Movie transformed Punxsutawney's small-town tradition into world attraction



PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. — For Katie Donald, Feb. 2 really is deja vu all over again.

“That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers — it’s Groundhog Day … again … and that means we’re here at Gobbler’s Knob waiting for the forecast from the world’s most famous groundhog weatherman, Punxsutawney Phil …”

The lines are from the movie that helped turn a small town’s parochial peculiarity into a worldwide phenomenon. In 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray famously portrayed TV weatherman Phil Connors, who, assigned to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, finds himself living the same day over and over again.

But Sunday’s event is no comic fantasy for Ms. Donald or the 5,800 residents of this Jefferson County borough about 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

PG graphic: How accurate is Phil?
(Click image for larger version)

“In Punxsy, Groundhog Day is not just one day, it’s a way of life," Ms. Donald said. “It’s what put us on the map, and we all have a responsibility to keep it that way."

Indeed, residents of “Punxsy,” as the locals call their town, enjoy living in Phil’s shadow. They’ve been doing it for 128 years.

The borough and the burrow

Ms. Donald is executive director of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the agency that works year-round to keep the tradition — and the magic — alive. This year Phil is scheduled to make his prediction at 7:26 a.m. Sunday, the time the Farmers' Almanac says will be first light. If the groundhog sees his shadow, look for six more weeks of winter; if not, bring on the bikinis.

The town’s unusual name and tradition are traced to the Delaware Indians who settled a campsite there in 1723, calling it ‘‘ponksad-uteney" or “town of sand flies,’’ a name reflecting how nature influenced their lives. Enter German immigrants who brought the tradition of Candlemas: “If Candlemas Day [Feb. 2] is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year." By 1886, locals were carting out, if not the European hedgehog, the Marmota monax — the lowly groundhog of Western Pennsylvania.

Ms. Donald’s take is a little more prosaic: “Winter is long and Groundhog Day makes for one welcome break."

This year’s celebration actually starts tomorrow with events as varied as walking tours, cupcake battles and a formal Groundhog Ball. Saturday has a full schedule that includes the crowning of Ms. Groundhog and autograph sessions with celebrity meteorologists from The Weather Channel at the town’s impressive Weather Discovery Center, where visitors at any time of year can "become" a tornado or "make"’ a thunderstorm. At 3 a.m. Sunday, buses to Gobbler’s Knob, on a windy bluff about a mile out of town, start pulling out of the local Walmart and other sites posted through town. A massive fireworks display heralds Phil's appearance — last year, at 8 degrees F, the fireworks appeared to crystallize. The celebration includes entertainment and food, but no children or chairs are allowed on the knob. 

Ms. Donald is, like most associated with the celebration, homegrown, but she did leave town for several years to work in Florida.

“If you would have told me as a kid that I would have been planning Groundhog Day, I would have balked,’’ she said with a laugh. “But now I realize as a proud native with deep roots, it was inevitable."

“I told you. I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it’s always Feb. 2, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’’

The price of fame

Michelle Neal of the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce said the economic impact of Phil is impossible to quantify. The town will swell to hold nearly 30,000 people this weekend.

“We can’t put a dollar figure on this. It is not just our town benefiting, it is neighboring Indiana and Clearfield counties, too," she said. “Try to get a room anywhere near here in early February, sometime even in summer. Multiply that by visits to restaurants and stores …”

Indeed, next year the downtown will have a new Cobblestone hotel for the tourists Phil brings in all year.

At a local business, Punxy Phil's Cakes & Steaks, staff is setting up a big heated tent in the parking lot to help feed visitors this weekend.

“If there are 50 customers on a regular shift, there are five times that on Groundhog Day,’’ said waitress Jordan Knox, a senior at the high school where students proudly call themselves “the Chucks."

The hyperbole brings in bucks, admitted Mayor Richard Alexander. He noted that the town, tucked in the Appalachians, thrives even in the shadow of a lingering recession. In its heyday at the turn of the last century, it was a coal, oil and lumber stronghold. The landmark Pantall Hotel downtown, now shuttered, was once rumored to be headquarters for East Coast diamond traders. But the reliable employers these days are the hospitals, schools and a number of machine shops tucked into the leafy landscape.

“The tourists come and go; we stay,” the mayor said of the deep roots of the hometown crowd that keep the population steady.

The expenses for the borough’s Groundhog Day activities are covered by sponsors and a perpetual loop of fundraisers held by the several nonprofits that coordinate them. Volunteers do most of the work. No tax dollars are involved, Mr. Alexander emphasized, except for any overtime incurred by borough police.

Shadow seen round the world

Visitors already were pulling into town last week.

“Punxsy has made the bucket list for a lot of folks,’’ Ms. Neal said.

Last year, students from Africa and Brazil turned up along with a film crew from the region of the former Czechoslovakia, she said.

“And it's not for just one day,’’ Ms. Neal noted. “I have emails from England and Germany asking about visits this summer.’’

The groundhog's influence has extended to the local art world. Scattered throughout the town are 32 6-foot-tall fiberglass Phantastic Phils created by local and regional artists.

The public art “shows our pride and symbolizes our reputation as weather capital of the world,’’ Ms. Neal said.

Indeed, many of the Phantastic Phils are engaged in a weather-related activity. In front of the Weather Discovery Center, for example, Phil, Wizard of Weather, is holding both a snow shovel and a sun dial.

And as you might suspect, the tourists line up.

“No one will believe this. I hardly do,’’ said John Atherton, who was visiting from New York City and taking a ‘‘selfie” with his cell phone. “This is really a charming little town with a great gig.’’

Phil and his posse

The hog at the heart of it all is perhaps the most relaxed — and certainly the most cosseted — cast member. Punxsy Phil lives — not in the wild, where perhaps he would make it to 12 pounds and that many years — but long and large (about 20 pounds) in a climate-controlled glass ‘‘burrow’’ the size of a small bedroom at the town’s civic center and library complex. He even has conjugal visits from his equally furry but lesser known playmate, Phyllis.

Phil (and Phyllis) are guarded by the Groundhog Club Inner Circle, a select kind of board of 15 directors who wear black tie and top hats and take their groundhog seriously — if with a smirk.

The circle’s John Griffiths has been a hog handler for the past decade. Each day of the year, he or another co-handler make sure Phil and Phyllis are healthy and happy. Ice cream and cantaloupe help.

“Phil is the most lovable, he crawls up my legs the minute I enter the burrow," Mr. Griffiths said. “And let me tell you groundhogs have sharp little claws …”

While no one debates the concept of a weather-forecasting groundhog as original, the locals insist the animal himself is the original — the first, the one and only, prognosticating groundhog.

And that is because, they say, he drinks a special elixir that bestows seven years of extra life for each sip.

“Lots of drinking going on here,’’ Mr. Griffiths quipped.

Driven to Gobbler’s Knob each Feb. 2 in his special van — duly monogrammed, it is used to ferry Phil to numerous appearances all year — the groundhog is placed in a heated burrow underneath a simulated tree stump on a stage before being pulled out to make his prediction. He does it in "Groundhogese" and only to the anointed, according to members of the Inner Circle.

“Last year when I reached in, I found Phil flat on his back, all four paws in the air and sound asleep. I had to poke him to get up and talk to me,’’ Mr. Griffiths said.

Phil must have been groggy. He predicted an early spring — and there was nothing early about spring 2013.

The Groundhog Club received lots of email about that, Ms. Donald said. “A few even threatened to turn Phil into roadkill,’’ she recalled.

The National Climatic Data Center said Phil’s predictions are correct 39 percent of the time.

According to Stormfax Weather Almanac, Phil sees his shadow most of the time: 100 times yes to 17 times no, including last year. Some sightings were not officially recorded.

In 1942, Phil could see only part of his shadow: “War clouds block out parts of shadow” read the headline in the town’s small daily, “The Punxsutawney Spirit.’’ In 1952, Phil appeared on the "Today" show; he met with President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1986; and he made a ceremonial pitch for the Pirates in 2006.

“You want a prediction about the weather, I’ll give you a prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it's gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.’’

Love is in the air

Mr. Alexander said Groundhog Day outdoes even Valentine’s Day when it comes to romance. The wedding business is so brisk each Feb. 2 that borough staff has set up a floral arch for the "I do's" and the mayor’s wife has bought a portable podium for him. The mayor is scheduled to officiate at least five weddings Sunday in council chambers.

Mr. Alexander said Groundhog Day vows are almost always requested by out-of-towners, who make the town’s party their personal wedding reception. And yes, more than one groom has been heard to quote Phil —- Connors, that is —- bit of French poetry from the movie:

“The girl I will love / is like a fine wine / that gets a little better / every morning."

Reel to real

In 1992, Mr. Murray visited Punxsutawney to study for his role.

"He was interested and respectful of our tradition," Mr. Griffiths recalled.

But Columbia Pictures, after taking stock of Routes 119 and 36 — the town’s main arteries — decided to film the movie in Woodstock, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Filmmakers kept the small-town feel but changed some settings. For example, the real Gobbler’s Knob is a wooded hill with a panoramic view; the movie is set in a town square based on Punxsy’s Barclay Square.

The movie’s script also was changed to include a bigger cast as well the elaborate ceremony of the Inner Circle.

“The biggest thing we contributed to the movie,’’ Ms. Neal said, “is a fat groundhog. Before visiting here, producers were using a skinny one.’’

Before the movie was released in 1993, visitors to Gobbler’s Knob each Feb. 2 averaged in the hundreds. In 1973, just 35 braved the elements. But one year after the movie came out, the town saw its first 30,000-plus visitors, a number that has stayed constant.

“No money could have gotten us this kind of publicity,’’ Ms. Neal said of the film which, of course, will be shown free all weekend at the community center.

Weather forecast

Perhaps the only, er, shadow hanging over this weekend’s extravaganza is, ironically, the weather.

“The Farmer’s Almanac is not friendly. It’s calling for a snowstorm,” Ms. Neal said.

So are The Weather Channel and other such outlets.

But then, wasn’t the other Phil snowed in in Punxsy on Groundhog Day? And shouldn’t it happen, er, again?

For a full schedule of activities: www.groundhog.org.


Suburban editor Virginia Kopas Joe: vkjoe@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1414.

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