PUNXSUTAWNEY – Visitors from around the world gathered on Gobbler’s Knob last Friday to watch arguably the most famous weather prognosticator in the world deliver the bad news. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow at 7:35 a.m., signalling another six weeks of winter.
Attendees from as far away as Japan, Germany and Australia shivered in a sub-zero wind chill before dawn. On average, about 20,000 people make the trek to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day annually. Katie Donald, executive director of the Groundhog Club, estimated that between 15,000 and 17,000 came out this year.
Chief Meteorologist Bernie Rayno from State College-based Accuweather was on hand to witness the six-week winter forecast. News anchors from major Pittsburgh, Altoona, Johnstown and other cities crowded the stage as Phil struggled against his official handler, John Griffiths.
Special guest, actor Stephen Tobolowsky, received a wild welcome from fans of the 1993 movie, “Groundhog Day,” which is run several times during the festival weekend. Tobolowsky portrayed Ned Ryerson, Bill Murray’s braying insurance-agent nemesis, in the film. Both actors visited Punxsutawney before filming began to get a sense of the town and the event
Once a small gathering of locals and members of the Groundhog’s Inner Circle, urging Phil from his burrow has become a major media event seen around the world. Part game show, part Gong Show, part Mardi Gras, the yearly event pumps $5 million into the area economy in the form of hotel stays, restaurant checks, vendors’ sales and souvenir purchases.
Phil’s appearance and forecast were only part of the days-long event. Vendors set up their exhibits and were open for business last Thursday. Friday afternoon found them clustering around propane heaters inside their booths.
According to most vendors, the frigid conditions did not hurt business. Workers in the Vineyard at Wilcox, DuBois, booth said that they had about 100 customers last Thursday and nearly the same number on Friday.
Sunday was the final day of the festivities. Groundhog Day organizers, once everything has been tallied, will take a much-needed break for a month and then begin planning next year’s celebration.