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Woodstock: Beyond the Groundhog's shadow

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Twenty-one years ago the town square in Woodstock, Illinois was just another idyllic little red cobble-stoned street surrounded by quaint shops and historic buildings.

Then actor/director Harold Ramis, known for films such as Ghostbusters and Caddyshack, allegedly took a trip out to the far northwestern Chicago suburb and viewed the town and its square from the vantage point of the old bell tower in the town’s beloved Opera House.

He decided to cast the town, its square and its people in a little flick that would pump millions into the local economy and forever associate the place with groundhogs and Bill Murray stuck in a never-ending February 2.

The film, Groundhog Day, was released Feb. 12, 1993, and more than 80 percent of the initial filming took place in and around the town square of Woodstock. Now more than 20 years later, the town and its people still venerate the chubby woodchuck enough to hold their own week-long festival that culminates in a prognostication to rival that of Punxsutawney Phil.

Rather than attend the festival and join up with the crowds enjoying the festivities of Groundhog Week in Woodstock, we opted to visit the town a week after the festival, just to get a sense for what normal life is like there.

WBEZ producer Eilee Heikenen-Weiss and I arrived on a Tuesday morning to skies that were grey and ominous, much like they had been in the film, only we didn’t have a threat of blizzard hanging over us.

We drove slowly around the red-brick square, coming to a stop near the Starbucks, which was a block or so from the eye-catching Opera House in an already idyllic setting.

In need of caffeine after the hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Chicago, we stopped into Starbucks only to find the place overtaken by the Hollow Tree Spinners, a group of fiber artists publicly spinning wool into yarn.

“We think that more people need to see people doing the crafts that are important to what the pioneers did and what people still enjoy doing,” Jean Hervert Niemann, of Marengo, told us. “The way you get to yarn. Most people don’t even know.”

They show up every Tuesday and spread out around the large wooden table pulling combed fibers, some of it locally produced, into the diameter they want and then spinning it into yarn for knitting, crocheting or weaving.

“The Starbucks is great, Niemann said. “You’ll see everyone in town come through here.”

It’s not quite the place you’d expect people to gather, but the Tom Waits on the sound system and the crafters suggested otherwise.

Their husbands sat around the other end of the table chatting about beekeeping over coffee. And sure enough, as folks lined up for their beverage, they chatted amicably with the spinning club members about Alpaca, bobbins and skeins of handspun yarn.

It was an auspicious start to the day, with barely a mention of land beavers or Bill Murray.

The Opera House

The limestone, terra cotta and fieldstone building sits themed in beige and red colors as the main architectural feature in town, which befits its historical designation as the town’s main attraction.

John Scharres is the director of the Woodstock Opera House. It’s a city job, because the city runs the Opera House just like it runs the police department, the fire department or the library department.

“Historically, there were a lot of municipalities that had facilities like this,” Scharres said. “Especially in the midwest. You weren't a happening municipality if you didn’t have an auditorium in the community for people to get together en masse to be educated, entertained or recognized for some important achievement in the community.”

If you watched the film, then you should recognize it as the Pennsylvania Hotel, a central location and backdrop throughout the movie.

Its iconic bell tower is the place from which Murray’s character tries to end the Sisyphean repetition once and for all by jumping off.   

Groundhog Day is not the only brush with Hollywood for the old building. Renowned actor/director Orson Welles attended the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock and began his career belting lines from the small stage in the auditorium of the building.

Scharres said the stage is almost accurate to the way it looked in 1890, when it was built in the style of the grand theaters on the riverboats that once plied the Mississippi.

“Well, you can’t use open flame in the lights anymore,” Scharres said wistfully.

You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but behind the soft light and the antique fixtures and muted colors is a high-tech sound and lighting system.

“Probably the most technically sophisticated theater of its size really anywhere,” Scharres said proudly.

It doesn’t take much to get him talking about the town’s entertainment prowess and Hollywood connections.

“Woodstock has a lot of history,” Scharres said. “Scenes from Planes, Trains and Automobiles were filmed here and Alan Arkin’s American Playhouse.”

Like the 6 a.m. alarm clock in Groundhog Day, where you hear Sonny and Cher sing I Got You Babe again, and again, and again, the conversation inevitably returns to the film.

“We used to eat them, and now we celebrate them,” Scharres said jokingly about groundhogs.

The first prognostication brought about 20-30 people, mostly from Woodstock. But as the film began to take on an almost cult-like status, the curious showed up to see the fake Punxsutawney, PA.

Chicago day trippers, Midwestern weekenders and eventually buses full of Japanese tourists arrived. This year, just a few weeks ago in fact, there were more than 800 people there in the early morning of February 2 to hear the prognosticator of prognosticators indicate that spring would be early.

Thousands more participated in activities throughout the week during Groundhog Days.

Scharres calls it a slow burn.

“If it hadn’t been such a successful movie, we would have not probably embraced it so much after the fact,” Scharres said. “If it had been something like Dude, Where’s my Car, we would probably hide our faces in shame. But this has long-term staying power.”

Embracing the film might be putting it lightly.

There are plaques in nooks and crannies all around the square depicting where Bill Murray stepped and indicating Ned’s Corner.

There is somewhat of karmic cycle for Woodstockians too, as Scharres likes to call townspeople.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Scharres said. “I keep wondering what I have to do to get myself out of the loop, because we kind of live Groundhog Day here. On the other hand, it’s been a really good boon for the city. We get a lot of positive publicity. We get a lot of tourists, many of whom come back for other events here.”

Woodstock is a big, old slice of Americana, and the town offers far more than a walking tour of an old Hollywood movie set.

Scharres oversees all of the technical setup for the City Band, which performs all summer in the gazebo in the square. There’s a jazz festival, farmer’s market and parades. The city is definitely setting itself up to be a regional musical destination with its investment in the Opera House.

“A lot of the basic structure was restored,” Scharres said. “This one we were able to year after year, bite after bite, do one project after another. We did a complete rehabilitation of the roof, reversed improper construction, rebuilt 114 windows, cleaned and rebuilt the stone work. And the reconstruction of the portico from old photos took 17 years.”

Stepping out of the Groundhog’s Shadow

Like most towns, Woodstock has been impacted by the recession, and the challenges for city departments and small businesses are the same as other similar-sized towns.

The movie’s influence might be strong around the start of February, and the town certainly has made investments in infrastructure and development, but Bill Murray’s influence won’t last forever.

“It’s sad,” Jim Davis said. “It’s kind of like we’re still talking about the '85 Bears.”

Davis has a front-row seat to the action on the quaint town square. He owns a building that houses his wife’s telephone counseling business, The Divorce Busting Center.

His business is not reliant on tourism.

“So you’ve walked around the square? Have you seen the plaques?” he asked us. “Ned’s corner. Bill Murray jumped off the tower. You’d think we’d have more going on here than that.”

He concedes that the square is pretty, and though he doesn’t know what would make the town more viable, he knows exactly what he’d like to see there.

“Some good restaurants would be a great start,” Davis said. “It’s difficult in small towns to make them viable. Parking is a problem. It doesn’t have the money that a Geneva or St. Charles has, but it’s physically quaint.”

Speaking of food, we ate lunch at La Petite Creperie & Bistrot, which is a popular lunch spot for locals and visitors alike. I ate the Pâté Sandwich with fries and washed it down with a Dutch beer.

Even though there are dozens of good food options in Woodstock, the square has had its troubles.

“Restaurants have had a difficult time lately,” Mayor Brian Sager told WBEZ. “Some have had to shut their doors, there has been some turnover of our restaurants.”

But he says that’s not abnormal for a place like the town square in Woodstock.

“We just revitalized an economic commission to talk more specifically with businesses,” Sager said. “How to help them and see what their needs are.”

More foot traffic, more music attractions and a general influx of food businesses would help, according to Sager.

“I think we’ve identified as being themed as a dining and entertainment destination,” he said. "Events focused around music like folk, jazz and Mozart. It will bring people interested in music to square area.”

But so does Bill Murray’s bronze shoe imprint on a sidewalk next to a Mexican restaurant formerly built as a prop for the cafe scenes in Groundhog Day, for now.

The trick will be to figure out what draws people to Woodstock in 20 years.

And the town is betting its going to be their quaint, idyllic movie-set of a town square.

“Come here on a summer Wednesday and the band is playing in the gazebo, the birds are chirping and the sun is shining,” John Scharres said. “It’s like something out of a picture book.”

is the digital content editor at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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