When people ask me what my favorite movie is, I shudder. I hate that question. In fact, don’t ever ask me what my favorite anything is. The things I love in this world have a depth of variety and a multi-faceted nature that make it impossible to anoint one as “the best.” Ask me what “some of my favorite movies” are, however, and I will eventually tell you Groundhog Day.
As anyone who loves this sometimes romantic, sometimes black, always clever comedy starring Bill Murray and directed by Harold Ramis will tell you, there are hundreds of reasons Groundhog Day is a great movie. Personally, I’m always fascinated by high-concept stories that require a suspension of disbelief and defy logic in order to explore big ideas. Groundhog Day leaves us no choice but to ponder what we would do if we were forced to relive the same day over and over again.
Sometime after falling in love with Groundhog Day, I was surprised to learn that despite taking place in Punxsutawney, Penn., the movie was filmed in Woodstock, Ill., but as a Chicagoan and suburbanite my whole life, I assumed any town in Illinois I’d never heard of was “down south,” a long ways away with the rest of non-Chicago Illinois. As it turns out, Woodstock is 60 miles northwest of the city, just an hour and 20 minutes away, and it turned out I knew someone who not only lived there, but also whose dad chaired the town’s annual Groundhog Day committee.
Yes, Woodstock, Ill. has an annual Groundhog Day celebration on Feb. 2 during which a real, living groundhog is asked to report on the appearance of his shadow, all of which occurs in the very town square where Groundhog Day was filmed. Walking tours are offered and famous locations from scenes in the film are marked all throughout town, from the inn where Phil Connors (Murray) wakes up each day (which is now reportedly for sale) to the doozy of a puddle he constantly steps in while crossing the street.
In other words, it’s a movie nerd’s dream. Ok, this movie nerd’s dream, and one he didn’t know he had until he and his girlfriend were cordially invited to stay in Woodstock that weekend to witness the Groundhog Day spectacle.
In front of the “Cherry Street Inn” where Bill Murray’s character stayed in the movie.
We drove in the night before and went bowling at the alley that appears in the film, then woke up at 6 a.m. (our alarm set specifically for that time) to be in town for the prognostication at 7:07 a.m. After learning we’d have six more weeks of winter (duh, just look outside), we partook in a community breakfast attended by screenwriter Danny Rubin and actor Richard Henzel, who voiced one of the radio DJs that Phil wakes up to every morning. Henzler, a yearly attendee of the Woodstock festival, proudly did a live performance of the words for which he will forever be remembered.
Walking around downtown Woodstock that day (Groundhog Day no less) was like being in the world of the movie, and when we went to the free screening at the local theater, I felt a whole other level of connection to the film. There is definitely something spiritual about being “on the set” of one of your favorite films. Forgive the lofty comparison, but it was a lot like setting foot at the Western Wall for the first time, the recognition that the place where you stand once played host to something awesome, something bigger than yourself, something you treasure.
Just before the Groundhog Day prognostication in Woodstock, Ill. the morning of Feb. 2, 2014.
A complete outsider might laugh at the town of Woodstock for milking its one (and likely only ever) claim to fame, but seeing the townspeople and the tourists who flocked there, many of who say they have seen the film at least 40 times, the Groundhog Day celebration is clearly about more than perpetuating a city’s 101 minutes of fame. Attending the sold-out breakfast with polka musicians and a Woodstock Willie mascot as entertainment, you quickly understand that it’s about the community and togetherness that something as simple as a movie can create.
When Rubin, the screenwriter, was asked to speak on a couple occasions that morning, you could see his humility. A screenwriter never imagines that his work will be honored and preserved in this way, he said. Even when he probably first learned his script had been picked up and drawn the interest of the director of Vacation and Caddyshack, he still could not have imagined that this little idea for a story in his head would ever become an entire town in northern Illinois’ pride and joy. That’s testament to the power of movies.