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'Groundhog Day' boosted Punxsutawney's fandom as 'bucket list' event

By Thomas Leffler, Accuweather.com
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Groundhog Club Inner Circle member and handler A.J. Dererume (C) raises Punxsutawney Phil after the groundhog emerged from his burrow during the Groundhog Day celebration at Gobblers Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., on February 2, 2020. File Photo by David Maxell/EPA-EFE
Groundhog Club Inner Circle member and handler A.J. Dererume (C) raises Punxsutawney Phil after the groundhog emerged from his burrow during the Groundhog Day celebration at Gobblers Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., on February 2, 2020. File Photo by David Maxell/EPA-EFE

In the dead of winter, one small Pennsylvania town comes alive with fanfare to take part in an endearing annual tradition that has garnered worldwide fame.

On the western part of the state, residents and the thousands of out-of-towners who converge on Punxsutawney will be up before dawn on Thursday to revel in the community's Groundhog Day celebration.

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Held at Gobbler's Knob, nearly 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, the event features the titular groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, who will be making his annual forecast of the winter season -- either predicting an elongated cold stretch of six more weeks of winter (if he sees his shadow) or a sudden spring (if he doesn't see his shadow).

The highly anticipated occasion is typically held in below-freezing temperatures, with an AccuWeather RealFeel® temperature of 26 degrees Fahrenheit expected for Thursday morning, accompanied by wind gusts of 18 mph.

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Groundhog Day events have been a Punxsutawney tradition since the late 1800s and are shepherded by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's aptly named Inner Circle, composed of 15 members who dress in black overcoats and top hats for the special occasion.

The newest president of the Inner Circle, Thomas Dunkel, is continuing an honored tradition started by his father.

"I always thought that probably someday, I would [follow] in my father's footsteps into the Inner Circle," Dunkel, who became the club's leader last fall, told AccuWeather's Monica Danielle.

Dunkel's father was in the Inner Circle for over 30 years, including spending time as president.

A lifelong Punxsutawney resident, Dunkel said he "feels fortunate" that the town has received worldwide acclaim from the celebration, which culminates with the sighting of Punxsutawney Phil from his burrow just after 7 a.m. EST.

"It's like 30,000 people are there, and it's a bucket list for every one of them," he said. "So they can't believe they're there. They're so excited to be a part of it...you become part of something bigger. The fireworks go off, it gives you the chills. It's just fun."

The resonance of the town grew exponentially 30 years ago with the release of the classic comedy movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. The idea for the film began with screenwriter Danny Rubin, who thought about penning a movie about someone repeating a day over and over again. The typically frigid conditions of Punxsutawney played a crucial role in the story, matching Murray's character of weatherman Phil Connors and his frosty attitude.

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"It's got to be a particularly cold, dreary day, or it wouldn't be a day you'd be upset to be stuck in," Rubin told Danielle in an interview.

The film grossed over $100 million at the box office off the strength of Rubin's script and the star power of Murray, who had previously starred in hits such as the Ghostbusters series. After mulling several actors for the lead role, including a young Tom Hanks, Murray landed the gig a year after visiting Punxsutawney for the Feb. 2 frenzy.

"After it was over...he saw and met with so many people," Dunkel recalls. "He said to my dad...'Whatever you do, don't change a thing, this is perfect.'"

The movie's popularity led to a spike in attendance for subsequent events, with Dunkel estimating crowds went from around 10,000 people at Gobbler's Knob to around 40,000.

"It's a feel-good movie that people will watch over and over again, and so then they feel because it's their favorite movie, they feel connected to Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney and they want to go and be a part of it," the Inner Circle's president said.

Much like Dunkel's father paved the way for his ascent into a leadership role in the Inner Circle, the current president is looking to inspire his next generation of weather and groundhog enthusiasts, especially his four daughters, who were raised in Punxsutawney.

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"I'm hoping some day one of those daughters will take my place in the inner circle," he said. "That would be fun for me."

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