The 1994 prison drama The Shawshank Redemption is a Hollywood rarity, as it was not shot in Hollywood. The filmmakers also didn’t use New York or Toronto. instead, shawshank was shot almost entirely on location, in and around the rust belt town of mansfield, ohio, roughly halfway between columbus and cleveland.
This summer, as we explore the locations where iconic American movies were filmed for our “on location” series, we discovered that often, long after the cameras are packed and the crew goes home, a movie can leave a footprint in a city.
In recent decades, Mansfield has fallen on hard times. Westinghouse, Tappan Stove Co., Ohio Brass and Mansfield Tire and Rubber have closed plants in Mansfield since the boom in heavy industry in the United States. The latest victim: the local General Motors plant, which closed last year. all in a city of less than 50,000 inhabitants. but at least one closure has brought with it a strange bounty.
after nearly a century of use, the ohio state reformatory closed its doors on new years eve 1990. the massive prison outside mansfield is a combination of three architectural styles: victorian gothic, richardsonian romanesque and queen anne. If that doesn’t mean much to you, let me put it this way: It’s both beautiful and terrifying. which may explain why hollywood thought it would make a perfect shawshank prison.
Earlier this summer, tour guide Ron Puff walked me through juvie. we start in the east cell block, six levels up, the largest free-standing steel cell block in the world. approximately 600 cells, 7 feet by 9 feet, held two inmates each. and that’s just the east block, which wasn’t used in the movie. but it’s amazing how much of the reformatory was used. Puff gives me a tour of Shawshank, taking me through the warden’s office, the Brooks Library (now a storage room), the showers, and one of the most popular stops: solitary confinement. Even the fake sewer pipe that Tim Robbins’ character uses to escape is still there, propped up on a small platform, as if the camera crew just had lunch.
When Shawshank’s Redemption was released in theaters in September 1994, it was largely ignored by audiences. Even after seven Oscar nominations, the film struggled to find an audience. but home video and cable changed that.
lee tasseff, president of the mansfield and richland counties convention and visitors bureau, was in mansfield when the filmmakers arrived looking for a prison, and he is thanked in the film’s credits. A few years after the film’s release, he says, his phone started ringing off the hook. and then people started showing up.
“They were random and we never knew where they came from,” says Tasseff. “sometimes it was someone from korea; the gentleman who hitchhiked from england stopped at our door.”
I call them the Shawshank Pilgrims.
michael demetriades lives in florida and flew to mansfield with his father-in-law for the shawshank experience.
“To immerse myself in the experience,” he says, “I wanted to go with actual printed footage from the movie so I could compare it to actual scenes when I was there in person.”
demetriades printed 120 images from the film and brought them in a folder. she also programmed the movie locations into her gps and listened to the movie soundtrack as she went. She giggles as she describes how far she went to prepare for her trip to Mansfield.
“I don’t want to sound too extreme, but I was definitely prepared,” he says.
here’s the thing: among the shawshank pilgrims, demetriades is not an extremist. mansfield has become a mecca for pilgrims like him. they, of course, want to see shawshank prison. But the biggest draw for many of them is about 15 miles to the south, in an old farm field. it is a giant oak. As Morgan Freeman’s character struggles to make sense of his life once he is paroled, it is that tree, and the promise he made to visit it, that gives him hope.
the tree is at least 100 feet tall and 175 years old. And for many Shawshank pilgrims, seeing it is a spiritual experience. go to youtube and you will find videos of people just filming themselves while driving.
“It’s almost like a cult here,” says Sybil Burskey, administrative assistant at Malabar Farm State Park, who stands in front of the tree. “We get phone calls, we get visitors. You can always tell when someone is looking for the shawshank tree because they walk into the gift shop and they have a puzzled look on their face.”
The owner of the tree, a local lawyer, is not amused by the cult status of his tree. He’s put up a fence, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people from driving slowly down the pleasant valley road, taking pictures, or missing the tree and ending up confused at Burskey’s gift shop.
Jodie Puster works for Tasseff at the Mansfield Visitors Bureau. Three years ago they put together the Shawshank Trail, including a brochure and map to help visitors find the tree, and all of Mansfield’s Shawshank locations. but the trail is more than that. it’s also a bit of clever marketing.
Local businesses, Puster says, wanted to get involved, even if they had no direct connection to the film. ed pickens, owner of cafe on main, created a shawshankwich. Across the street at The Squirrels Den candy store, owner Ladonna Secrist is happy to sell visitors a prison bar chocolate bar as they view her recreations of scenes from Shawshank’s Redemption in chocolate. If chocolate isn’t your thing, you can grab a miniature Bundt cake in the shape of the Ohio State Reformatory from Joyce Wells and her Eatmor Bundt Co.
leaving mansfield, i drop by juvie for the last time. while the state had planned to tear it down after the shawshank redemption was filmed, a core group of reform school enthusiasts stepped in and the state eventually sold the building to them for a dollar.
It’s Saturday and the building is closed, believe it or not, for private parties. Greeting me is rob klarman, another tour guide and volunteer liaison with the jury’s board of directors.
tells me that reform school has never been more popular. Turns out the Ohio State Reformatory has caught on. and tours are just the beginning. you name it, people want to do it here: conventions, trade shows, ghost hunts, concerts, graduations. people even want to get married here.
“There are 14 weddings here scheduled for this year,” says Klarman. “There’s already four or five scheduled for 2012 and there’s already a wedding scheduled for 2013. So the word has gotten out. It’s spread. It’s just amazing.”
klarman himself is not here on official business, but because he has rented the reform school for his daughter, rachel, to celebrate her high school graduation. She happily admits that celebrating her graduation behind bars may seem a bit strange to some, but there’s no place she’d rather be.
there is no way to measure what shawshank’s redemption has done for mansfield. There’s the money, of course, from the filming itself, as well as the steady business that follows the shawshank pilgrims. But it’s about more than money. this is the last word spoken in the film: “hope”.
Pilgrims from Shawshank don’t come to Mansfield looking for a behind-bars photo shoot or gossip about movie stars. they want to be inspired. feel the same as they felt the first time they saw the movie. And for the unlucky town of Mansfield, being the source of inspiration for so many perfect strangers is, in itself, a source of pride…and hope.
postscript: just a few days ago, after my visit to mansfield, a violent storm hit the area. and we are sorry to report that the strong winds split the shawshank oak tree in half. some of it still stands, but it’s unclear for how long. It is too early to tell what effect, if any, the loss will have on Shawshank pilgrims’ enthusiasm for visiting Mansfield. But it’s important to remember this: many of the film’s fans visit just one place, but an idea.
and the idea of shawshank lives on.