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Big changes coming to Phil Phest

August 4, 2012

Members of the Inner Circle have been busy planning this year’s Phil Phest. Taking a break from their planning to pose with Phil at the site of the event are (front): Ron Ploucha, Phil’s co-handler (holding Phil); (middle) Keith Shields, Head Hailmaker; Tom Uberti, Big Windmaker; Dave Gigliotti, Thunder Conductor; (back) John Griffiths, co-handler, A.J. Dereume, Rainmaker and Phil Phest committee chair; and Jason Grusky, Big Chill. (Photo by Zak Lantz of The Punxsutawney Spirit)

The history of Groundhog Day runs rich in one concept: Fellowship. The origin of the tradition is rooted in a group of men spending a day together on a hunt, and in many ways, the Groundhog Picnic has always been a similar event: Rooted in fellowship and a stag event.

Similar to any tradition, though, evaluation and change are always a good thing, and change is coming to this year's Phil Phest, which will take place Saturday, Sept. 8 from 1 to 9 p.m. at Gobblers Knob.

"The old picnic started many, many years ago, and we continued the tradition, basically using it as a thank you to the community," Ron Ploucha, Punxsy Phil's co-handler said. "For the price of a ticket, guys could come up, spend the entire day, enjoy refreshment; we served food all afternoon and steak dinners. We'd probably get about 250 people, but after some discussion, we've decided its time to go another direction with the annual picnic. So, things are going to be a bit different this year compared to past years."

One thing that won't be changing, though, is the elixir ceremony — one during which Phil drinks a special concoction that preserves his life and keeps him going.

"Phil is 127 years old, going on 128 at least," A.J. "Rainmaker" Dereume, member of the inner circle and Phil Phest committee head said. "The reason he ages better than the average groundhog is this ceremony. That'll still happen between 4 and 5 p.m. at the Knob."

Where the change comes in, then, involves the events that will surround the life-sustaining ceremony.

"We're also going to havelive entertainment this year in the form of bands," Dereume said. "The president will talk to Phil and give him a sip of his magic elixir, though, and that's the center of it all. Every year, he takes a sip, and it gives him seven more years of longevity. So, you multiply that by each year, and he's going to be around for quite some time."

Another member of the Inner Circle, Tom "The Big Windmaker" Uberti, said that while there was nothing wrong, per se, with the old way the picnic was put on, he was all for looking at ways to make it more enjoyable for all involved — including those who planned and put it on.

"Basically, with our old picnic, most of the Inner Circle members were sweating their whatevers off making the steaks or working the corn on the cob," he said. "Basically, the Inner Circle members never got a chance to take deep breath and enjoy everything that was going on."

Another change Uberti mentioned was that Phil Phest was hoping to reach out to a broader crowd — while maintaining its faithful following.

"We were also looking for a different demographic," Uberti said. "We had a good cross section of individuals, but we're hoping these changes might bring in some of the 21-35 crowd into the fold."

A third change Uberti noted was the change many are most excited about: A change from the old traditional "stag party" to a party where all 21-and-over individuals are welcome.

"One of the bigger changes is that it was always a stag picnic," Uberti added. "We wanted to do away with that, because we've always had women up here. In fact, we have some motorcycle clubs that have come up religiously. So, we wanted to make some changes and make it more clear that's what we're going for."

Dereume was one of the members who started thinking about making some changes to the festival, and he said his history with the picnic — as his father Jack was a member of the Inner Circle — and a recent experience made him re-think how the event could be run.

"I'd been involved with this event when my dad was involved," he said. "It was something folks have always come and enjoyed. But what happened is Jeff Lundy and I went to another festival — one that isn't really that large by any means — and we looked at it and said, 'You know, these guys are all having a lot of fun, and what they're doing might be better and easier than what we're doing.' So, we're trying to keep a lot of the old while bringing in some of the new."

The purpose behind the changes is a common one for events the Inner Circle puts on: To find ways to promote Groundhog Day and make it more exciting.

"The reason for changing things up is to better promote Groundhog Day," Dereume said. "The elixir ceremony is all focused around the Knob, where the actual event takes place February 2. Maybe folks will come up and hang out at Phil Phest in nice weather and see we can put on a show. Maybe that will encourage them to think about coming up and braving the cold weather to check out the real thing."

Inner Circle member Jason "Big Chill" Grusky added that the group has big dreams for Phil Phest.

"We'll never recreate a Groundhog Day, but if we can create a summer event that excites people and even comes close to rivaling the draw of Groundhog Day, that's ultimately what we'd like to do," Grusky said. "This is just the start. Every year, we hope to make it bigger and better. The sky's the limit, really."

Dave Gigliotti, also known as the Thunder Conductor in the Inner Circle, was one of the masterminds behind the addition of live entertainment to the event.

"We always had the stereo playing, but this year, one of the biggest parts of the whole event will be the live music," he said. "We scoured the area for the past weeks to come up with some bands that might appeal to a local crowd and to folks across the state. People can enjoy Punxsy Phil being there with his elixir, and we have a great sponsor with Sam Adams, who has been with us for a few years now. But it's really about the bigger demographic. It's a great crowd every year, but we do feel like we've missed out on some of the younger crowd. We want to adapt to that while still keeping the folks we've had here.”

There is one change that, on the surface, the committee is expecting to be a bit of a disappointment to those used to the old format: Food will no longer be provided, and food vendors will be available at the Knob.

"The food vendors are a big change," Ploucha said. "The people that come will have to buy food, and we know that's one drawback, but in the end, we hope it's a change for the better."

Ultimately, the reasoning behind the vendors came down to a matter of providing food for so many people would be outside the realm of possibility. And, Uberti added, there is still one perk.

"We agonized a bit over that," he said. "We do still have the free beer, though, which is being provided by Sam Adams. We have a very good relationship with them, and we certainly hope that continues. But we did agonize over which we should give away and which we should continue to provide for free. That's where the rules and regulations came in. I'm not expecting a ton of push-back on having to purchase the food. But we'll see what happens this year, and we'll make changes and learn from our mistakes in the future."

Ploucha reiterated the difficulty of providing the food for what the group hopes would be an increasingly large crowd.

"Preparing food for 250 people was a lot of work," he said. "We're expecting closer to 500 with the changes and the entertainment, and realistically, we hope for maybe two or three thousand folks. To prepare food for that many, with our expanding vision, we just didn't see that as a realistic possibility."

Dereume, the committee's chairperson, encouraged folks to come check out the entertainment, adding he thinks it will be well worth the cost of admission.

"You no longer get free food, but you're gaining some great entertainment, and hopefully a better party and something folks will remember a little better," he said. "We're going to maintain a lot of the stuff, too. This really is the old picnic without food provided and with entertainment thrown in. Guys could always watch college football in the clubhouse, and that's still going to be going on. You'll still be able to get away if you're not really into the bands and stuff."

This year's entertainment will be provided by a pair of bands: Pure Cane Sugar from 1-4 p.m. and Lucky You at 5 p.m. with the elixir ceremony sandwiched between the performances.

Pure Cane Sugar "consists of three girls on acoustic guitar, a guy on fiddle and a guy on drums," according to Dereume. "They've kind of been booked as a cross between the Indigo Girls and an acoustic Led Zeppelin. They're out of the State College area, and they have a pretty good following."

Lucky You is a cover band, but Dereume said they aren't your "run of the mill" cover band, either.

"Lucky You is out of the Harrisburg area, and they play all over the country," he said. "They're a rock-and-roll cover band, but when you say cover band, you expect Lynyrd Skynyrd or Journey. These guys will really surprise you, and they're pretty awesome. They play to the crowd andkeep everybody going. Everything from Tom Petty to Lady Gaga is how they describe it."

While the big dreams of a large crowd are in the Inner Circle members' heads, they also said the nice thing about this year's event is that folks can come hang out at the Knob and enjoy the bands in a different fashion. For that reason, they're encouraging attendees to bring a lawn chair or a blanket to lounge on the Knob.

"We're going to be doing this right down on the Knob, where we could realistically fit 20,000 people," Gigliotti said. "But having it here with say 1,000 people, they'll be able to bring chairs and blankets if they'd like to."

Dereume didn't want people getting too interested in the idea of sitting and listening though, adding that the bands will make folks want to get up and enjoy themselves.

"We do encourage people to bring chairs and such, but we aren't really planning a sit-down style party," he concluded with a grin.

For tickets or more information on Phil Phest, which are $15 in advance or $20 at the gate, contact The Groundhog Club at 938-7700 - ext. 3 or check out the website at www.groundhog.org.

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