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'Groundhog Day' house seeks new repeat occupant

Want to live like Bill Murray? The house from “Groundhog Day” is up for sale.

Do you want to live in Bill Murray's house?

Well, he never actually lived in the house at 344 Fremont St. in northwest suburban Woodstock. But for some brief, shining cinematic moments that house was the Cherry Street Inn, and it is where Murray slept night after night after night after night in the 1993 film "Groundhog Day," awakening morning after morning after morning after morning to a clock radio blaring Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe."

The house is for sale. It has been for a little over a year. Originally priced at $895,000, it can now be had for $785,000.

It is a beautiful Victorian built in 1894 by a lawyer named C.P. Barnes, who later became a judge. He and his wife and two children lived there until 1914, and other owners began to come and go, making memories and making changes.

Now, packed neatly into the house's 5,815 square feet sitting on one acre of land, are seven bedrooms and eight bathrooms, three fireplaces, parlor, dining room, kitchen and library, with all manner of amenities and all under 10-foot ceilings above hardwood floors.

"It is a unique property," says Rick Bellairs. "But this is still a tough market, and this house is at the high end for this area. Higher-priced home sales are still slow. But this house would be at the low end in places like Naperville or Hinsdale or Lake Forest."

Bellairs works for Berkshire Hathaway/Stark Real Estate and is the exclusive agent for the property. A more qualified, knowledgeable and passionate agent would be impossible to find. (FYI, we are no more trying to help him sell this place than stories about a fancy new watch are trying to fill Apple's coffers.)

He lives in Woodstock and has for decades, the son of Mal Bellairs, a local and memorable Chicago-area radio voice for more than half a century who also served as the master of ceremonies when "Groundhog Day" had its local premiere at a theater in nearby Crystal Lake.

Also: Rick Bellairs was in "Groundhog Day."

He was an extra who can be seen walking on the sidewalk and driving his blue Saab around the town square. "I am really good at blending in, I guess," said Bellairs, whose film career ended a bit later, after small extra parts in Chicago-based scenes of "Hoffa" and "Sleepless in Seattle."

And then there is this: "I played in that house a lot," he says. "It was owned by the parents of a good friend of mine in high school, and I spent many, many fine times there, mostly in the third-floor attic fooling around. I knew every inch of it.

"You know, for a lot of us who grew up around here, it has never been the 'Groundhog Day' house. It has always been and always will be the Rachford house."

The parents of Bellairs' high school friend were named Fred and Kady Rachford. They purchased it in 1962 and raised nine children there, entertained dozens more.

With all those children out of the house, the Rachfords eventually sold, and it went through three owners before being purchased in 2008 for $435,000 by Everton Martin and Karla Stewart-Martin, who lived in suburban Milwaukee. They had been searching the area by car for nearly two years trying to find a place that might fulfill their mutual dreams of owning a bed-and-breakfast. When they first saw the house, they deemed it perfect. They had no idea of its previous movie fame.

After extensive renovating, to the tune of more than $500,000, they named the place the Royal Victorian Manor and opened for business. It remains open, with charmingly appointed rooms going for $135-$170 per night (price always subject to change).

Often, people will stand on the sidewalk in front of the B&B and snap photos. The more brazen (or obnoxious) tourists will walk up the path to the door, knock loudly and, when someone answers, ask (or demand) that they be allowed to look around the place.

"The Martins are very pleasant, or try to be," Bellairs says. "But they are running a business, and this is also their home (they live in quarters on the third floor). It is not a museum."

Selling the property is "bittersweet," says Karla, who used to work in the corporate world; her husband remains a commercial airline pilot. "This has really been a great experience for us. It really is a 24-hour a day job, but there is great personal fulfillment in being your own boss. All of the challenges involved have been more than worth it."

The reasons they are moving on are also personal. "We have grown kids and grandchildren still living in the Milwaukee area, so it really is the heartstrings pulling us back, the ability to see more of the people we love.

"We will miss it. From the moment we got here we have felt such a great sense of community, and we have loved this place. It has been a thrill to live and work in Woodstock."

This charming town feels the "Groundhog Day" shadow. Though the movie gang was here for only about three months, the success of the film — deserved success, mind you, for it is a great and timeless comedy, co-written and directed by the late Harold Ramis — has drawn fans ever since, most notably during Groundhog Days in Woodstock, an annual winter event that has grown from one day into a weeklong affair featuring, among many things, walking tours, a chili cook-off, trivia contests, several movie showings and, naturally, a real groundhog searching for its shadow. Engraved metal plaques, signifying notable scenes from the film, dot the town in all seasons.

History is appreciated more here than most places. At the town's center is a park, and at the center of it is a lovely gazebo. This was the original site of McHenry County's first courthouse and became a park in 1857, after the construction of the new courthouse, which stands on the square and vies for one's architectural affections with the nearby Opera House, built in 1889 and still a lively venue.

Circling the town square are many businesses, among them Read Between the Lynes, one of the great independent bookstores in the Midwest, opened in 2005 after the town had been without such an oasis for five years. Arlene Lynes owns the place. It is a treasure.

She says: "People do come from around the world to try to catch a bit of that 'Groundhog Day' movie magic. What they end up finding is so much more than they ever imagined. Numerous restaurants and pubs, unique shops, musical festivals throughout the year such as the Mozart Festival, folk and jazz festivals, weekly summer band concerts in the park."

She goes on to mention such famous native sons as Chester Gould, the creator of Dick Tracy, and actor/filmmaker Orson Welles.

"The history in this town just overflows," Lynes says.

In 2007 Woodstock was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual list of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

At the time, Richard Moe, the president of the organization said, "Woodstock represents the very best of small-town America, a place where community and quality of life are values that are revealed in every street and sidewalk."

And revealed and revealed and revealed and revealed.

"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

rkogan@tribune.com

Twitter @rickkogan

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