Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Let's Go To Prison" The Shawshank Experience

I don't really remember when I first saw or heard of the movie The Shawshank Redemption. I lived in Japan in the Nineties so my sense of Pop Culture isn't very good for that era (in fact, most people I know now joke that I "missed" the Nineties because I don't recognize Seinfeld or Office Space references, but I digress...) I'm pretty sure I saw it on video a year after it was released because US movies tend to come out a year after they are released in the States AND because we hardly ever saw "first-run" movies in theatres.
I remember liking it when I saw it. I had always liked Tim Robbins, I remembered and liked Morgan Freeman from The Electric Company, and I knew James Whitmore from long back (he and I shared a birthday!). Plus the story is exactly the kind I like: not too flashy, deep with plenty of scenes you can watch and re-watch, and a twist ending.
In 2001 I moved back to the States to a little town in Indiana; in 2005 I moved to Columbus. I don't remember when I learned that the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, was the location where they filmed 80% or so of the movie, but it must have been close to immediately after moving here! So for nearly six years I've wanted to take the day-long trip North to visit the site. It was just always too far, or I was too busy, or my daughter wasn't around, or something....Until now. Yuko didn't go back to Japan this summer because we are all going to go back together in the winter, so she has been trying to find things to do and places to go on the weekends. We went to pick blueberries one week. We went driving to hunt down covered bridges another. Next week we're going to the Twins Festival in Twinsburg (yes, it's true the oddest town names are in Ohio!). So I naturally said: We're going to Mansfield.

Mansfield is about an hour-plus directly northeast of Columbus. It's a basically straight shot on 71 North. Once you get off the highway it's a winding ways around the town of Mansfield to get out to the outskirts where the former prison is. Have you ever gone on one of those country drives and you're following the directions and are *just* thinking that you might be lost when... BAM! you turn a corner and find what you were looking for? That's exactly what happened to us. Right as we were about to say "it's got to be around here somewhere....!" we literally turned a corner and saw this:
Wow! It looked like some Evil Queen's castle....and we were all giddy that we had made it! We got there at about 12:00, but the gates didn't open until 12:30 and tours didn't start until 1 PM, so we had to get in a line of cars full of people already waiting. We spent the time reading the pamphlets available at the gate, anxiously waiting for them to open.

A few words about the building itself. It was constructed in 1896 as a Reformatory, i.e. a place to take "wayward" young men and teach them trades and try to reform them before returning them to society. For most of its life it was 90% self-sufficient: in-mates grew their own vegetables, raised their own cattle and chickens, made their own shoes, etc, etc. Gradually it became more of a hardened criminal penitentiary until by the time it closed in Dec 1990 it had become one of Ohio's State Penitentiaries. In fact, it was closed because it was too old and too cramped. Originally the state had planned to demolish it in order to build a new penitentiary on the same site. However, the Historical Society intervened and asked if they could take control of the OSR (as it is affectionately called). While these negotiations were occurring, Hollywood came calling and asked to make The Shawshank Redemption on site. The state allowed it and from what I learned from the tour guides last week, couldn't have cared less at the time. Hollywood filmed their little movie in peace. As soon as they were finished, the State decided that they had ample space to build their new Maximum Security and Minimum Security prisons behind the OSR. They demolished the back yard and stone walls behind the main buildings to make some room, but left everything else as it ws.

So this was good news for the Adminstrative Buildings and Cells, but for those of us who wanted to see the actual yard and walls where Andy and Red hung out, we were disappointed. However, that was basically the only disappointment we had that day.
The OSR is now run by The Mansfield Historical Preservation Society. The staff are all volunteers who are dedicated to maintaining the buildings and the atmosphere. Besides the weekend guided tours there are daily unguided tours AND on certain nights there are also guided "ghost" tours. My daughter was very interested in those, but the guide said you had to be 21 or older to attend. They turn on only minimal lighting on the premises and the insurance wouldn't allow minors to attend!

There are three tours available at the OSR: East, West, and Hollywood. Originally we had planned to take all three, but the timing didn't work out and the guides assured us that two would be sufficient. So we picked the one starting at 1 PM (even now I'm not sure which it was...East, I guess) and prepared to go in. 

The tour started in the Adminstrative office and some of the guards' quarters before we actually got into the prison section itself. The first thing we visited was the large Hall that was used as a Visitors' Center. It was barred up on both sides and had space for armed guards to sit. If you have ever seen the movie Air Force One, this is where they filmed the Russian prison scenes! So there were large posters of Lenin and Stalin on the wall, which was very surreal. Also, the guide told us that this room was used in Shawshank as the cafeteria...!
From here you could either enter the East block or the West block. At our first tour we went to the East side but later we went on the West side. So I'll show you pics from both. They were both very, very run-down. The tour guide assured us that the place was better kept while there were prisoners living there; now that no one is there 24-7 the heat and cold runs amok, causing rust and peeling paint. Agreeing that the weather would be harsh, it was still pretty depressing. You can see that the East Block just *looks* nicer! Granted, it has been painted and refurbished for some Lil Wayne video filmed there (the one with him in some gold cell was filmed here; not being familiar with him I don't know the song but I did see the gold-painted cell!). Still, the East block looks more like what I imagined a prison would look like...walls between cells and small "windows" to each cell. When we went to the West side we saw that the cells were smaller and much closer together. The guide explained that the East side was for the better behaved prisoners, and I could totally understand that if you had a choice (?!) you would much rather be on the East side. My overall thought during this part of the tour was: I do NOT want to go to prison!!! :-)
Quick note about Shawshank: the scenes IN the prison/cell area and in Andy's cell etc were not filmed at the OSR! Prisons always have cells looking away from each other, not into each other. Also, cell blocks are *never* built against walls in order to prevent escape attempts! But since the story called for those fictitious conditions, those scenes were filmed at an old General Electric plant somewhere else in Mansfield. All the overall and group scenes were filmed at the OSR, but not the actual prison scenes! Pretty funny.
After we visited the cell blocks the tour guide took us to the roof. However, I don't have any photographic evidence of this because it is a federal offense to take pictures on the roof. Why? Because directly behind the OSR are two actual Ohio State Penitentiaries, and it is illegal to take photos of them! We saw the Max and Min security facilities instead of the back yard and walls. Kind of interesting to visit a former prison and see actual prisoners in the distance. Another surreal moment..! We visited one of the guard's towers, too. Guards were stuck on duty for their entire shift...there was a toilet, a sink, and a small heater. If he had run out of coal he could get some lugged up on a bucket on a rope.

Our first tour ended at the back gate where they filmed more scenes from Air Force One. This was exciting for us because we had made a point to see the DVD knowing that we were going to be visiting. It's a stupid movie, but if you want to see more of the OSR it's worth watching.

After we grabbed a quick lunch of hot dogs and nachos (my wife suddenly loves those Cheese Whiz stale chip things, I can't understand it!), it was time for our second tour, The Hollywood Tour. It started at the same place as the first, but we went into the main Administrative building instead of towards the cells. One of the first things we saw was the staircase where the warden and Andy are walking and talking about the prison library. And one of the first rooms we went in had this view:

Yes, the Shawshank warden's office! (Note the view of the driveway in the window.)
This was actually the chaplain's office at the real reformatory, but the producers wanted that view of the police driving up to Shawshank in the movie, so they chose this room. The real OSR warden's office was on the first floor. Immediately next to this was the room where Andy played his opera record and the guards broke the glass on the door to stop him. The toilet where the guard went to "squeeze out a loaf" is actually a closet that Hollywood made into a bathroom! But everything was right where you expected it to be. It was cool.

Then in the offices next to the chaplain's we came across two large, expansive rooms that seemed very familiar...it turns out that the scenes showing the halfway house where Brooks (James Whitmore) and Red (Morgan Freeman) lived after they were discharged were actually filmed at the prison! Hollywood created a fake wall and door to partition the space off and pretend the rooms were at a hotel in town. Brooks' scenes were filmed first, with his scratchings put into the wood of the wall, and then Red's scenes were filmed where he added his name. I had no idea!!

We then were shown the Western cellblocks, which I've already talked about. We went into the showers, too, which looked just like any other open-type shower.... The guide said that all prisoners got a shower once a week whether they wanted one or not; the idea of showering at prison isn't great, and there wasn't anything to really take a picture of, so I'll move along, haha.

The next area we stopped at was The Basement Hall. This was the room where the new prisoners (including Andy) are ushered in for their first meeting with the warden. On display in this room is the actual "hole in the wall" that was used in the shot when Andy's escape is found out. As mentioned earlier, they didn't film the cell scenes at OSR, so when the camera films the warden's face from the point-of-view of the escape hole it wasn't really filmed from inside a hole or a wall. It was a prop made out of plaster paris and paper mache and painted to look like soft granite wall. Also on display in this room is the "pipe" that Andy (Tim Robbins) crawled
through to escape. Hollywood made the pipe at about 18 feet, filled it with chocolate sauce and similar ingredients and filmed Tim Robbins from both ends. When Hollywood was done with it, they left it and the Preservation Society took possession of it.

The tour ended back in the mail room talking about Air Force One again. It seems that in that movie a military helicopter appears at the Russian prison to pick up the General. Well, that was fine, but the director neglected to tell the proper authorities that this scene was scheduled for that night, so when the helicopter actually flew in and landed (next to two actual State Prisons, remember) the authorities were NOT AMUSED. They interrupted filming, ruining all shots from that evening and cancelling production for that night.  We all got a pretty good laugh out of that story.

And with that, our tours were done. The OSR was closing, to reopen later that night for a Ghost Walk. We were some of the last people there, lingering before going...trying to take photos without too many people in them....using the facilities before our hour-plus drive home...somehow not wanting to leave. I lingered in the Gift Shop, trying to decide if I really wanted a Shawshank t-shirt. Now I'm thinking I should have bought one...if not for me then atleast for some friends for Christmas or birthdays! The wife and daughter announced that they were satisfied, and we took one last look as we headed back into the real world, happy to visit but glad not to have to have lived there. On the way out we turned right instead of left and drove through down-town Mansfield, which had substituted for the small city where Brooks fed the pigeons in the park and Red and Andy had walked the streets. It was cool, and a nice way to drive away from "a little bit of Hollywood...."

I read today that the tree made famous in the movie was damaged in the recent storm. We didn't take the time to go visit the site of the tree for two reasons: one, the rock-wall is gone (the owner sold all the rocks on ebay!) and two, well, it's just a tree. Now I'm wishing that we had gone....

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