far as work here booking acts for the Opera House," Scharres says. "I tell them, 'You've seen Woodstock, you just didn't know it.' "

In 1995, a group of locals got together to reminisce about the town's role in the movie. They decided to meet again, same time, every year. From there, the Woodstock Groundhog Days were born.

Co-chairwoman Pam Moorhouse says one highlight is when the town's own groundhog, Woodstock Willie, predicts the weather. And there are all sorts of souvenirs in the square. Willie even has his own "Wake-Up" hot sauce.

"For about four or five days every year, we just kind of go back to the re-creation of the film and want to relive it because it was such a positive experience for our community," Moorhouse says.

There's also a walking tour of film locations. That includes "Ned's Corner," where Bill Murray's character runs into the pesky insurance agent Ned Ryerson.

"Now, don't you tell me you don't remember me, because I sure as heckfire remember you," Ryerson says. "Not a chance," Murray's character answers.

Actor Stephen Tobolowsky played "Needlenose Ned." He remembers Woodstock fondly, and has taken part in the festivities. "I've done lots and lots of movies, and I've never had a film in a community have that kind of bonding experience like Groundhog Day," Tobolowsky says.

Movie extra and local Rick Bellairs remembers spending months on the set patiently waiting for his 15 minutes of fame. "There's one scene where I can readily spot myself and point, but don't blink or I'm gone," Bellairs says.

For an extra in a film that relives the same day, it meant no costume change. "I've got an old gray jacket and sweatpants and a hat with the fold-down earmuffs," Bellairs says.

Bellairs and other local extras say they'll keep meeting here every year for Groundhog Day. John Scharres, the director of the opera house, admits that in this case, life is trying to imitate art.

"We live the movie here," Scharres says. "I keep wondering what I have to do to redeem myself to get out of the loop, 'cause every day is like some Groundhog Day here."

Here in Woodstock, organizers expect around a thousand people to take part in the festivities, which continue through Sunday.

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