Woodstock marks 30th anniversary of ‘Groundhog Day’ debut, the Bill Murray movie that put the town on the map

Woodstock marks 30th anniversary of ‘Groundhog Day’ debut, the Bill Murray movie that put the town on the map

Déjà vu filled the lively air of suburban Woodstock on Thursday.

Hundreds descended on his famous pavilion at dawn to celebrate Groundhog Day – and the 30th anniversary of the Bill Murray-starring film of the same name.

“Woodstock Willie, the seer of seers, the forecaster of forecasters,” said Danny Rubin, co-writer of the 1993 film, as someone held up the groundhog.

“Willie looks up to the sky, east and back to the ground and said clearly in groundhog forge, ‘I definitely see a shadow. Six weeks of winter left!’”

Some visitors had traveled thousands of miles to celebrate the holiday in the quaint city of 25,000 about 45 miles northwest of Chicago. Woodstock has become an annual destination for Groundhog Day fans to relive the time warp Murray’s character Phil Connors found himself in.

The film has also attracted permanent residents to Woodstock. Debbie and Peter Riis retired and moved from Texas 15 years ago after learning the film was being shot in Woodstock.

“We said, ‘You kidding?’ We didn’t know it was made in Illinois,” said Debbie Riis.

Revelers celebrate Groundhog Day in Woodstock.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Clemens Dinges said he flew in from Hamburg, Germany, to visit the location of the film, which he has seen at least 10 times. “It feels kind of special to be here at the original location. You’re reliving it,” he said.

Dinges plans to stay until Sunday, the end of the five-day Woodstock Groundhog Days festival, which features dances, pub crawls, pancake breakfasts and film screenings.

Rick Bellairs, chairman of the group behind the festival, said the annual event has grown a lot since it was first held in 1995 when only a handful of people showed up. But the city’s fame draws visitors beyond Groundhog Day.

“Now people come to Woodstock all year round because the film’s popularity has grown. People love the movie. People want to see where it was made,” Bellairs said.

People gathered near the Woodstock Opera House Thursday for a tour of the locations of “Groundhog Day” led by Bob Hudgins, the film’s location manager.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The film’s location manager, Bob Hudgins, gave a group of several dozen people a behind-the-scenes tour of the film’s iconic locations: the puddle where Bill Murray keeps stepping, the bed and breakfast where he wake up above, the city’s train tracks and the clock tower of Woodstock’s Opera House.

Hudgins grew up in the Chicago area and famously convinced director Harold Ramis to choose Woodstock as the location, forever tying the film to the suburbs.

Woodstock perfectly portrayed Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania because of its old-fashioned buildings and town square, Hudgins said.

“That’s why we fell in love with this city. Everywhere we looked we had what we needed,” he said.

The picturesque pavilion caught Natalie and Mike Kereluk’s eye so much that they decided to get married there 11 years ago.

“I just fell in love with the beauty,” said Natalie Kereluk, who first visited Woodstock because Groundhog Day is one of her “favorite, favorite movies.”

Natalie and Mike Kereluk got married eleven years ago in Woodstock’s gazebo. They come every year for their anniversary.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The couple lives in Hannover Park and come here every year for their anniversary. “We usually try to kiss in the gazebo,” Mike Kereluk said.

One year he organized a scavenger hunt for his wife that included many of the filming locations and ended in the town square. “My best anniversary yet,” he said.

Lynn Richardson came to Woodstock from St. Paul, Minnesota for her second pilgrimage. Bill Murray is her favorite actor and Groundhog Day is her favorite movie of his.

“It’s just a cult movie,” she said. Her partner Andrew Dols said the ride was easy and the temperature was a bit warmer than in the Twin Cities.

Lynn Richardson holds a cutout of Bill Murray at a Groundhog Day celebration Thursday in Woodstock.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The sleepy village of Woodstock is transformed by the wave of tourists every February 2nd.

“It’s certainly a shot in the arm for local businesses,” said Bellairs, organizer of the festival. Many storefronts sell movie-related merchandise in their windows.

Bellairs grew up in Woodstock and was hired as an extra in the 1992 film. He remembers that recruiters came to high school. Because many of the scenes in the film are repetitive, the extras had to be available for three months to repeat them over and over again.

But at the time nobody knew how important the film was going to be or what it was even about.

“As time went by, you kind of got a sense of where the film was going. But hardly anyone would have thought 30 years ago that it would be a hit, or that 30 years later we would be talking about it, or that it would be even more popular today,” he said.

When the film came out, Bellairs recalls seeing it in the cinema and locals playing extras and their roles shouting, “Okay, are you ready? Oh, here I am!”

Bellairs enjoys the annual event primarily because of the joy it brings to the people. “Everyone is so happy. It’s such a lighthearted event, silly and fun,” he said.

A crowd gathers at dawn on Thursday for Groundhog Day in Woodstock.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

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