Opera house in Woodstock

Woodstock Illinois: Home of Groundhog Day the movie

By Matt Payne

On the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax in the heart of Los Angeles, there are several buildings of note, primarily for their cultural relevance, but also because of their role in Hollywood.  Specifically, a diner called Johnie’s Coffee Shop.  It was in this vintage diner, designed by Architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis in 1955 that Walter Sobchak guaranteed The Dude that he could deliver a toe with polish by 3pm then petulantly declared that he would not leave until he finished his coffee in the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski.

Opera house in Woodstock
Opera house in Woodstock Il, as seen in Groundhog Day

This diner was also immortalized in the films Miracle Mile and American History X not to mention dozens of commercials.   While the historic blue and white edifice might occasionally stop the curious tourist, the majority of Los Angeles roles by the iconic and abandoned diner without so much as a glance.

Living in a city like Los Angeles it is challenging to go more than a block or two without recognizing some park, house, apartment building, street sign, or even street performer from some classic film.  As a Los Angeles resident, and even as an individual who has worked in the film business most of his life, while I appreciate the cinematic nostalgia, rarely do such locations stop me in my tracks and most go unnoticed, unless of course, these popular locations cause traffic jams at which point they are simply annoying.

That slightly cynical sentiment begins and ends in Los Angeles.  Never was I more aware of that truth than this summer during a quick visit to see my friend Curtis in Woodstock, Illinois. Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould called this quaint suburb home and it was in Woodstock that Orson Wells cultivated his creative passion as a young man at Todd School for Boys.

This town is most notable, however, not for it’s comic book icon, or the king of cinema’s temporary residency but rather for its role in the classic comedy Groundhog Day.  Groundhog Day, as it turns out, was not shot on the wintery streets of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania but rather nearly 600 miles away in Woodstock, Illinois.

Without question, this unforgettable 1993 comedy about a snarky weatherman stuck in the same day in a small Pennsylvania town falls into the same category as such classics as my favorite film, The Big Lebowski. Yet while I live in Los Angeles, home to “The Dude” and could care less about passing Johnie’s Coffee Shop, in Woodstock, AKA Punxsutawney, I become the gawking, visor-wearing, traffic stopping, confused tourist that in my own city, I have come to loathe.

I find myself snapping pictures of everything.  Residents shopping at the Farmer’s Market watch as I carry on about the gazebo where Bill Murray danced with Andie MacDowell and the Opera House from where he took his fateful plunge.

I pull up a youtube video of the scene with Needle Nose Ned Bryerman and spend fifteen minutes trying to match storefronts so that I can take a picture of my friend and I recreating that moment.  It pains me when I discover that many of the storefronts have been repainted and renamed and I might not have the photo exactly right. The whole experience brings me a great and unexpected joy.

The film is about a man who lives the same day over and over but really what it is about is second chances and looking at your life differently.  I spend the rest of the day walking around ChicagoThe city, like my own swells with cinematic history and I eat up every second.

While the clogged streets of Hollywood will always be frustrating, perhaps the next time I come across some meandering Oklahoma tourists with their star maps and their fanny packs, I’ll have a little more patience.  Or maybe even better…  the next time I hit that hellish artery that is Fairfax and Wilshire, home to Johnie’s Coffee Shop and I’ll look at the blue and white diner where Walter finished his coffee in The Big Lebowski and I’ll see my life a little differently… . Maybe even more enthusiastically.