‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: ‘Groundhog Day’ Leaves Lasting Legacy in Woodstock

It’s Feb. 2, which means it’s Groundhog Day (again).

Pennsylvania may have Punxsutawney Phil, but Illinois also has a weather-forecasting rodent: Woodstock Willie, made famous by the movie “Groundhog Day,” which was filmed in Woodstock and released 30 years ago.

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“The movie was filmed here. They built Gobbler’s Knob there. Bill Murray and Andie McDowell do a dance scene up here, the snowball fight’s over there,” said Woodstock Days chair Rick Bellairs at the crack of dawn Thursday, as he stood on a city square gazebo featured in the flick.

Hundreds of “Groundhog Day” fans braved the 19-degree chill and snowy ground to watch and wait for Willie’s prognostication.

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She (yes, Willie is a female groundhog) was reluctant to leave her tree stump. Handler Mark Szafran said not to blame her; she’s in “pseudo hibernation” so it makes sense she’d want to stay cozy.

When she did emerge, Willie’s “groundhog-ese” translators said she saw her shadow, meaning winter will last at least six more weeks — news that elicited good-natured boos from the crowd.

In the movie, Murray’s character was skeptical of the whole thing. On that account, maybe he wasn’t all wrong given the 19-degree chill.

“I’m from Florida,” said “Groundhog Day” screenwriter Danny Rubin, who was visiting for the occasion. “You people are nuts!” 

Rubin said the story of Murray’s character “wouldn’t have worked unless there was another story, which is about a community of people who chose to come out at dawn in the dead center of winter, but they do it to be goofy and funny and silly … and to show community spirit and to be appreciative of the lives that they have.”

It takes a lot of repeating the same day for the movie’s main character to get there. How many days, Rubin wouldn’t hazard to say.

“I would not ruin this fun parlor game by giving out a number,” he said.

There’s comedy in the repetition.

Viewers will remember the scenes where Murray’s Phil Connors character repeatedly steps into a puddle (commemorated with a sidewalk plaque in Woodstock reading “Bill Murray stepped here”).

But the journey also raises deep, existential questions, like when Connors at a bar asks locals, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?”

In response, one man takes a shot.

After all, when there’s no tomorrow, there’s also no deadlines. No consequences. No hangovers. 

Why, Connors ponders, instead of being stuck in fictional Punxsutawney, Penn., couldn’t he be reliving a tropical vacation that ended in a hookup?

But when asked what day they’d relive ad nauseum, Woodstock’s Groundhog Day celebrants opted for more mundane, family-oriented experiences.

Going to high school. Walks and meet-ups with friends. Playing Guitar Hero with young children. A family vacation. Christmas.

For some, including Rubin and Bellairs, it was beyond contemplation.

“I never look back, so it’s going to be the one (day) I’m in, or the next one,” Rubin said.

“Oh my gosh,” Bellairs said, “there have been so many great days. I like living each day as it comes. I don’t want to repeat the same day over and over again. I’d want to get out of that loop the way Bill Murray wanted to get out of that loop. And find a new start.”

The community of Woodstock, at least, is on board with repeating Groundhog Day.

“This is a celebration that is unique to our town, and we will continue this tradition over and over and over and over,” 2023 Miss Woodstock Maggie Griffin said.

Feb. 2 comes once a year, but Woodstock extends its Groundhog Day celebration with an annual festival that runs through the weekend with movie showings, trivia, pub crawls and a tour.

The festival gives shops along the town square a much-welcomed boost.

And just as Murray’s weatherman gets a happy ending, Woodstock’s Groundhog Day lifts up real-life romance, such as when George Rebersky took the opportunity to dance with his wife on the gazebo where Murray and McDowell waltzed.

“And as we were dancing, I kissed her and I says, ‘I want deja vu every day the rest of my life with my beautiful wife,’” Rebersky said. “It’ll never get old because I love this woman with all my heart.”

For those who aren’t at a place in life where daily deja vu would be welcomed, Rubin said the movie he co-wrote with Harold Ramis offers encouragement.

“You can get out of it,” Rubin said. “We’re all stuck in all kinds of repeating patterns. And it can get very frustrating. But you can get out of it just by changing your perspective.”­

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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