An all-time favorite, back by popular demand. Originally published, Feb. 11, 2010.
PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa.—Ever since my first year of university, when the movie “Groundhog Day” opened to critical acclaim and what would later become a cult following, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the film. The concept captured my imagination: living a day over and over again until I (or Bill Murray of all people) got it right. Believers of various religions have since taken it as means to explain their philosophies, and at least one university professor has used it as a primer for teaching the concepts of reincarnation.
In 1993, I never imagined I’d make it to Punxsutawney one day. As fate would have it, over a decade later, with the Internet having become a staple in mine and many others’ lives, I periodically found myself Googling my last name. The search results similarly caught my attention: I had stumbled upon an Ed Jekielek, described as the ‘storm chaser’ of the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. He was one of the keepers of a 120-something-year-old-groundhog.
Some more years passed before I entered the Facebook fray, and found more Jekieleks. Contacting one of them, a young woman named Kristin, she insisted we must be related, as I looked a lot like an uncle of hers, and her grandfather Ed. Ed turned out to be Jekielek the storm chaser’s father. So with my wife and I making our way to New York City last year, and Groundhog Day 2010 approaching, it occurred to me that I was in driving distance of a what looked like a very interesting proposition. A few e-mails and phone calls later, aided by some remarkable Jekielek openness and hospitality, I had a place to stay, and VIP access to the world of the Inner Circle. Within hours of arriving in Punxsutawney on Feb. 1, I had met most of those local civic leaders who work year-in, year-out to bring Groundhog Day to fruition.
“Here we realize people’s dreams,” said a top hat and tuxedo-clad Ed Jekielek with a glint in his eye. Earlier a woman who insisted he sign her Groundhog Day program confessed to me that she had been watching Phil come out of his burrow for 20 years. Now that the kids had gone to college, she decided to live her dream and see him live, coming in from Rhode Island for a multi-day visit. Many, many similar stories were shared among people I asked. Multiple people told me that coming to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day was on their “bucket list,” yet another reference to a well-known film.
Stephen Tobolowsky, who played the quirky character Ned in the Groundhog Day film, was this year’s guest of honor at the Groundhog Day banquet on Feb. 1, becoming an honorary member of the Inner Circle. With my access, I was able to spend considerable time with Stephen, who went above and beyond to satisfy my curiosities about the making of the film. According to him, Groundhog Day started out as a crass comedy flick where Phil Conners, Bill Murray’s character, realizes that being stuck in a looping day will allow him to do anything he wants, without consequences. The original script apparently ended with his suicide.
But along the way, said Stephen, over 30 percent of the script was rewritten, and he saw a project he was doing more “for the money” than anything else, become good, better, and then great. Director Harold Ramis, according to Stephen, at one point made it clear to his cast that the film takes place across a time period that a Buddhist might need to become enlightened: 10,000 years.
Ed, now retired from the forestry business he ran for 30 years, had some years prior delivered to Gobbler’s Knob (the site of the Groundhog’s Day event) the stump from which Punxsutawney Phil emerges yearly. A 13-year veteran of the Inner Circle, between his many events, he managed to find the time to speak about and introduce me to our relatives. In less than 24 hours we had developed a level of comfort with each other akin to knowing each other for years. Like family.
In our discussions, Stephen had observed that Groundhog Day, with all its silliness, has staying power. Indeed, the holiday has been around since 1887, and this year, the Groundhog Club Web site, groundhog.org, crashed while receiving millions of hits. This year, I had a chance to join the revelers and in my own unique way, live the dream.
Fred Ungar, York County, Pa., PHIL-atron’s keeper: “It’s about PETA protesting the use of the live groundhog. It’s a satire on PETA.” Last week, PETA wrote to the Punxsutawney Groundhog club, asking them to replace Phil with a robot.
Janet watched Phil emerge from his burrow on TV for 20 years, and with her children now in college, she decided it was time to realize her dream. “I said to [my family], ‘One day mom would like to see Phil in person.’ I’m so excited to be here.”
“Ever since I’ve seen Groundhog Day, I wanted to come down. Everyone has been very nice here. So we’ve been loving it. We came here last night; saw the movie [again] at the theater last night.”