Groundhog Days in Woodstock
Festival provides fun over and over and over. . .
“It’s always Feb. 2nd and there’s nothing I can do about it,” complains Phil Connors, the character Bill Murray plays in the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day. Trapped in a time warp, Connors desperately tries to escape his fate day after day until he reexamines his life and discovers what really makes him happy.
This year you can relive the movie’s famous scenes in Woodstock, Illinois, 212 miles northwest of Springfield. Groundhog Day was filmed in Woodstock 24 years ago when the city served as the stand-in for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Ever since then the community has organized an annual Groundhog Days celebration.
The festivities begin this year on Jan. 28 with a dramatic awakening of the Groundhog on the balcony of the Woodstock Opera House, which served as the Pennsylvanian Hotel in the movie. Over the weekend you can attend the Groundhog Day Dinner Dance, participate in a Groundhog Day trivia contest, take the walking tour of the filming sites, and watch the movie at the Woodstock Theater.
The big event is at 7 a.m. on Feb. 2 in the Woodstock Square. Just as in the movie, a Polka Band will wake up Woodstock Willie for his Prognostication. Although most events are free, some activities require tickets or charge fees.
“We have people who come year after year to keep up the tradition,” said Mayor Brian Sager. The annual celebration began as a fundraiser for the local schools and received support from the Woodstock City Council. Each year a volunteer committee organizes the celebration, with many events now benefiting local charities. “After the holidays the doldrums set in,” said Sager, “and people are looking for something fun to do.”
Woodstock, the county seat of McHenry County, with a population of about 24,770 last year, was the main filming location for the movie. Its charming town square, Victorian buildings and access to Chicago, just 50 miles away, attracted director Harold Ramis and his film crew.
Woodstock residents helped out with the production and served as extras, and exteriors of buildings and outdoor locations were transformed into movie sites. The Woodstock Square served as the location for Gobbler’s Knob, the Woodstock Theater became the Alpine Theater and the interior of the Old McHenry County Courthouse served as the location for bar scenes.
Any time of year, visitors can take a free, self-guided walking tour of 15 movie sites, all marked with plaques. These include Bill Murray’s Puddle at the curb on Cass Street and the Piano Teacher’s House on South Madison. The Cherry Street Inn, the Queen Anne house where Bill Murray’s character lived in the movie, is now the Royal Victorian Manor Bed & Breakfast.
On a visit to Woodstock in December, my husband and I enjoyed the walking tour of the movie locations and our chats with the friendly people we met. At times it felt as if we were in our own time warp, as memories of the movie mixed with the places we visited.
Founded in 1844, first as Centerville and then as Woodstock in 1845, the town grew after the arrival of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. Woodstock still has train service to Chicago on Metra’s Union Pacific/Northwest Line. Chester Gould, who created the “Dick Tracy” comic strip, lived in Woodstock and for nearly 50 years commuted to Chicago to work at the Chicago Tribune.
A year-round attraction is the historic Woodstock Opera House. Built in 1889, the Opera House originally was the city hall, housing the city’s library, council room, fire department and an auditorium where touring theatrical companies staged their plays. In 1934 a summer stock theater produced Shakespearean plays that starred the young Orson Welles, who had attended a boys’ school in Woodstock. In 1947, the Woodstock Players provided acting experience for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre School graduates, including Paul Newman, Tom Bosley, Geraldine Page and Shelley Berman.
The Opera House continues to be a venue for national and international acts as it also serves as home for local dance and theater companies, as well as the annual Mozart Festival in the summer. The auditorium is a jewel box of a theater, with a horseshoe design similar to those of the era’s showboats. The 1857 Old McHenry County Courthouse and nearby jail house a restaurant and art gallery space for local artists. Both the Opera House and the Old Courthouse are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Woodstock’s square, its cafes and shops make the friendly city a pleasant place to visit, whether or not spring comes early this year.
For more information and Groundhog Day and the Opera House, visit:
Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. She alternates writing the monthly IT travel column with Mary Bohlen of Springfield.