Woodstock Mayor Dr. Brian Sager banged on the tree stump door to awaken “Woodstock Willie,” the groundhog, from his winter slumber at 7:07 a.m., Feb. 2, and listened intently, as “Willie” gave his weather forecast prediction for the next six weeks.
It was translated by Sager, from Groundhogease into English, and sadly, it was not the prediction that was hoped for.
“The seer of seers, the prognosticator of prognosticators, emerged … reluctantly … but very alertly this morning in Woodstock, Ill. to wish his faithful followers a Happy Groundhog Day,” said Sager. “And now for the truth, ‘Willie’ looked skyward toward the east, then behind to the ground and stated clearly this morning in Groundhogese … I definitely see my shadow.”
Sager shrugged his shoulders, and sighed, since everyone well knows what it means: “Willie” seeing his shadow is the haruspication equivalent to another six weeks of winter.
The mayor inherited the duties of translation and making the announcement from Bob Hudgins, the retired master of ceremonies, who served a 15-year tenure and doubled as the best guide and storyteller for tours of the filming sites.
With the prediction being made, the annual Woodstock Groundhog Days was officially underway, and the large crowd of nearly 400 people that braved the chilly temperature hovering in the single digits headed for the warmth of restaurants in the historic town square. The festivities, slated for Feb. 1-4, passed the half-century mark this year and attracted a crowd from all points.
“From the bandstand, we asked and could hear quite a few people from out of town, and out of state … Kentucky, Tennessee, not sure if they were here for the event, or visiting, but they were here,” said Joe McCormack, Production Manager for the Woodstock Opera House. “The economic impact for the city and the county are vital, as you never know who will attend these events, and it develops into a relocation opportunity for residential and commercial potential.”
Early in the morning Feb. 1, the costumed-version of “Willie” made an appearance on the opera houses marquee amid fireworks and a searchlight. The events are organized by a group of volunteers, collectively named the Woodstock Groundhog Days Committee. Its chairperson is Rich Bellairs, the son of famed Chicago radio personality, the late Mel Bellairs.
“They put this all together, and the opera house has its own special events but we always participate in events on the square,” said McCormack. “The opera house stores the tree stump, and sets up the scaffolding for the media, set up the PA system, and the woodcarving area.” “Specifically, this is great for businesses on the historic square. The restaurants were open for breakfast, and packed with lines, from what I understand,” he said.
One restaurant that lies directly across the street from the opera house was used in the film, Groundhog Day, which starred Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott. It was directed by Chicago-native Harold Ramis. The premise is that the Bill Murray character continues to wake up on Groundhog Day until he learns humility and caring for others.
“In the movie, it was the Tip-Top Café, and played a central part where the characters met,” said McCormack. The restaurant has since changed ownership, from when the 1993 film came out and now features Mexican cuisine.
The film is always in rotation for free showings throughout each festival at the Harold Ramis Auditorium in the Classic Cinemas Woodstock Theatre. Other events included the “Breakfast with Willie,” walking tours of the film’s sites, storytelling, groundhog bowling, and a chili cook-off.
McCormack noted, “All in all, this is good exposure for Woodstock, and McHenry County, and just pure fun.”
— Official word from Woodstock: Six more weeks of winter —-