PUNXSUTAWNEY — Groundhog Day means a lot of things to the people of Punxsutawney and the surrounding communities, but its reach extends farther even than that — a fact echoed by Danny Rubin, one of the special guests at this year's Groundhog Banquet held the night before the big day.
"Twenty-one years ago, I sat down in a room, and I got an idea, and I wrote a movie," Rubin said. "And you always hope that somebody will see it and that maybe you'll make a difference in the world. Maybe you'll entertain some people.
"Maybe you'll make some people think about something. But to see what has happened in this town and just the fact that it's been 20 years, and people are still talking about it and referring to it is a blessing. It's nothing that I could've planned, and it's something I see as a gift that I'm happy to receive."
Rubin is a screenwriter, actor, lecturer and celebrity blogger, who is currently the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer on Screenwriting at Harvard University.
However, he's perhaps best known as the writing force behind the classic film, "Groundhog Day."
Starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, "Groundhog Day" is the story of a Pittsburgh weatherman who comes to Punxsutawney to cover the holiday proceedings, only to find himself waking up each morning to find it's the same day over and over again.
This year wasn't Rubin's first visit to Punxsutawney.
He came 21 years ago, at the time of the film's release, but said it was unlikely anyone remembered him, as Murray came along, too.
"But I would encourage you just to look through your shots of Bill Murray," he said. "I swear, there's got to be one of me standing somewhere in his shadow."
Rubin said the atmosphere of Punxsutawney is one that's familiar to him, as he also hails from a small town — Gainesville, Fla., where he said the animal of choice is the alligator rather than the groundhog.
"There's no street corner that is not called alligator this or alligator that," Rubin said.
He added that there were many small-town traditions about which he could've chosen to write a movie — he gave the example of one in Santa Fe, his "second home town," where, every September, they wheel out a 70-foot marionette called a Zozobra, celebrate until sundown and then burn the Zozobra to the ground. But in the end, he chose the world's most famous groundhog.
Rubin said he often gets asked about the possibility of writing a sequel to "Groundhog Day," and he has an idea for one: "It would be called 'Groundhog 2: Return to Punxsutawney,' and the rest, they just re-release the first movie."
Rubin said that the movie has been good to him and praised the people of Punxsutawney for being "good sports" about it.
He said the filmmakers could've done "terrible things" with the century-old tradition, making everyone look like "a bunch of doofuses for the world to see."
He indicated that there were some in the studio who wanted to do it that way, but that he and others fought to portray the holiday as the "silly, delightful and important" tradition that he believes it is.
"And this is what brings us together as a community, and as you can see, there's something about that that the whole world hungers for, and they hold you up as an example," Rubin said. "And the fact that the movie that we created was able to help that happen is a great source of pride for me."
He added, "I know what 'Groundhog Day' the movie has meant to this town, and that's why you're honoring me tonight, and I accept it ... But the town has actually played a pretty big part in my life as well. I consider this my third home town. I feel an association with
Rubin said, "Everybody on this movie wanted to do good, and it was so great to be part of that ... To be a writer, and to be able to do something that makes a difference is such a great thing, because that's what we all want to happen. It isn't all about just entertainment and money."
The evening's festivities also featured two other special guests: Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley and Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore.
Cawley was there on behalf of Gov. Tom Corbett and his wife, who were originally scheduled to speak but were unable to attend despite having hoped to be the first sitting governor to be present for Groundhog Day two years in a row.
Cawley spoke briefly on the importance of the tradition.
"If you ask Phil — and, of course, you'd have to speak to him in Groundhogese — he'd tell you that today isn't really about him," he said. "Tomorrow isn't about him either. Tonight, tomorrow, is about the great community of Punxsutawney and how these people who live here and the extended family that you all are — and then now, tonight, I am — come together to celebrate this marvelous, one-of-a-kind tradition."
Cantore, like Rubin, cited some small-town nostalgia from his experience in Punxsutawney.
"This is unbelievable," he said, after being introduced — in song — by members of Phil's Inner Circle. "This is what's great about America. I'm from small-town America ... You guys just took me back there."
All three guests were inducted into Phil's Inner Circle for the rest of the Groundhog Day weekend's festivities.
Members of the Inner Circle also spoke throughout the night. Vice President Jeff Lundy served as the toastmaster and also delivered the closing remarks.
President Bill Deeley offered the president's welcome and the benediction, in addition to receiving a plaque with apartment keys as a gift from Rubin to the town of Punxsutawney.
Phil’s Co-Handler Ron Ploucha announced the ambassador awards; Big Chill Jason Grusky presented this year's Groundhog King and Queen; and Iceman Butch Philliber introduced the past Men and Women of the Year who were in attendance.
Finally, 2011 Woman and Man of the year, Katie Laska and Howard Beezer, presented the awards to this year's recipients — Jennifer Roberts and Scott Anthony.