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  • Writer's pictureRen Burke

Groundhog Day...or, There are Many Bill Murray Stories but This One Is Mine

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

I went to college in western Pennsylvania at the small and confusingly-named Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Our school was about 30 miles south of Punxsutawney, home of the illustrious Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous groundhog in America. In 1992, my friends Faith, Bill, Chris, and I made a pilgrimage to this woodchuck Mecca because we were young, silly, and wanted to experience the hype first-hand, especially since it was so close. At 3:00am on February 2nd, the four of us piled into Chris's late-model sedan and hit the road fueled by uncooked Pop-Tarts, the B-52's album "Whammy", and a healthy dose of absurdity.

Punxsutawney, PA doesn't have much going for it except for a branch campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a legendary rodent, so the town celebrates Groundhog Day like their life depends on it...which basically, it does. The forecasting festivities take place just outside of town at a place called Gobbler's Knob (tee-hee) which is a small hill in the middle of a forest. When we arrived, the place was packed with locals and visitors alike, many of them drunk and dancing to polka music. It was freezing cold, so there were multiple bonfires and even more spiked cider, coffee and hot cocoa concessions. Outnumbering all of this were blazingly bright lights for the multiple cameras from national news outlets, illuminating about a 1/4 mile radius with daytime brilliance (is it any wonder that Phil seems to ALWAYS see his shadow?). Our group waded into the madness with giddy anticipation.

As we waited in the cold, we overheard whispers of a celebrity besides Phil in our midst. Supposedly, there was a movie being made about Groundhog Day staring Bill Murray. Of course they weren't actually shooting it in Punxsutawney...the town is far too homely, but the rumor being floated was that Bill Murray was somewhere in the vicinity to experience the groundhog magic first-hand. Assuming that he wouldn't rub elbows with the populace, we concentrated on staying warm until the sun came up. 

When the first weak glimmers of winter light bled over the horizon, there was a ripple of activity on the stage where the ceremony was to take place. Men in top hats started assembling around a large tree stump on the stage. A van pulled up to the side of the stage, for what I imagined to be another big-wig or perhaps a visiting Hollywood actor. More time passed and finally the PA system crackled to life. Cheers erupted from the crowd as the men in top hats were introduced. They were all local officials, city council members, etc. They were also a distraction. A local let us know that at that moment, there were groundhog wranglers stuffing Punxsutawney Phil into the tree stump from under the stage. He also told us that only a few years before, on one of the coldest recorded Groundhog's Days, they put poor Phil into the log too early and he froze to death. The Punxsutawney Phil that we were (hopefully) about to see was one of a long line of predecessors, since the beginning of the silliness in 1887.

After the announcements, the guy with the tallest top hat shouted something unintelligible, thrust both hands into the fake stump and pulled out Punxsutawney Phil. Held aloft by the scruff of his neck, the groundhog grimaced and blinked at the bright lights and the mass of cheering insanity that surrounded him.

Once the applause died down, the Grand Poobah lowered Phil close (but not too close) to his ear so that it looked like the groundhog was imparting some ancient wisdom. Nodding gravely, the man unceremoniously stuffed Phil back into the stump and into the waiting cage of his handlers, then turned to face the crowd. Clearing his throat, he announced that Punxsutawney Phil, Great Prognosticator of Prognosticators, had indeed seen his shadow, so there would be 6 more weeks of winter. A great "Awwww!" of disappointment went up from the crowd and just like that, the ceremony was over. Our party drove back to Punxsutawney, not really sure what to do next. We saw the "World's Biggest Groundhog" which was a 12 foot tall painted plywood cutout propped up against the bank, we also drove past the Punxsutawney Library, where Phil lives for most of the year in relative peace and warmth. We wanted some breakfast, so we found a parking spot and walked toward what seemed to be the only visible downtown restaurant. Passing a gift shop, we decided to get proof of our adventure. 

Not surprisingly, the gift shop's inventory consisted solely of cheap crap emblazoned with images of groundhogs...oven mitts, shot glasses, giant pencils, snow globes, magnets, clocks, stuffed toys, on. As Faith & Bill wandered the aisles in shear kitsch overload, I picked-up an inoffensive notepad and went to pay at the front of the store. It was a pretty long line and as I got closer to the register, Faith bounced up to me, grinning hugely. She told me that Bill Murray had just entered the shop and was filling a basket full of souvenirs of his trip. Looking over my shoulder, I could see him on the other end of the store, a couple of assistants in tow. The next thing we know, they turned and headed for the check out, queueing up right behind us.  Faith was practically vibrating with nervous excitement as I paid for my notepad, the whole time trying to think of something clever to say. I had a notepad now, so the most logical thing would have been for me to ask for an autograph, right? Instead of following logic, I turned, smiled and nonchalantly invited Mr. Murray and his entourage to breakfast with us. 

He smiled with a hint of sympathy and told us that he had already had breakfast at the very restaurant where we were headed. He strongly recommended that we have the toast, he then complimented Faith on her hat, shook our hands and turned to pay for his souvenirs. 

Of course, we had the was good.

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