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We visit the town that brought Groundhog Day to life

The A.V. Club
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July 25, 2013 AT 1:00 AM
In 1993’s Groundhog Day, being trapped inside the tiny little town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is meant to be a form of purgatory for Bill Murray’s narcissistic weatherman Phil Connors—a limbo he’s forced to relive in an eternal dark night of the soul, whose date is always February 2. He sneers at the “hicks” and their clinging to the tradition of “a large squirrel predicting the weather,” and generally can’t think of anything more pathetic than getting excited about something so trivial as Groundhog Day. His only wish is to escape as soon as possible. Were Phil to happen upon Woodstock, Illinois, the quiet suburb that stands in for Punxsutawney on film, he’d likely feel just as trapped: “Every day is Groundhog Day in Woodstock, IL!” reads the official motto of the city’s Groundhog Days committee, which dedicates most of the winter to providing walking tours of filming locations, hosting Groundhog Day-related screenings, guest speakers, and trivia contests, and, of course, reenacting the film’s annual groundhog ceremony on the actual holiday (using a descendant of the one seen in the movie, no less). And even when it’s not Groundhog Day—or even winter, as on the rainy summer’s day we visited—it’s still Groundhog Day, as seemingly every corner of Woodstock’s perfectly preserved town square bears a plaque commemorating its often-fleeting moment of screen time.  Appropriately, that commitment to preservation was key to Woodstock being chosen over the real Punxsutawney. The old-fashioned town square, registered as a national historic landmark, rises like a 19th-century Brigadoon of Americana out of the modern mist of nearby Starbucks and boutiques. Its timelessness first caught the eye of location manager Bob Hudgins when he used Woodstock’s jail and courthouse for a backdrop in Planes, Trains, And Automobiles. (Some non-movie trivia: The courthouse is where Clarence Darrow famously defended American Socialist icon Eugene Debs.) When director Harold Ramis needed to find a place that could embody the quaint, small-town values that Phil Connors so resists—and preferably give him everything else he needed in one central shooting location—he turned to Woodstock, making the entire square his movie set.  Like the residents of faux Punxsutawney, the people of Woodstock are still every bit as excited about their claim to fame, many of them having witnessed firsthand its production—which was, like Punxsutawney, inescapable—and appearing as extras. Our guests, committee members Rick Bellairs and Maggie Crane, have been living and reliving Groundhog Day pretty much since filming first began in 1992, and even now, more than 20 years on, they remain tireless in their enthusiasm for it. (Bellairs can be briefly glimpsed in the scene where Murray robs the armored truck. Crane, who missed much of the filming due to her job at the library, fondly recalled fetching the French poetry that Murray’s character quotes to impress Andie MacDowell.)  Woodstock has many other reasons to be proud: It’s the hometown of Dick Tracy creator Chester A. Gould. As a young prep student, Orson Welles staged his first theatrical productions in its historic Opera House, which was also host to early appearances from Paul Newman and Shelley Berman, among many others. Yet while these are certainly points of satisfaction, nothing seems to incite friendliness and vivacity from its residents like Groundhog Day.  In the movie, Punxsutawney’s openness eventually transforms Phil Connors, and as he basks in “the warmth of their hearths and hearts,” he becomes a better man. It’s fitting, then, that Groundhog Day did the same for Woodstock. When the production arrived amid a recession-struck 1992, many of the buildings on the square were boarded up and abandoned. That all changed, nearly overnight. The Tip-Top Café, created just for the film, continued to thrive thereafter as a restaurant. (It’s currently a damn good taqueria.) The bed and breakfast where Bill Murray awakes every morning now has to take reservations years in advance for those prime winter months. And for its residents, whose spirits remain lifted by their town’s one special, endless day, they can’t imagine a better fate than living that long and lustrous winter, over and over again.