Move over, Punxsutawney: The movie ‘Groundhog Day’ turned this Illinois town into a tourist hot spot
By Charles Passy
Bill Murray starred in the 1993 film, but Woodstock, Illinois also played a key role
On Groundhog Day, the nation turns its attention to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the small town (population 5,725) where a rodent named Phil has suddenly become the nation’s leading meteorologist. The ritual is so revered that 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 shot in Punxsutawney. Instead, it was filmed primarily in Woodstock, Illinois, 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 film — to the point that it’s hosting its own Groundhog Days festival around the Feb. 2 holiday.
“Move on Punxsutawney indeed!” event organizers said on Facebook.
The multi-day festival apparently has it all, from a dinner dance at Woodstock Moose Lodge to a quiz show. There’s also a groundhog at hand – in this case, one named Woodstock Willie, who makes the all-important prediction on February 2 as to whether or not we’ll face another six weeks of wintry weather.
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 afield as Europe and Australia. They visit key filming locations, such as where Murray’s character has stepped into a puddle time and time again. Naturally, the city has plaques to commemorate these locations and also offers visitors a map to help them do their own “Groundhog Day” walking tour.
“We’re definitely playing it,” said Danielle Gulli, former president of the Woodstock-area Chamber of Commerce and Industry and now executive director of business development for the city itself.
Gulli added that the “Groundhog Day” connection inevitably helps the town, which is otherwise perhaps best known as the home of the Claussen Pickle Factory (KHC). Gulli credits the film with attracting new businesses and property 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 you might expect, all of this doesn’t sit well with the good people of Punxsutawney. Granted, the Pennsylvania town doesn’t necessarily suffer from publicity: up to 30,000 people attend its Groundhog Day event featuring Punxsutawney Phil. But Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce President Katie Laska has spoken out against any town that tries to impose itself on its territory and eclipse Phil.
“Fake news,” she said of Woodstock fame. “Everyone knows who the real groundhog is.”
Not that Woodstock sought his place in the world of cinema. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Danny Rubin, who co-wrote the screenplay for the film with the late Harold Ramis, said Woodstock was not mounting any sort of campaign to become the groundhog center. Instead, the city was chosen by the filmmakers largely because Ramis wanted a location near his Chicago home.
“I think that was the click,” said Rubin, who will be attending this year’s Groundhog Days festival in Woodstock, which honors the 30th anniversary of the film’s release.
Of course, there are other cities in Illinois and surrounding states that could have been chosen. Bob Hudgins, a now-retired scout who worked on the film, said Ramis and the production team were set to cast Mineral Point, a similar historic town in southwestern Wisconsin.
But Woodstock won mainly because of its picturesque square – and the filmmakers liked the idea of building the film around such a square even though the Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney is held in Gobbler’s Knob, a wooded area. outside the city.
Another factor in Woodstock’s favor: it had previously been used as a filming location for a few scenes in John Candy and Steve Martin’s 1987 film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” so Hudgins knew the terrain.
But as Hudgins noted, some key Woodstock residents were opposed to having “Groundhog Day” there. Their thought: Filming would tie up the parking lot and interfere with day-to-day business, as filming was going to take several weeks.
“My job has become exponentially more difficult,” Hudgins said.
Slowly but surely locals were won over and approval was granted, Hudgins added. And the scout found all the spots he needed to make the shot, however, to create the critical puddle scene, Hudgins said he had to remove some 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 local real estate agent and chairman of the Groundhog Days festival committee.
At the time of filming, Bellairs said locals didn’t know much about the film, which depicts a weatherman trapped in a loop in which he repeatedly relives Groundhog Day (creating a pop-cultural connotation for the holiday that , it is sometimes difficult to remember, did not exist before). And while many in Woodstock certainly recognized Bill Murray, a native of the northern suburbs of Chicago who rose to fame through the Second City improv troupe, and some of the other cast members, they also knew they couldn’t try to befriend them.
“It was frowned upon,” said Bellairs, who nevertheless had Murray, MacDowell and Ramis sign a hat he wore during filming.
Bellairs said the city was proud of the photo when it came out three decades ago. Especially the locals who appeared there. If you look closely, Bellairs said, you can spot him in a crowd scene, sort of, but his blue Saab plays a bigger role in other parts of the film.
It took a few years after its release for “Groundhog Day” to become cult. Likewise, it took the residents of Woodstock a while to figure out how their town — an hour and 13 minutes from downtown Chicago via express commuter rail — could become a destination, so to speak, due to his role in the film.
Bellairs said the Groundhog Days festival started as a small gathering in 1995, but grew over time.
“We added the polka band. We added the living groundhog. It grew and grew,” he said.
Rubin, the film’s co-writer, said he was happy to be returning to Woodstock for the festival, especially since the heart of town hasn’t changed much since “Groundhog Day” premiered.
“It feels like walking through the movie,” he said.
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