See if Woodstock Willie sees his shadow at Groundhog Days

See what Woodstock Willie predicts at annual Groundhog Days festival

  • Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager, right, checks in with Woodstock Willie to see if he's seen his shadow at last year's Groundhog Days festival. Willie is being held by Mark Szafran of Animal Rentals in Chicago.

      Woodstock Mayor Brian Sager, right, checks in with Woodstock Willie to see if he's seen his shadow at last year's Groundhog Days festival. Willie is being held by Mark Szafran of Animal Rentals in Chicago. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, 2018

  • Woodstock Willie's prognostication -- and the annual festival built around the film "Groundhog Day" -- always draws a large crowd to the historic Woodstock Square.

      Woodstock Willie's prognostication -- and the annual festival built around the film "Groundhog Day" -- always draws a large crowd to the historic Woodstock Square. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, 2016

  • Catch a free showing of the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," which was filmed in Woodstock, during the city's annual Groundhog Days festival.

    Catch a free showing of the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," which was filmed in Woodstock, during the city's annual Groundhog Days festival. Courtesy of the Woodstock Groundhog Days committee

 
By Jamie Greco
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 1/30/2019 1:25 PM

It's hard to believe, given the drifts of snow and the bone-chilling cold, but this weekend Woodstock will welcome the well-known prognosticator most associated with spring.

Woodstock Willie will once again make an appearance to predict either six more weeks of winter or an early spring, while hundreds of hopeful, winter-weary folks will likely stand boot deep in the snow with their fingers crossed.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Hundreds of people come to the prognostication," said Rick Bellairs, chairman of the Woodstock Groundhog Days Committee. "Depends on the day of the week that Feb. 2 falls. This year it's a Saturday, so we expect big crowds. Mother Nature will have a say in that, and if it's very cold that day there won't be as many. But, because each year it grows, we expect a big crowd."

However, the prognostication from Woodstock Willie is far from the only event that pulls people in for a four-day celebration of the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day," which was filmed in Woodstock and starred Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

The movie concerns a weatherman, Bill Murray, who is fated to relive Groundhog Day over and over again, and follows along as he attempts to escape the loop. The cast and crew spent three months in Woodstock filming the now iconic movie.

"When they came to Woodstock, nobody had any inkling of what it was about, and certainly no idea that it would turn into the classic that it has become, and 25 years later we'd still be celebrating," said Bellairs, who lives in Woodstock and was an extra in the movie.

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And celebrate they do. On Thursday, the Woodstock Public Library presents Groundhog Stories and, for those who know all the details, Groundhog Trivia at Stage Left Café. The Groundhog Awakening will take place at the Woodstock Opera House.

Friday's highlight is the dinner dance at the Woodstock Moose Lodge, where the film's bachelor auction took place.

On Saturday, it's Groundhog Day, which will begin at 7:07 a.m. with Woodstock Willie's irrefutable prediction about the end of winter will take place. Afterward, enjoy breakfast at the Woodstock Moose Lodge and then a day full of Groundhog-related activities, including free showings of "Groundhog Day" on repeat at both the Harold Ramis Auditorium and Classic Cinemas on Main Street.

This year, actor Stephen Tobolowsky, who played obnoxious insurance agent Ned Ryerson in the film, will be at the Woodstock Opera House at 2:30 p.m. Saturday to discuss the movie and sign books.

In the interest of full disclosure, Bellairs wants to be clear about Woodstock Willie.

"The groundhog is not a year-round citizen of Woodstock, but we have been told that he is a descendant of the groundhog who starred in the movie with Bill Murray."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Pam Moorhouse has been volunteering with the event since its early days, when it was a much smaller celebration.

"The very first breakfast that was held was in the old courthouse and we had a dozen people and we had the groundhog," Moorhouse recalled.

"Then we moved to the old courthouse gallery and we would hold the groundhog up to the window and tell him to take a look."

She added, "We've come a long way."

As the festival grew and evolved over the years, the committee formed to plan it, evaluated what worked and what didn't. What worked? Just about everything. What didn't? Ice sculptures, which were vandalized. The committee replaced them with work from woodcarver Mike Bihlmaier.

"He carves a groundhog and we use it the following week to auction it off to raise money for Woodstock School District 200," Moorhouse said.

It doesn't take long before the committee starts to discuss the next year's plans.

"We start planning a week after Groundhog Days. Going over the things that we did this year, what we could do better next year and what we should drop. It just keeps repeating itself, like the movie," said Bellairs.

One thing that hasn't changed is some out-of-state visitors' unfamiliarity with the depth of the cold of Illinois' winters.

"(The first year of the festival) we had students here from Mississippi and they had no clue how cold it got in Illinois, and they came in T-shirts," Moorhouse said.

And, more recently, "I just had a phone call from a gentleman coming in from out of town and he asked, 'Are you still having it?' and I said, 'There's not a blizzard predicted that I'm aware of.' He agreed, but added, 'But it's going to be very cold.' 'It's February in Illinois,'" Moorhouse responded.

There are signs that Groundhog Days may be becoming an international success. Recently, Bellairs visited Thailand when, during a conversation with a German couple, he mentioned being a resident of Woodstock.

"They talked about how popular the movie is in Germany," he said. "On our Facebook page, somebody from Wales was inquiring about Groundhog Days. She said she was coming in March or April and was hoping something was still available," Bellairs said.

He assured her that although the festival would be over, Woodstock would always be part of "Groundhog Day," the movie.

"It's not just Feb. 2," Bellairs said. "People come all through the year."

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