While eating a celebratory plate of Waffle House waffles, I realized that though the past 24 hours had been a distinct life experience, the prize was not worth the price.
Twenty-four movie tickets — that was the prize for completing the Gateway Film Center’s fifth annual 24-hour “Groundhog Day” marathon Sunday.
In the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a weatherman from a news station in Pittsburgh, who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pa. to cover the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, predicting the arrival of spring. Connors awakens the next day and quickly realizes it is still Groundhog Day, and he lives in this perpetual limbo until the end of the film, hence the repetitive nature of the Gateway marathon.
I arrived at the Gateway shortly after 11:40 p.m. Saturday, and by that time, the line for the marathon was more than 100 people long. Before even 10 minutes had passed, the line stretched down the stairs to the movie theater’s ground-floor entrance.
According to the Gateway’s Facebook page, tickets sold out for the event around 4 p.m. on Jan. 27,
After presenting my pre-purchased ticket, which cost $15, I was handed a lanyard to be hole punched at the end of each showing, a white slip with rules to be followed and a raffle ticket for a chance to win free food.
I sighed as I took my seat in the mostly-full 250 person theater, the biggest in the Gateway, counting the un-punched slots in my lanyard, as I realized the marathon would devour my entire Sunday. As I calculated the movie times in my head, 12 a.m., 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m., 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m., 10 p.m., the marathon seemed too daunting to be real.
Before the start of the first screening, a Gateway employee welcomed the participants and explained the rules. There would be 12 screenings, one every two hours on the hour; participants would have 20 minutes between screenings; the use of electronic devices, including cell phones, during the movie was prohibited; and every time the main character, Phil Connors, said “Ned,” the audience must reply with “Bing.”
Just before the employee finished, someone in the audience yelled, “What about alcohol?” to which he said while the bar would close after 2:30 a.m., it would reopen at 6 a.m. The crowd cheered.
In the past five years, the Gateway’s 24 Hours of “Groundhog Day” Marathon has grown substantially.
“When they first started it, I don’t know that they knew what it was going to be five years later, and we were going to sell out our biggest theater for it,” said Jordan Hanhilammi, the Gateway’s guest services supervisor.
In years past, participants were allowed to use electronic devices, but after noticing that they were keeping attendees from paying attention, the Gateway created rules prohibiting it, Hanhilammi said.
“(Rules are) providing a challenge and also helping people who are here for the ‘Groundhog Day’ event to get to enjoy the challenge and have fun with it,” he said, adding that the high energy from the crowd helps him get through the movie. “It’s the fun, that’s the main thing that helps.”
The crowd’s energy was evident early in the event.
With two screenings over, the crowd seemed to be enjoying the film. There was clapping in tune with the music, the yelling of “Bing” on cue, the quoting of lines and plenty of joviality. But as time marched on, the people around me started to close their eyes. Convinced I could make it through the entire 24-hour marathon without sleep, I kept watching.
I fell asleep a few minutes after the start of the fourth screening.
Only waking up to get my lanyard punched, I slept through the next two screenings. I finally woke up at 9:40 a.m., “reluctantly, but alertly,” to quote the film. I looked around the theater, the air was filled with the stench of sweat and body odor, blankets and pillows were scattered throughout, small groups of people were huddled around each other playing games and for some reason a giant, human-sized Kermit the Frog sat next to the movie screen. For the most part, the crowd was exhausted yet composed, still enjoying the film.
“It’s my favorite movie that I’m never going to watch again,” said Jessie Sun, a third-year in psychology whom I spoke with after the eighth screening. “I’m about two showings away from a psychotic breakdown.”
Three-quarters of the way into the marathon, a once-composed crowd was now much more enthusiastic. There was in-beat clapping, the yelling of “Bing,” the yelling of “six” every time a clock showed 6 a.m., which was the time Connors woke up. There was jubilant singing, shouts, laughter and live commentaries. However, for all the energy in the room, I could not shake the thought that the crowd and I were on the verge of delirium.
Not every member of the audience was energetic. Some people who watched the film seemed calm and composed. One such couple was 60-year-old Beryl Thompson and her husband, 64-year-old Drew Thompson.
Sunday was the second consecutive year the Thompsons participated in the Gateway’s Groundhog Day marathon. This year, the Thompsons were better prepared — they brought pillows, bedroom slippers and comfortable clothing, all of which aided their experience. Even with all of the viewings, the Thompsons said they still appreciate the film.
“I like having the movie tickets but then I also like watching the movie too … It’s very entertaining,” Beryl Thompson said.
Drew Thompson added that the experience was difficult, but it fits with his and his wife’s personalities.
“It is a challenge,” he said. “We’re against the grain.”
Adrenaline, energy and perseverance of will hit a crescendo during the 12th and final screening. There was not a 30-second period in the entire 101-minute film that was not filled with clapping, chanting, cheering and screams and shouts of joy and delight.
“It was really crazy, but a lot of fun,” Sun said at the end of the 24 hours, adding that the final viewing was one of her favorites because of the crowd participation. Even though she was proud of her ability to endure, Sun said the “Groundhog Day” marathon was not something she would ever repeat.
“This is my greatest life achievement to date,” she said. “I’ve wasted 24 hours of my life that I will never get back.”
The film ended and I stood in line to get my final hole-punch and to receive my 24 tickets. As I walked out of the Gateway, I looked up into the midnight sky. It seemed like no time had passed at all.