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

Some visitors traveled thousands of miles to celebrate the holiday in the quaint town of 25,000 people in the far northwest suburbs of Chicago. Woodstock has become a yearly destination for “Groundhog Day” fans to relive the time-loop that Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors found himself in.

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Celebration of Groundhog Day at Woodstock IL, on Feb. 2nd, 2023. The groundhog, Woodstock Willie, saw his shadow and predicted 6 more weeks of winter.

Woodstock Willie, a groundhog, saw his shadow Thursday and predicted six more weeks of winter.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

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

Hundreds arrived at dawn at its famous gazebo to celebrate Groundhog Day — and the 30th anniversary of the movie of the same name starring Bill Murray.

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

“Willie looks skyward to the east and behind to the ground and stated clearly in groundhog-ese, ‘I definitely see a shadow. Six more weeks of winter!’”

Some visitors had traveled thousands of miles to celebrate the holiday in the quaint town of 25,000 people about 45 miles northwest of Chicago. Woodstock has become a yearly destination for “Groundhog Day” fans to relive the time-loop that Murray’s character Phil Connors found himself.

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

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

Revelers celebrate Groundhog Day in Woodstock IL, on Feb. 2nd, 2023.

Revelers celebrate Groundhog Day in Woodstock.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Clemens Dinges said he flew in from Hamburg, Germany, to visit the site of the movie he’s seen at least 10 times. “It kind of feels special to be here at the original site. You live it all over again,” he said.

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

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 town’s fame attracts visitors beyond just Groundhog Day.

“Now people come to Woodstock throughout the year because of the way the popularity of the movie has grown. People love the movie. People want to see where it was made,” Bellairs said.

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

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

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The film’s location manager, Bob Hudgins, gave a behind-the-scenes peek to a group of several dozen people during a tour of the film’s iconic sites: the puddle that Bill Murray steps in over and over, the bed and breakfast where he wakes up, the town’s train tracks and the bell tower of Woodstock’s opera house.

Hudgins grew up in the Chicago area and famously persuaded director Harold Ramis to choose Woodstock as the filming location, forever tying the movie to the suburb.

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

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

The picturesque gazebo stood out enough to Natalie and Mike Kereluk that they chose to be married there 11 years ago.

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

Natalie and Mike Kereluk pose in Woodstock on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, 2023. They were married at the town’s gazebo 11 years ago.

Natalie and Mike Kereluk were married at Woodstock’s gazebo 11 years ago. They visit for their anniversary every year.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

The couple lives in Hanover Park and visits every year for their anniversary. “We usually try to have a kiss at the gazebo,” Mike Kereluk said.

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

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

“It’s just an iconic movie,” she said. Her partner, Andrew Dols, said the drive was easy, plus the temperature was slightly higher than in the Twin Cities.

Lynn Richardson holds a cutout of Bill Murray at a celebration of Groundhog Day at Woodstock IL, on Feb. 2nd, 2023.

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 every Feb. 2 by the wave of tourists.

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

Bellairs grew up in Woodstock and was hired as an extra in the film in 1992. He remembers recruiters coming to the high school. Since many of the scenes repeat in the movie, the extras had to be available for three months to repeat them over and over.

But at the time, no one knew how important the movie would become or even what it was about.

“As it went on, you kind of started getting a sense of where the movie was going. But little did anybody think 30 years ago that it would be a hit, or that 30 years on we’d be talking about it, or that it would be even more popular today,” he said.

When the movie came out, Bellairs remembers seeing it in the theater and locals who played extras calling out their parts: “OK, you ready? Oh, here I am!”

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

A crowd gathers at dawn on Groundhog Day in Woodstock IL, on Feb. 2nd, 2023.

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

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

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