I used to live in this common small sleepy MidWest town named Woodstock IL. In the late 70's when my parents first moved here with their rag-tag group of kids, it was a very unassuming charming small village. A small village already rich with history but had no idea what was yet to come. My, how the times have changed things.
Woodstock IL. Is located about an hour and a half away from Chicago, nicely tucked away in the NorthWest suburbs. Surround by other small towns Woodstock was than known as Centersville (due to its location to the neighboring towns). Woodstock's central location made the town the grand trading hub for McHenry Co. Illinois.
The downtown square is rich in historical landmarks and still has a red brick layered road running around it. There's a large gazebo in the town "square" that hosts music on Wednesday's during the cool breezy summer evenings. The old Opera House and Court House loom large over the "square" as they are the tallest buildings and some of the oldest in town. Also the movie theater and its grand marquee has a great "mystique" to it. It almost feels as if you've already been here......like you know the place well in your heart, almost as if you already know these locations. Well, what if I told you that you have already been here?! What if I told you, you had already felt its small town charm and the warmth of its inhabitants over and over and over again....even if you yourself have never been here before!!
Over the last 30 years Woodstock's small town charm has drawn Hollywood producers, directors and actors to visit us time and time again! It all started when I was a young boy and a very small made-for-TV drama was filmed in one of the local banks at the time. It was such a low-key and low-budget movie that I can't find anyone who can remember what it was even called. Many years later Hollywood would come back and back in a LARGE WAY!
Hollywoods first blockbuster from Woodstock, IL.:
The first well known Hollywood classic movie that shot scenes here around 1986 was Planes Trains and Automobiles. Which had Director: John Hughes, along with cinema legends John Candy and Steve Martin who all came to town to film for a few weeks. I was a young curious kid going to watch filming of this movie, I even recall standing near both versions of the green car with custom wooden panels they drove in the film. There was a brand new version and the torched-up broken-down version of the cars parked on the square (the very same ones they get pulled over in near the end of the film.)
I even recall seeing Steve Martin and John Candy film a scene on our Old Court House steps, but the scene must have ended up on the cutting room floor because it was never in the movie. What was seen in the film was our legendary Old Woodstock Courthouse & Jail, the memorable Opera House tower and the grand marquee from the movie theater seen as a large semi drove down Main St.
The Next Blockbuster Filmed In Woodstock, IL.:
A producer who happened to know of Woodstock as a child showed the location to a Director for a small budget movie that was looking for a winter type small town. That director was Harold Ramis and that small budget movie would come to be know as "Groundhog Day"! Almost the entire film was shot here in Woodstock. Many of the extras in the film (including one of my sisters) were local people from town paid for their time. I remember there was filming and film crews all over the town blocking sections and closing down roads. Even the nights were lit up by the glow of giant movie lights shining off the opera house and later the square for the night scenes. The best part of the filming was seeing the actors in action or just walking around town. Even Bill Murray himself paid a visit to my parents Mexican store right off the town square. Exciting times indeed they were.....and with the success of the movie.....the repetitiveness of the story.....and the way people have made this movie such a classic. Those who have watched the movie over and over again would feel right at home in present day Woodstock, even with the few changes that have happened over time.
Interesting Facts about the filming of Groundhog Day on location in Woodstock, IL.:
-Harold Ramis said
"We didn't use Punxsatawney for the film because Punxsatawney itself didn't have a real town center that looked very good on camera, so we wanted a town that looked perfect so the town you'll see is Woodstock, IL.We scouted all of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois looking for the perfect town and we pulled into Woodstock just the way the van pulls into town in the movie. It was the last town we saw and we looked at this little town square and thought 'aw', this is perfect. This is what Punxsatawney should look like.It has a courthouse where a very famous case was tried, there is a jail attached to it - (the lighter colored building). Eugene Debs, father of American Socialism, was tried there and was defended by Clarance Darrow. We played the beautiful building on the square as a hotel, but it's actually a beautifully restored Opera House.
In the actual groundhog ceremony in Punxsatawney takes place in a park outside of town, almost like a forest preserve. But one thing we loved about this central square in Woodstock was that we could do the ceremony right here. The pavillion in the park is actually a large gazebo, but we built a pavillion for the groundhog that is an exact match to the one in Punxsatawney. They actually sent delegates from Punxsatwawney to make sure we were portraying the groundhog ceremony accurately. They were very jealous that the movie wasn't shot in Punxsatawney, but when they saw Woodstock they thought it looked better than their town."
-Not filmed in Punxsutawney (the real location of groundhog Phil), but actually in Woodstock, Illinois (just 45 miles from "Bill Murray's hometown of Wilmette).
-There is a small plaque that reads "Bill Murray stepped here" on the curb where Murray continually steps into a puddle. There is another plaque on the building wall at the corner that says "Ned's Corner" where Bill Murray was continually accosted by insurance salesman Ned Ryerson.
-The interior scenes of the Cherry Street bed and breakfast were not filmed inside the actual house. The interiors of Bill Murray's room at the bed and breakfast were filmed in an empty warehouse in Cary, Illinois. The only times the crew entered the house at all were to turn on lamps for the proper lighting effects needed for the exterior shots. In the final shot, Phil carries Rita over the gate and then climbs over it. This is because the gate was actually frozen shut. Unlike the scenes for the bed and breakfast, the scenes at the piano teacher's home were indeed filmed inside the actual house, right in the front room as it appears in the film. The house that was used for the piano teacher's home is less than a block away from the house used for the bed and breakfast. Though not visible in the film, it is actually located on the street that Phil sees directly proceeding from his room window just a few houses down on the left-hand side.
-In one scene, Connors throws himself from the bell tower of a high building. This building is actually an opera house in Woodstock, Illinois. Local legend has it that a ghost of a young girl haunts the building since the girl hung herself or jumped off a balcony (which ever story you believe) inside the opera house and died.
-Bill Murray takes a date to a late night showing of Heidi at a local Theater. That is the same movie theater and marquee that was seen briefly in Planes Trains and Automobiles.
-The "clocks" restaurant in Woodstock, IL is now a Starbucks. Tip Top Cafe is now a Mexican restaurant.
-Bill Murray, Chris Elliott, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Robin Duke who are all former SNL cast members along with Andie MacDowell and Harold Ramis were present in Woodstock during filming.
Small Screen Hollywood:
-in the early 80's a very small scene was also filmed in Woodstock for Alan Arkin's movie "A Matter of Principle"
-Robert Irvine's Restaurant: Impossible: It's All Greek to Me (S6.E11) filmed in Angelo's Family Restaurant located on the Woodstock square. It was a big event at the time but many opinions around town felt it was not a success and Angelo's eventually sold to new ownership. It is now known as The Original Papa G's.
-MTV's reality TV show Catfish, also filmed an episode here in Woodstock. Only using the city park for a short encounter that was more weird then romantic. I don't exactly like to talk about it because it seemed way too fake and set up to me and really does nothing good for the town of Woodstock.
-The biggest news in years came when the winner of this years Chef Gordon Ramsey's Hell's Kitchen Scott Cummings who hails from Woodstock. He along with fans, friends and family celebrated the final episode here in town which showed him winning it all!! Of course we are all so proud of one of our locals making it big!!
Other small bits of trivia about our town:
-The creator of Dick Tracy; Chester Gould, called Woodstock his hometown. Another well known person who grew up in Woodstock was Orson Welles himself!!
Small Time Hollywood:
Along with a few small commercials (a cereal commercial and a car commercial) that's been the extent of Hollywoods magic so far. I still live here in my hometown, even though I started this piece saying that I "USED" to live in a small quite lazy town. I say that, only because, Woodstock is now a large bustling growing city with plenty of things to do and places to go. It has many unique shops, restaurants and arts venues, art festivals, farmers market, classic car shows and concerts on the square. Woodstock was voted as one of the top ten best small town to visit in the United States. But one thing has stayed the same here.....our beloved town with its historic downtown square, is still as charming as ever. We are always welcome to have Hollywood in our back yards.
Written by: Manny Popoca
Plane Trains Automobile photos provided by: Bill Schwerdtfeger
Groundhog Day walking map and other info provided by: WoodstockGroundhog.org
Woodstock square drone photo by: Ryan Malo