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Woodstock celebrates 20th anniversary of ‘Groundhog’ filming (with schedule)

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(Photo provided)
ABOVE: A descendant of the groundhog that originally appeared in “Groundhog Day” will make his weather prognosis this morning on Groundhog Day on the Square. Pictured (left) is Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager and Mark Szafran of Chicago, during the 2009 ceremony.

It’s been 20 years since Bill Murray stepped in a puddle on the Woodstock Square as he headed to greet a groundhog.

Yet, fans of “Groundhog Day” continue to visit that spot, which now has a plaque, as well as other locations featured in the movie.

Filmed mainly in the town’s Square, the 1993 movie starring Murray and Andie MacDowell continues to have a following.

And two decades later, those involved in the filming still take pride in the role they and their beloved town played. Woodstock basically became Punxsutawney, Penn., where the real-life, largest Groundhog Day celebration takes place annually.

“It was just a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Pam Hockemeyer, who at the time owned Prairie Patchwork Mercantile on the Square.

If you watch the film’s puddle scene closely, you can see the awning of Hockemeyer’s former business in the background. The building at 106 Cass St. now houses The Backdrop.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the filming, this year’s Groundhog Days celebration spans four days in Woodstock with tours, talks, showings of the film and of course, the annual prognostication. All this because of a continued fascination with both the film and the quaint town it featured.

“I think it just continues to build,” said Pam Moorhouse, one of the organizers of Woodstock’s annual Groundhog Days celebration. “People are still coming to town year-round.”

Tradition

Once again, a descendant of the groundhog that originally appeared in the film will make his weather prognosis this morning on Groundhog Day on the Square. Animal Rentals in Chicago, the same company that trained the groundhog that played Punxsutawney Phil in the movie, will provide the descendant.

As legend goes, if the groundhog sees his shadow, we’re in for six more more weeks of winter. If not, winter will be over sooner.

The event typically draws early morning risers to the Square, known as “Gobbler’s Knob” in the film.

For Hockemeyer and others like her, it’s an annual tradition.

She and her now grown son Michael, who was in middle school at the time, were extras, though both of their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

Despite that, Hockemeyer was and remains thrilled to have been a part of it.

The cast and crew spent nearly six months in town, with some of them purchasing quilts from her shop.

“They were all in and out of the store,” remembered Hockemeyer, who also was invited to a cast party.

Murray bought a couple quilts from her, along with members of the film crew, who gave a quilt to director Harold Ramis and his wife as an anniversary present.

One of Hockemeyer’s quilts can be seen in the background of the bachelor auction scene as well. And two of her pillows can be viewed on the couch in the scene where Bill Murray’s character is trying to seduce the character played by MacDowell in his bed and breakfast bedroom.

Hockemeyer collected a lot of memorabilia, including a cafe menu used in the film, groundhog props placed on pillars in the square and miniatures of billboard signs announcing, “Now filming in Woodstock Groundhog Day with Bill Murray.”

She also took rare pictures inside the cafe during filming as well as “Gobbler’s Knob.”

“I had quite a wall dedicated to the movie when I owned the store,” she said.

Free falling

Featured prominently in the film, the Woodstock Opera House became the hotel in which Andie MacDowell’s character stayed in, as well as one of the many spots Bill Murray’s character tried to kill himself.

In a scene played by stunt coordinator and performer Rick Le Fevour of Woodstock, Murray jumps off the opera house’s bell tower. Le Fevour is part of Midwest Stunts, based in Chicago, and has appeared and coordinated stunts in numerous films, including several of the Batman franchise movies.

“Groundhog Day” was a rare chance to work close to home.

“It just amazes me the impact this movie has had that so many people want to be part of it, not just locals,” Le Fevour said. “Most of the people I meet there (at Groundhog Days celebrations) are from out of town.”

The bell tower stunt was tricky because typically he’s leaping after an explosion or running. That stunt required a slow, easy fall. And, Le Fevour said, it was cold that day, especially dressed in pajamas as the scene entailed.

An apprehensive Murray first fell a few feet into a makeshift padded platform, actually situated underneath a different opening of the tower, while Le Fevour fell 10 feet from the main opening into an air bag.

Le Fevour also coordinated and performed the stunts in Groundhog Day’s chase scenes, partially filmed in Bull Valley and Union, when Murray’s character steals the groundhog.

While Murray filmed, the groundhog was nibbling on his hands so the actor wore protective gloves.

When Le Fevour filmed, the groundhog was on his lap, which had no protection. “He was running around on my leg,” he said. “I was just praying he didn’t bite me.”

He said he’s watched the film a few times since seeing it at the premier, but would like to see it again on the big screen.

“It’s one of those ones where we knew we were doing something different, but never knew it would take off like it did,” he said.

A tour Opera House Director John Scharres gave Ramis perhaps inspired the suicide jump scene from the bell tower. The director and his film crew basically had written off Woodstock as a a potential film site because the town lacked a main street, Scharres said.

They were scouting locations in Wisconsin when they agreed to stop in Woodstock on their way to Chicago.

They arrived late on a December afternoon as Scharres was closing up the Opera House.

“I gave them the hard sell,” Scharres remembered. He mentioned that the Square had been featured in other commercials and films, including “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

“I said, ‘You really don’t have an idea of what Woodstock is until you see it from a higher altitude,’” Scharres remembered.

Everyone went up to the bell tower and took pictures. As they headed back down, Ramos turned to his location manager and said, “Let’s make it happen.”

Scharres and the opera house served as a resource for the film, with the building becoming a refuge for extras, especially during cold days. Initially, portable toilets were set up down back streets, but the first night of filming was 5 degrees.

“I came to work the next morning and the location manager was in my office,” Scharres said. “He had his checkbook out, which is always a good thing.”

Scenes filmed inside the opera house, including one in which Andie MacDowell’s character checked into the hotel, never made it to the big screen. The box office had been turned into a hotel lobby.

The building next door was falling apart at the time, and the film crew spent at least a week turning it into the fudge shop in the film.

It appeared in probably about 15 seconds of the movie, said Scharres, who recently sat down to watch the film again.

“I’m always amazed at how the town has changed, businesses that were there that aren’t there anymore,” he said.

‘More than just a film’

Along with today’s prognosis, visitors can listen to Jim May tell stories about groundhogs and take part in a movie symposium.

The celebration also includes an auction to benefit District 200 Education Foundation, a chili cook-off and a charity dance.

Rick Bellairs of Woodstock, an extra in the film, said he had heard from at least a couple dozen extras as he helped organize the celebration.

“Most of the people you see in the movie are locals,” Bellairs said. “It just seems like 20 years later we ought to celebrate that.”

Bellairs can be seen in the crowd scenes on the square as well as a scene in which Murray’s character catches a boy falling out of a tree. His car appears in the scene in which Murray’s character takes money from a bank truck parked on the street.

Now a realtor, Bellairs was between jobs at the time and went to a casting call.

Extras had to be available daily, wearing the same clothes in the same spot repeatedly just as Murray’s character repeated numerous scenes in the film.

“I can spot myself, but don’t blink,” Bellairs said.

He went on to appear as an extra in other films, including “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Hoffa.” “It was fun, but you can’t make a living at it,” he said.

The Groundhog Days committee has been planning activities around the film annually since it formed a couple years after the filming of the movie.

“I think people just have a fascination whenever a movie is filmed in a particular town, especially one as charming as Woodstock,” Moorhouse said. “There’s a lot more here than just the film... It’s kind of like ‘Field of Dreams.’ I know people who drive over there just to view that. They’ve seen it on the big screen, now they just want to see what it looks like in person.”

For the fanatical fans, the movie symposium scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 4, allows them to really analyze the film.

Though a comedy, it does have some dark overtones.

“He’s trying to kill himself day in and day out,” Moorhouse said.

“That group (at the symposium) really gets down into the nitty gritty of the movie,” she said. “Those are the diehards who really like the whole filming aspect of it... I’m just one of those who watches it for the sake of entertainment.”

Committee members reached out to stars of the film to take part in this year’s anniversary, but were unsuccessful. Still, Moorhouse said there’s always next year.

“We’ll keep trying,” she said.

Groundhog Days events

Groundhog Day prognostication 7 to 7:30 a.m. Feb. 2 at “Gobbler’s Knob,” otherwise known as Woodstock Square Park Gather on the Square to see Woodstock Willie emerge from his tree trunk home just as he did during the film. Grammy-award winning recording artist Bryan White, a fan of the film and friend of Woodstock resident Erik Borman, will assist with the prognostication. White and his wife Erika Page White, actress from “One Life to Live” and “Second Noah” were invited by Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager to take part in the event. White as performed at the Opera House for the past several years.

Official Groundhog Day breakfast7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Feb. 2 at Pirro’s Restaurante, 228 Main St. Along with a buffet breakfast, entertainment will be provided. Seating is limited. Tickets cost $15, and should be purchased at Woodstock Public Library, Home State Bank and McHenry County Community Foundation.

Free movie showings5 p.m. Feb. 2; 10 a.m. Feb. 4 and 10 a.m. Feb. 5 at the Classic Cinemas Woodstock Theater, 209 Main St. Columbia Pictures filmed most of “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray in Woodstock in 1992. The theater was featured as “Alpine Theater” in the movie. Seating is limited, so arrive            early.

Shake Off the Winter Blues charity dinner dance6 p.m. to midnight Feb. 3 at the Woodstock Moose Lodge and Family Center, 406 Clay St. Moose Lodge is where the dinner dance and bachelor auction scenes were filmed. Italian buffet dinner served from 6 to 7:30 p.m., followed by live music and a silent auction. This year’s entertainment is the band, 28 Days. Tickets: $15, available at the Lodge, Woodstock Public Library, Home State Bank, McHenry County Community Foundation and Woodstock Chamber of Commerce.

Groundhog tales10 to 11 a.m. Feb. 4 at Home State Bank, 124 Johnson St. Emmy Award-winning storyteller and writer Jim May hosts. Listen to him tell stories about groundhogs and their prognostications.

Chili cook-off12 to 1 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St. Contestants vie for the coveted “Chili Pot” and the public is invited to taste all entries and vote for the People’s Choice award. Visit www.woodstockgroundghog.org for details on how to enter. Walking tours of the filming sites 1:30 to 3 p.m. Feb. 4 and noon Feb. 5. Gather at Stage Left Cafe, 125 W. Van Buren St. A tour of the “Groundhog Day” filming sites lead by Bob Hudgins, who was the location manager for the film. The “Piano Teacher’s House” will be plaqued during the tour.

Movie Symposium3 to 4 p.m. Feb. 4 at Stage Left Cafe. Host Mitchell Olson, an educator and film enthusiast. Learn something new, see plenty of clips from the movie and take part discussion, including “Where are they now?”

Take 17, Lights, Camera, Auction 5:30 to 11 p.m. Feb. 4, at D’Andrea Banquets, 4419 Route 14, Crystal Lake Includes live and silent auctions, a reverse raffle and entertainment. District 200 Education Foundation was first organized using funds from auctioning props from the movie that were donated by Columbia Pictures. Tickets available at the District 200 Administration Office, 217 W. Judd St., Woodstock.

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