A Groundhog Day Worth Remembering
February 3, 2014

Poor Phil Connors. The guy spent purgatory in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day had to relive the same day over and over and over again. Let's face it, it could have been worse, like Palmdale or something. He also was stuck in that little borough's busiest day of the year. As Murray's character stated, “on February second, the eyes of the nation turn to this tiny hamlet in western Pennsylvania to see a master at work. The master? Punxsutawney Phil, the world's greatest weather man. The ground hog.” I got to see it for myself. I can think of worse places to spend the same day.

I guess you could call it a bucket list thing, but I decided to visit Phil, all of his handlers, the townspeople, and annual partiers at Gobbler's Knob. I was born on February 2, so I've heard about the weather woodchuck's work my entire life (I'm told a woodchuck and a groundhog are the same thing). If you don't know the story, Punxsutawney Phil, the seer of seers, prognosticator of prognosticators, emerges from his burrow, and whispers to his handlers in groundhogese, whether or not he sees his shadow. If there is no shadow, it's an early spring, if not, six more weeks of winter.

It's about 7:15am when Phil does his thing, so people have to get there early to get a good spot. I was granted press credentials so I could get some pictures of the furry woodchuck, interview officials and fans, and record audio of all of the proceedings. Without a press pass, I don't think I would attend, but 25 to 30 thousand other people without passes were there, and seemed to enjoy it immensely. When I picked up my passes the night before, I asked what time I should arrive. I was expecting to be there by about 5:30, but I was told, “If you want to do your job right, you should be there by three.” Three? AM? Yipes.

After literally less than two hours sleep, I arrived around three, and the party had already started. There was a house band (a new thing they started last year I found out) called the Beagle Brothers. They were sort of like the guys in the Geico commercials but a little edgier, with that country sort of sound. They played several sets, and when they were not on stage, there was upbeat recorded music (like Hot Hot Hot, or Hazy Shade of Winter, stuff like that). And there were two emcees, who were really great, singing and dancing to bits like 'Groundhog Style' (a parody of Gangham Style), and 'What Would the Groundhog Say?'. They also brought out the t-shirt cannons and gave away other stuff to the crowd. Periodically, they would get the crowd to chant which outcome they would prefer ('Winner [winter] chicken dinner or 'spring spring turkey wing'). This went on for four hours in the middle of the night, but the crowd loved it.

Finally, the Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club (the guys with the black top hats you may remember if you saw the movie), get on stage, gather around Phil's burrow, and eventually call him out. It's just like the movie, the handler holds the varmint up, the animal then seems to point to one of two scrolls, and they read it. This time, with Groundhog Day and Super Bowl Sunday falling on the same day for the first time ever, a football-themed announcement: “A super bowl winner I will not predict, but my weather forecast you cannot contradict. Why thats not a football, but my shadow I see. Six more weeks of winter it must be!”.

It wasn't as cold as it had been earlier in the week in Punxsutawney. Before I arrived, temperatures were in the single digits with a few inches of snow. I almost didn't go because I didn't want to make the almost two-hour drive from Pittsburgh in the white stuff, and I was even more afraid of being stuck in an airport for days. On the big day, though, it warmed up to the upper 30s before sunrise, and into the low 40s after that. No snow, but a steady light rain fell all day. I'm still not sure how Phil could see his shadow while it was raining, but the crowd groaned after the announcement, but otherwise didn't care too much. That was pretty much it, people could come up and get a picture of Phil, who was placed in a clear cage, then they cleared out. They were gone in what seemed like minutes.

One inaccuracy of the film is the location of Gobbler's knob. You see Bill Murray walk out of his Bed and Breakfast, down the street, step in an icy puddle, walk a little more, and then he's there. That's not the case at all. Gobler's Knob is about a mile and a half out of town, and people take buses to get there. In town, though, Phil is everywhere. 'Punxsy Phil's' is the name of a popular restaurant, the supermarket is in Groundhog Plaza, and every shop on the main downtown street was selling souvenirs. I bought a 'Groundhog Day is My Birthday' T-shirt and a couple of little stuffed ground hogs.

Now I'm not one of those people who paint their face or shave their head or do crazy things for sporting events, and if Groundhog Day wasn't my birthday, I don't know if I'd have the interest. But there were many groundhog maniacs. Some were there for the same reason I was. One young lady from North Carolina picked her 21st birthday to attend. I signed a homemade sign from a woman who was also celebrating her Groundhog birthday. There was even a marriage proposal on stage during the morning. The guy knew his girlfriend was a groundhog fan, and brought her to Punxsutawney. She didn't even know it, but he planned the whole thing with help from her parents. Some go every year, others just come to Punxsy (how the locals refer to it) to check it out.

I don't know what the western Pennsylvania hamlet of 65-hundred people is like the rest of the year, but if you had to live the same day over and over again, this is a pretty good one to pick. I didn't have an Andie McDowell to practice hitting on, but other than that, not a bad day. One change I would make, though. There was no real place in Punxsutawney to watch the Super Bowl. One of the Inner Circle told me that a hotel/restaurant had burned down since last year, and that was the closest thing they had to a sports bar. I was staying in the town of Indiana, about 30 miles away, and the hotel lounge was pretty quiet, and no food, so I watched the game in my room. I really wanted a steak and a beer. If the day did repeat over and over, I could have all the steak and beer I wanted, but, then again, the game wasn't worth watching. A living hell, or purgatory, to be sure.

The game: If you thought I was going to write about the game, this is it. I did text a couple of my friends in California and asked if the Broncos stunk as bad there as they did here. I guess it was a 43-8 final there, too...It was really strange to wait until 6:30 for the game to start. As much as there is an east coast bias in sports, I like the west coast starting times...The Broncos are the first NFL team ever to lose five Super Bowls, and they also have the two worst blowout defeats in Super Bowl history. Niner fans remember the 55-10 game in 1990.

Announcers: It's hard to find too much fault with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, but I got a chuckle when, with Seattle up 29-0, that the Broncos needed four touchdowns and three two-point conversions. That would have given Denver a 31-29 lead. Maybe Aikman was talking about the spread...Buck made some comment about Richard Sherman being healthy before he realized that Sherman had gotten hurt on the previous play, and had to leave the game.

Halftime: It's a shame when the halftime show is the best part, and you don't even know the songs the guy is singing. I'm not completely over the hill, I know who Bruno Mars is, but I'm glad they threw in a Red Hot Chili Peppers song for the people who just got their AARP card in the mail last week.

Commercial success: Americana is great, isn't it? Once the game became lopsided, interest quickly turned to the commercials. You would do something during play, and stop and watch when a timeout was callled. Of my top five ads, three of them were for car companies. My favorite spot was the Audi ad that featured the 'Doberhuahua', a cross between a Doberman and a Chihuahua. The most priceless part was when it attacked animal activist Sara McLachlan. Number two on my list was the Toyota spot featuring the Muppet band, whose van has broken down. Doritos checks in at number three with their kid telling a guy he's invented a time machine. Fourth, the Volkswagen ad where German engineers get wings every time a VW goes 100-thousand miles. Cheerios, where the daughter bargains for a puppy after learning she's getting a baby brother comes in fifth. Honorable mention to the M-and-Ms ad, Bud Light with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tim Tebow (without a contract) selling T-Mobile, the Hyundai spot where the car automatically stops when son gets distracted by a pretty girl, and the Heinz ketchup ad (seeing as I am in the corporate headquarters of Pittsburgh).

More commercialism: If you stuck around long enough, the best commercial break was at the two-minute warning—Budweiser with the dog and the Clydesdales, featuring the spray tan business, and another good Doritos ad with the mom, kids and dog.

I kid you not: While driving my rental car, I found some pretty good Pittsburgh radio stations to listen to, but on my way back to my motel after the Groundhog Day festivities, I was scanning the dial, and found the Punxsutawney station. It was not 6am, but WPXZ-FM (104.1) was playing I Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher! That has to be a coincidence, right? It was 4pm, so do you think they play that song at the top of every hour on February 2? There was no DJ chatter afterward, so I doubt it. Must have just been some way of Phil saying goodbye.

The day before everyone showed up. Phil wasn't ready yet.

Punxsutawney Phil himself, not long after his prognostication.

Members of the Inner Circle giving Phil some press time.

The muddy entrance to Gobbler's Knob (taken Saturday)

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