Woostock: Bill Murray Stepped Here
“Sweet Vermouth, Rocks, with a Twist.”
Two of Groundhog Day’s more prominent filming locations preceded the movie itself as designated national treasures. Both the Woodstock Opera House—the “Pennsylvania Hotel,” where Rita (Andie MacDowell) stays—and the Old Courthouse and Jail—site of Groundhog Day’s memorable “Bar Scenes”—were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The Opera House, built in 1889 on a lot the City of Woodstock purchased for the tidy sum of $2,000, has long been turning out marquee names to the world of stage and screen. Years before Murray mocked death as Phil Connors from its fifth-story bell tower, future stars like Paul Newman, Tom Bosley and Geraldine Page honed their acting skills as virtual unknowns from the Opera House’s second-floor auditorium. (Many of them also held day jobs at offices or stores along Woodstock Square in the 1940s and 1950s.) Most notably, Orson Welles made his theatrical debut at the Opera House. Welles, while still a teen, staged more than 20 productions here as a student at Todd School for Boys in the 1920s. He returned in 1934 to star as Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet at what is recognized today as Chicagoland’s first summer stock theater.
The Old Courthouse, built in 1857 for $47,000, along with its 1887 jailhouse annex, has its own claims to fame. Its most notable tenant was five-time Socialist candidate for U.S. President, Eugene V. Debs, who served a six-month stint for his role in the 1894 American Railway Union strike. He returned to Woodstock in 1908 with his “Red Special” campaign train express. Later, jailhouse prisoners included notorious Prohibition-era crime figures such as “Dapper Dan” McCarthy, Donald “Lone Wolf” Loftus and Frank “Red” McGee.
Accommodations are much nicer today. Guests can cozy up to the very same bar seats as Murray and MacDowell, and raise a well-rehearsed toast to world peace at the Courthouse Grill’s aptly-named Ground- hog Pub.
“I Love This Movie; I’ve Seen it 100 Times.”
In downtown Woodstock, Groundhog Day enthusiasts can revisit the locations of their favorite scenes. Film sites like the “Alpine Theater,” “Wayne’s Lanes” and “Gobblers Knob” are significant to local history as well.
One site with vaudevillian roots is the Woodstock Theater, also known as “Alpine Theater,” where the oddly-costumed Murray and date go to see Heidi II. There’s been a movie house at this Main Street address since 1911. By 1927, the 1,000-seat Miller Theater featured a new vaudeville stage, pipe organ and balcony. It showed its first “talkie,” Syncopation, in 1929. Ironically, starring in that film was Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, hailing from just outside Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the fictional setting for Groundhog Day.
Murray waxes existentially with a couple of regulars over a beer at the local bowling alley, “Wayne’s Lanes,” also known as Woodstock City Lanes. Woodstock residents have rolled strikes, spares and gutter balls here daily since 1941. This World War II-era establishment claims the oldest automatic pinsetters in Illinois, installed in 1951. A few of the original pin boys, since replaced by new-fangled machinery, remain City Lanes regulars today.
At the heart of Groundhog Day is “Gobbler’s Knob.” Located in Woodstock Square Park, this was where Phil and Rita build a snowman, engage local youths in a snowball fight and slow dance to Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me.” The bandstand dates to 1908, built by the Oliver Typewriter Company for the “Oliver Typewriter Band.” The square has seen 150 years of parades, concerts and festivals. Most historic, perhaps, were the memorials to fallen soldiers and victory rallies the city held at this site during World War I. Sometimes planned, sometime spontaneous, these events were among the first of their kind in the nation. A monument dedicated in 1909 to the “boys in blue” (and visible in several Groundhog Day scenes) served as the perfect backdrop for such patriotic gatherings.
“Let Me Buy You Coffee …and a Donut.”
Woodstock Square was listed as a whole on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The filming of Groundhog Day is now an integral part of its history. To date, more than one dozen movie sites have been plaqued by Woodstock’s Groundhog Days committee.
First to be plaqued was the “Tip Top Café.” A menu full of pancakes, omelets and assorted pastries were served up here to Murray during Groundhog Day’s over-indulgent breakfast scene. A mere façade at the time, the once-empty storefront is today the Tip Top Bistro. The interior was actually decked out to resemble Angelo’s Family Restaurant, located across the square. In fact, director Harold Ramis had wanted to use the real Angelo’s, but its owners preferred to stay open for custumers to indulge during filming.
Other plaqued sites include “Ned’s Corner,” “The Crash” and a couple of private residences known to Groundhog Day fans as the “Cherry Street Inn” and the “Piano Teacher’s” home. Next up might be the alley where Murray attempts to revive a dying old man or South Street’s unique, spiral arch bridge, built in 1869 by the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, where Murray kidnaps the groundhog and heads for the rock quarries (filmed in Cary). We won’t know, however, until the 2008 Groundhog Days Fest.
The annual celebration was the idea of Woodstock Independent publisher, Cheryl Wormley, and co-owner of Knuth’s Sporting & Office Outfitters, Mike Palmquist. “We were disappointed that there were no Groundhog Day activities in Woodstock,” recalls Wormley. “So we vowed to have some kind of a celebration in ’95.”
Only a couple dozen people attended that first 6:00 a.m. Groundhog Day Breakfast, yet the festivities grow each year. An actual brother or cousin of the real “Punx’y Phil” is brought in by handler Bill Hoffman, who provided groundhogs for the movie, to star as Woodstock Willy, McHenry County’s favorite woodchuck, every February 2 at precisely 7:07 a.m.