INTERVIEW: Punxsutawney Phil brings his traditions to Animal Planet, over and over again

Phil emerges every year on Feb. 2 to predict the end of the winter season. Photo courtesy of Animal Planet.

Groundhog Day, celebrated each year on Feb. 2, is coming to Animal Planet. The network will air a new special on the tradition, called A Groundhog Day Story, at 10 p.m. on Thursday night. Audience members can expect a trip down memory lane to see how Punxsutawney Phil predicts the weather each year on Gobbler’s Knob, the town square in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

The tradition of watching Phil emerge on Feb. 2 and look for his shadow dates back more than 130 years. Over time, the ceremony has remained simple (if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter), but the crowds have increased in size. This year, it’s expected that more than 25,000 people will descend on the small town of Punxsutawney. That’s a lot of people hoping for an early spring.

Other than Phil, at the center of the festivities is Bill Deeley, president of the local Groundhog Club. He has been a member of the illustrious group — known as the “Inner Circle” — since 1986. For the last six years he has been tasked with the presidency.

“The 15 members of the Groundhog Club are sort of like the board of directors, the inner circle people, and we elect within,” Deeley said recently in a phone interview. “It’s usually somebody who is active in the community with community affairs and just involved in the town in general.”

As the years have progressed, the planning and execution of the day have grown more complicated. Initially, when Deeley began in the 1980s, the ceremony included a bunch of men who retrieved Phil, confirmed whether there was a shadow and moved on with the day.

“Even my first year, we met up there that morning about 6 o’clock, got the groundhog out,” he said. “Basically he’d seen his shadow. I turn to the guys. ‘What else more are we going to do?’ They said, ‘Come on, we’re going to go down get breakfast at the country club.’ I got breakfast, went and got the mail afterward, and was back in my office at 8:30. Where today [many] more people attend. … We go through a photo session up there with people, so even that day I can’t get off the Knob until probably about 10:30, in and around that area. And then there’s just more meetings, more people to get through the doors, more people to try to accommodate. It’s getting more and more complicated. It’s no more just two or three meetings, and here we go.”

No doubt some of these crowds are fans of Bill Murray’s hit comedy, Groundhog Day, which will premiere as a Broadway musical this spring. In the movie, Murray’s weatherman has to relive Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney over and over and over again; he can’t seem to break from the tradition, constantly waking up at a local hotel and having to relive the ceremony.

Deeley estimated that in the late 1980s, approximately 1,500 people arrived to see Phil’s “prognostication,” or weather prediction. In recent years, that number has ballooned and could reach 28,000 in 2017.

“We are a small, little community,” Deeley said. “We all pull in one direction for Groundhog Day. I might disagree with you or don’t like you as my neighbor, but I’m going to get along with you that day and make everything work well for the community. … Different church groups work together throughout [and] pull to make this work. Different social groups work together to make it happen.”

The community is open to outsiders coming in as well. The Groundhog Club is proud to have the world turn to Gobbler’s Knob on Feb. 2 for the ceremony. Plus, all the publicity keeps the spotlight off those other weather-predicting animals (Deeley called them imposters).

Included in that entertainment coverage is Animal Planet’s newest documentary, which not only looks at the history and legend of the holiday, but also how the town prepares for the big day and how the volunteers protect Phil on the rest of the 364 days in the calendar.

 

The Inner Cirlce of the Groundhog Club officiates the annual ceremony. Photo courtesy of Animal Planet.

Throughout the year, Phil lives a life of luxury, the president said. The groundhog eats, sleeps and gets his picture taken like a celebrity, and then on Feb. 2, he is the talk of the world.

As far as Phil’s origins — whether he was born into captivity or born in the wild — there are few answers because local folklore says that this groundhog has been alive for more than 130 years.

“We can’t really answer that because there’s only ever been one Phil, and Phil has inherited us,” Deeley said. “We have not inherited Phil, and how Phil gets his longevity is every year at our summer picnic, or little Phil Fest, he gets a little shot of elixir. And it’s a special elixir punch. … Our folklore says for every sip he gets seven more years of longevity. Typically your Pennsylvania groundhog lives about four to six years. You’re going to get some that live a little longer than that, but that’s about it.”

On the big day, Phil isn’t the only one in the spotlight. As president of the club, Deeley is tasked with tapping on Phil’s door with an acacia wood cane. “This acacia wood cane has been passed down from generation to generation of president to president,” he said. “[It] gives me the ability to speak Groundhogese with Phil, and they’ll get him out, hold him up for the world to see, then put him on the big oak stump we have there. And he and I will basically talk back and forth in our own little Groundhogese. … That’s how we basically communicate. That’s my part that day as president to communicate with Phil and get the forecast right.”

Deeley added: “If you want to have fun that day, come to Punxsutawney because, well, you’re going to laugh at us. We’re going to laugh at you, and everyone is going to have a good time.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

A Groundhog Day Story will air on Animal Planet Thursday, Feb. 2 at 10 p.m., 11 p.m., midnight, 1 a.m., and on and on. Click here for more information.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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