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Movie's influence abundant in Punxsutawney

Phil's town 'Groundhog Day' drew attention to tradition

Sunday, February 02, 2003

By Judy Lin, The Associated Press

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. -- In the decade since "Groundhog Day" was released, door signs on the Bill Murray Suite have been stolen so many times that the Pantall Hotel decided to sell them for $12 each.

"Our intention was never to sell them," said Jane Cunningham, manager of the 64-room hotel on Mahoning Street. "The college kids would just rip them off."

The hit film catapulted Punxsutawney Phil and his weather predictions from regional curiosity to national fame. Phil is expected to attract a crowd of more than 30,000 for Groundhog Day this weekend, compared to roughly 1,500 before the film was released, said Phil's handler, Bill Deeley.

"Surely, the movie took us to a new high. It turned from a tri-state event to something that really drew national attention and really got tremendous play in Europe," Deeley said.

Legend has it that the groundhog predicts the duration of winter each Feb 2. If he sees his shadow, winter will hang around for six more weeks and he'll return to his hole. If not, he takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground.

More often than not, Phil sees his shadow. In the past 116 years, the prognosticator has seen his shadow 92 times.

Deeley described the tradition as "a jet taking off" after the film's release. Phil went on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1995, got his own Web site in 1996 and broadcast his prediction live on a jumbo TV in New York's Times Square in 2001.

Some 100 state troopers have to be called in for crowd control, buses are now used to shuttle people in and out of Gobbler's Knob and drinking has been banned at the famous stump, much to the dismay of some revelers.

Organizers, however, aren't apologizing for taking precautionary measures. After all, Deeley said, "it's a family event."

For the first time in nearly a century, a Pennsylvania governor will get to chant "Phil, Phil, Phil" along with throngs of other fans before the groundhog makes his sunrise prediction. Gov. Ed Rendell was scheduled to arrive yesterday for the Groundhog Banquet.

Also this weekend, city officials are offering a sneak peak into the Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center. Project administrator Karen Offutt said the center is scheduled to open later this year and will eventually feature exhibits on both the woodchuck and the science of weather prediction.

Offutt hopes the open house will serve as a fund-raiser; she said the center has only reached about half of its original $450,000 goal.

"We're crawling there. This is a chance to show people we're using the money well and hopefully more people will have an interest in the project," Offutt said.

Given the attendance figures for the past 10 years, Offutt should find some supporters.

Cunningham said the Pantall Hotel has been booked since last February and a family from London snagged the Bill Murray Suite in 2001.

Murray and director Harold Ramis visited Punxsutawney in 1992 to do research for the film and stayed at the Pantall. Cunningham said their visit was supposed to be a secret but somehow word got out and a crowd packed the lobby to greet the celebrity guests.

"[Murray] went out of his way for the children. He did one of his falling down routines and was just real spontaneous," Cunningham said.

In the movie, Murray portrayed a cynical weatherman who gets caught in time in this rural Pennsylvania town of about 6,500. The film, which was shot in Woodstock, Ill., went on to become one of the top grossing films of 1993.

Now the suite where Murray stayed bears his name and goes for $424 for two nights on Groundhog Day weekend. It features two double beds, light blue carpeting and an overstuffed velvet chair. "One of the nicest," Cunningham said.

While the masses gather in Punxsutawney, AccuWeather senior meteorologist Joe Bastardi predicted that based on past winters in which the El Nino weather pattern was present, winter will likely hang around for at least six more weeks.

"If we look at similar winters that had this kind of El Nino, there were still threats of snow into April in a lot of places," Bastardi said.

The southern and western parts of the country can expect wetter and cooler weather; the northern plains can expect temperatures to get back to normal -- though still cold -- compared to a frosty last spring; and the snow-covered east can expect winter to hang right on to the end, Bastardi said.

His assessment: "Basically, winter's not over. We'll just see what the groundhog has to say."

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