It was a cold, but not very snowy winter when a Hollywood crew converged on Woodstock to produce what became a cult classic in cinema. Thirty years later, Groundhog Day is far more than a beloved film. It’s the heart of a family-friendly winter festival, the inspiration for a stage play and a chance for Woodstock to repeat its 15 minutes of fame.
Each year on Feb. 2, people turn their attention to Punxsutawney, Pa., in search of an answer to one age-old question: Will the groundhog see its shadow?
But many people, especially those in the Chicago area, instantly think about the classic film “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray. Though it’s supposed to depict Punxsutawney, much of it was actually filmed in Woodstock.
Filming for this iconic movie began in this charming city 30 years ago, and three decades later, the movie still strikes a chord with those who’ve seen it – especially residents of Woodstock.
“Thirty years ago, no one thought that ‘Groundhog Day’ would have this lasting image, and yet it has become a cult classic movie,” says Rick Bellairs. The Woodstock resident is chairman of Woodstock Groundhog Days, an annual festival that coincides with the Feb. 2 holiday. “The movie is more popular now than it was when it came out 30 years ago. No one knew it would have this lasting effect on Woodstock.”
Bringing the Movie to Woodstock
As the story goes, Harold Ramis, the movie’s late director, always had a vision for the film, but he struggled to find the right location for shooting.
“Legend has it that Harold Ramis didn’t think Punxsutawney, Pa., was very photogenetic, and he thought if he did the movie there, he’d have to do it their way. He didn’t want those restrictions,” Bellairs says. “Because Harold Ramis and Bill Murray have family in the Chicago area, they wanted to do something close to Chicago.”
Ramis and his crew scouted locations in Wisconsin and Illinois, and apparently Galena, Ill., was a top choice. As they were driving back to Chicago one day, Bob Hudgins, then-location manager for Columbia Pictures, told Ramis about Woodstock, because he’d worked with management from the Woodstock Opera House in the past. John Scharres was managing director of the Opera House when the Hollywood crew arrived. He retired in 2018.
“I took Harold and his crew up to the top of the bell tower of the Woodstock Opera House,” Scharres recalls. “They took photos, and on the way back down, Ramis looked at Hudgins and said, ‘I like it here; let’s make it happen.’”
The original plan was to film the movie in a city like Galena because its Main Street somewhat resembles Punxsutawney. Ramis was sold when he saw Woodstock.
“As you watch the movie, you don’t get the sense of the town square because they don’t shoot it as a square,” Bellairs says.
Ramis and his team also had several resources readily available nearby, so Woodstock became a one-stop-shop for production. In all, about 15 local sites made it to the big screen. Permanent plaques now mark many of those sites.
“The scene where Bill Murray is on the railroad tracks, that was filmed a half-block off the square, and the bowling alley where he gets drunk is Wayne’s Lanes, which is a half-block off the Square,” Scharres says. “They had so much of what they needed in a very close proximity, so they didn’t have to travel long distances to haul equipment. It’s all right there in the central hub. So, it made a lot of sense for them to choose Woodstock.”
Before the movie got off the ground, Scharres created a new filming policy for the City of Woodstock that allowed production to take place. That included using the park in the Square, restoration work, police protection, street closures and required notifications.
“That policy allowed the city to go into a contract with the production company to proceed with filming the movie,” Scharres says.
Behind the Curtain
Crews started filming in Woodstock in 1992, and production took about six months, Scharres says. It took nearly two months of preproduction, about two months of actual filming and two months of cleanup.
“The cleanup took a bit of time because of things like the construction of Gobbler’s Knob (the groundhog’s platform),” Scharres says. “It looks rather simple in the movie, but it was rather stout. It had concrete footings and a lot of other materials because there was heavy equipment on it, so they had to build it like they were building a heavy deck. That took a while to disassemble, and then we had to repair the Square afterwards.”
There were plenty of mixed feelings from locals about having a Hollywood crew in Woodstock.
“There were people, mainly merchants, who weren’t in favor of the movie because it disrupted their business day,” Scharres says. “At times, there were some major disruptions, especially in the downtown, where parts of the Square were closed at times because of production work. When they had night filming, they’d spend all day doing site preps, like putting up lighting.”
In addition, since production didn’t have much snow to work with, they had to bring in artificial snow, Scharres says.
“They brought in truckloads of hollow fill, which is used for insulation in coats, and rolled it out like carpet to make it look like snow in the background,” he says. “They also used ground-up ice to make snow. All of that took time, which put some disruption on the downtown, including the Opera House.”
But the majority of residents enjoyed seeing Ramis and Murray walking around the streets of Woodstock. Scharres says there was a massive buzz around town.
“That was a real thrill for people,” he says. “My mother-in-law was walking through the neighborhood and ran into Murray, and she didn’t know who he was. She asked him if he was involved with the movie in some way. He was kind of surprised she didn’t know who he was.”
Bellairs was an extra in the movie, so he got an inside look at the making of the classic film. He attended a recruiting event at Woodstock High School and was told to wear neutral colors because they didn’t want anything bright or flashy on camera.
“When they came to town, they put out an announcement saying there was going to be a movie made and they wanted local residents to be extras for some of the background scenes, but we didn’t know what the movie would be about,” he says. “When you agree to be in the movie, you have to commit to being available. As it turns out, they shot the same scenes over and over, so if you’re in a particular scene, you had to be available and commit to it.”
The movie was already designed to be repetitive, so when an actor would stumble on a line, it became déjà vu all over again.
“If Bill Murray cracks a joke or stumbles on a line, everyone has to go back to their starting place and they shoot the scene again,” Bellairs says. “They might also shoot the scene from a different angle and a different perspective, so you have to go back to the starting position again, and you do this all day long.”
The main groundhog in the movie, Scooter, made it about halfway through filming before biting Murray.
“When you see the scene where he’s letting the Groundhog drive the pickup truck, they had to take the windshield out of the truck, set up a camera and have Murray hold the groundhog,” Scharres says. “They put Murray in gloves, handed him the groundhog, and it just grabbed his finger and really chomped on it. You don’t bite the star and play this town again, so they threw Scooter off the movie.”
They replaced Scooter with a stunt double, whom they later named Woodstock Willie.
“When you see the movie, Scooter gets screen credit,” Scharres says with a laugh. “I don’t know how that works in Hollywood. How can you bite the star, get thrown off the film and still get credit?”
Before the movie came to town, the Groundhog Day holiday wasn’t celebrated, Scharres says. Nowadays, Groundhog Day and Woodstock are one in the same.
“Every Feb. 2, we celebrate Groundhog Day, and it started with people coming together to remember the movie. Now, it’s becoming a regular thing,” he says. “The movie still brings people to the community, it puts us in a positive light and it makes us look like friendly, hometown USA.”
Woodstock Makes the Super Bowl
People around the city always wondered if Murray would return to Woodstock. Bellairs just shrugged off the idea.
“My response has always been, ‘That’s not going to happen,’” he says. “Well, in 2020 he was back in town filming a Jeep commercial for the Super Bowl.”
The Super Bowl that year was held on Groundhog Day. Jeep had the creative idea to relive the movie with a commercial based in Woodstock.
“There was Bill Murray in Woodstock making the Jeep commercial, and I was proven wrong,” Bellairs says. “It took the deep pockets of Jeep to bring him back to town. They tried to keep it under wraps, but once you have Bill Murray on the Square in Woodstock and film crews in the area, it’s hard to keep a secret. Everyone in town knew what was going on.”
About a week before the Super Bowl, the Woodstock Square went back in time, and production re-created the Square to make it look like it did in 1992.
“There’s Murray and Stephen Tobolowsky doing the step in the puddle scene from the movie, and a week later the commercial is on the Super Bowl, putting Woodstock and Groundhog Day on the biggest stage in the world. That was pretty exciting.”
Woodstock Groundhog Days Returns to Normal
Community members have gathered in the cold for more than 20 years to participate in Woodstock Groundhog Days, a festival that pays homage to the groundhog and Woodstock’s Hollywood moment. That annual tradition continues this year with events happening from Jan. 28-Feb. 2 in and around the Woodstock Square.
Since this is the 30th anniversary of the movie’s filming, Bellairs and his team want to make this event bigger and better than ever.
“We’re really excited,” Bellairs says. “Groundhog Day is in the middle of winter, when the holidays are past us, and spring is off in the future. It’s something fun to do in the middle of winter in northern Illinois.”
The festivities start Jan. 28 at 6 p.m. with the Welcoming of the Groundhog. As Woodstock Willie emerges from his hibernation, he’ll mingle with guests and pose for photos at the Woodstock Opera House.
Afterwards, guests are invited to participate in Groundhog Day movie trivia, starting at 6:30 p.m., also at the Woodstock Opera House.
There’s a Groundhog Day Dinner Dance, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Woodstock Moose Lodge, 406 Clay St. This is the same place where the movie’s bachelor auction and dance scenes were filmed.
Ortmann’s Red Iron Tavern, 101 E. Church St., hosts a bags tournament Jan. 29, with check-in at 11 a.m. Proceeds from the event support the Woodstock Food Pantry. Guests are also welcome to bring non-perishable food items to donate.
Later that day, at 4 p.m., visitors can enjoy Groundhog Day Bingo at the Blue Lotus Temple, 221 Dean St.
After a year away, the Groundhog Day Pub Crawl returns that night from 6 to 10 p.m. Guests get two drink tokens to use on the crawl, which happens within two blocks of the Square.
On display during Groundhog Days is a collection of memorabilia that Columbia Pictures left behind.
“When they wrapped up filming, they donated a lot of things to Woodstock, and they’re in a safe place at the Woodstock Public Library,” Bellairs says. “They’ll open the vault and get some things from during the filming. There are old newspaper clippings, sketches and pictures of them making the movie. You’ll get a sense of what it was like when the movie was made.”
The classic film will also be shown each day at the Classic Cinemas Woodstock Theatre.
The main event is the Groundhog Day Prognostication, happening in the Woodstock Square on Feb. 2 at 7 a.m.
If the groundhog sees its shadow, expect six more weeks of winter, according to legend. If it doesn’t, spring will come early.
Throughout the weekend, visitors can also enjoy a walking tour and see various places where the movie was shot, including the Cherry Tree Inn, which is featured in the movie.
“That home was a family home and is now a bed-and-breakfast,” Bellairs says. “People can stay where Bill Murray slept for ‘Groundhog Day.’ That’s a popular stop on the walking tour.”
Those who miss the tour can still visit all 15 filming sites by following the permanent plaques at many of the locations.
Bellairs says people come from miles around to visit Woodstock for this event, including faraway places like Texas, Florida, California and Canada.
“We’ve also had people come from Australia, Germany and Russia to be in Woodstock for the festivities,” he says. “When people think about ‘Groundhog Day,’ the image that’s in their mind is Woodstock. Part of it is celebrating the movie, but part of it is celebrating what makes Woodstock stand out.”
For information on events and activities, visit woodstockgroundhog.org.
Groundhog Day: The Musical
Proving the film is cult classic, a made-for-the-stage musical adaptation of ‘Groundhog Day’ is coming to the Chicago area. It premiered in London in 2016, and its arrival on Broadway in 2017 was nominated for seven Tony Awards.
Now, it comes to the northwest suburbs as the latest installment of the popular Broadway Series at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. “Groundhog Day: The Musical” runs Jan. 26-March 13.
“What people are going to see is very different from the movie,” says Jim Corti, director of the musical. “The musical is intriguing in ways the audience won’t expect with a fantastic pop/rock score.”
Corti describes the musical as funny, but he also says there’s plenty of substance. The entire cast is from Chicagoland, except the lead actor, who’s from New York.
“Everything is built right here in downtown Aurora,” Corti says.
The musical is geared more toward guests 14 years old and older, so leave the little ones at home.
“The lead character, Phil, is arrogant, he’s cynical and he feels like he’s too good for where he’s at, and no one is good enough,” Corti says. “Because of Phil’s manipulative nature, we’re careful about how all of this is represented in every situation he comes across. Throughout the course of the show, he’ll have moments of self-realization that’ll change his perspective.”
Those who attend the show will be able to walk away with a positive message that can be used in everyday life.
“Each day is an opportunity to make changes for the better in other people’s lives, and you can actually change people’s lives for good,” Corti says. “If you’re in the rut, be the change! That’s the philosophy that the movie was written on.”
Paramount Theatre’s current season also includes “Rock of Ages.”
People who come to the show must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test and a photo ID. Masks are also required.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit paramountaurora.com.