Déjá Vu all over again
Year after year, Woodstock's annual Groundhog Days festivities return
“OK campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties cause it’s cold out there! … It’s cold out there every day,” … and every year. For the past 20 years, hundreds and thousands of spectators have come out to Woodstock, where much of the movie “Groundhog Day” was filmed, and stood out in the cold to get a winter forecast from the resident groundhog, Woodstock Willie.
Many are hoping Willie will not see his shadow Sunday, Feb. 2, meaning they won’t need to burrow back into their homes to keep warm much longer. Although the celebration repeats every year, it has evolved into a five-day festival including special breakfasts, dinners, fundraising events, walking tours, a chili cookoff and other contests, free showings of the movie, bowling events, a symposium and, of course, the prognostication.
“I know it’s the same thing year after year after year, but it’s fun, and that’s what the movie was,” said Pam Moorhouse, the Woodstock Public Library circulation manager and Groundhog Days committee member.
In past celebrations, actor Stephen Tobolowsky (Needlenosed Ned) and director Harold Ramis have visited Woodstock, and location manager Bob Hudgins comes back yearly to lead the walking tours. But aside from the usual food, fun and games, Moorhouse said this year’s event will be especially exciting because the film’s original screenplay writer, Danny Rubin, is coming to visit.
“It feels like coming home in a way,” Rubin said. “Coming back to Woodstock will be a thrill because I haven’t been there since when we were shooting the movie.”
Rubin said his ideas came to life in the studio with some edits to the script from the director, Ramis and Bill Murray’s comical improvisations.
“I was just looking for an idea for a movie,” he said. “I hit upon the idea of a guy repeating the same day, then, at some point, put that in the context of a man living forever, for a very long time. … That seemed like a great way to deal with the various issues of having a long life and all the funny things that go along with it. I don’t know if it was an inspiration other than just playing with ideas in my mind, but eventually that’s one that tumbled out, to my delight.”
While the movie took some time to catch on in the United States, Rubin said he was thrilled with letters he received from people in Germany and England soon after the movie premiered in February 1993, praising him for his work and sharing personal connections they had with the storyline. He said later more Americans started reevaluating it, then fell in love with it.
“It’s just wonderful how it developed into ‘who knew?’” Rubin said. “At the very base of it was entertainment. It was just meant to find ways to be entertaining, but among the ways that I like a movie to be entertaining includes that it’s funny and that it also carries something with it that is real and lasting that a person could chew on.”
Rubin said he is pleased to see the positive impact the movie has had on Punxsutawney, Penn., and Woodstock.
“That gives me a lot of pride, whether I intended it to happen or not,” Rubin said. “You always want to put something good out there in the world.”
In honor of Groundhog Day, Rubin said he makes it a tradition to set out his 5-foot tall plywood groundhog on his porch each year, a prop from the movie that was mailed to him after the filming.
Woodstock’s Groundhog Days events will kick off Sunday, Jan. 26, with the Lions Club pancake breakfast at 8 a.m. at the Woodstock Moose Lodge. Thursday, Jan. 30, will feature a fundraiser chocolate and wine pairing at 7 p.m. at Ethereal Confections, a new addition to the festivities this year. Rubin will make a presentation at the 10 a.m. showing of the movie Saturday, Feb. 1, at the Woodstock Theatre and at the Groundhog Day Symposium at 3:30 p.m. at the PourHouse. He also plans to drop in on some other festivities and the walking tour, and was invited to be a guest judge at the chili cook-off at noon Feb. 1.
“I hope they know, I spent 16 years living in New Mexico, so I do have some ideas of what tastes good to me,” Rubin said.
Many local merchants join in the spirit of Groundhog Day, selling souvenirs and goodies. Jaci Krandel, of Jaci’s Cookies, showcased her famous Woodstock Willie cookies on ABC7 news Jan. 19, and she and husband, Craig Krandel, a Groundhog Days committee member, described this year’s festivities to a live audience.
On Sunday, Feb. 2, at 7 a.m. the highly anticipated Groundhog Prognostication will take place at the bandstand on the Square. Mark Szafran, trainer at Animal Rentals in Chicago, has come out to Woodstock with Woodstock Willie for the past 18 years to present the groundhog to the eager audience. He said the groundhog is a descendant of the movie’s original animal actor, Scooter.
“Once I get him out, I have to hold him,” Szafran said. “I feel like the Lion King, holding up Simba.”
Szafran said he is amazed at the increasing number of people who attend each year. For last year’s highly attended 20th anniversary, he said he held the grumpy groundhog for about a half hour. On Feb. 2, Szafran will be in the spotlight again, waiting on Willie to make his weather prediction.
“I guess we’ll see if spring’s around the corner or not,” he said.