the museum of americana

a literary review

The Reformatory — Nonfiction by Alison Stine

 
I was fifteen when the movie people came.

They came because of the Ohio State Reformatory, a prison built in my hometown of Mansfield, Ohio in 1886—and abandoned a little over a century later, thanks to a 1990 court order deploring the living conditions. An imposing Romanesque structure, designed to resemble an old-world German cathedral with towers and turrets, the Reformatory was made of gray sandstone with high green roofs. The warden’s quarters have bay windows, a front porch. There’s a white stone chapel, dome-roofed administration buildings. Except for the two long wings of cell blocks, one on either side of the chapel, the prison looks like a fancy dollhouse. The guards referred to it as “the Castle.”

The movie was set in Maine, but the Reformatory had the look: Gothic, daunting, grand—and recently emptied of inmates. It was also cheaper to film in Ohio than to construct a prison in another state. Tango and Cash had been filmed at the Reformatory in the late 1980’s—but then the cast and crew of The Shawshank Redemption came, and it was a much bigger deal: Castle Rock Entertainment and Columbia Pictures, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins.

Based on a novella by Stephen King called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, the movie is about a banker named Andy who spends two decades imprisoned, falsely convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He befriends a smuggler named Red, played by Freeman, works at the prison library, is beaten and abused, and helpfully uses his banking knowledge to assist guards and prisoners alike with financial matters. Eventually, Andy escapes, tunneling a hole through his cell wall, the opening hidden by a cheesecake poster of Rita Hayworth. With Andy gone, Red serves out his time; once out, he finds money, laundered from a corrupt cell inspector, left for him under a tree by Andy, who then joins his friend in sunny Mexico.

The End.

That story was coming to Mansfield. Prison scenes would filmed at the Reformatory.  The money scene would be filmed in a Mansfield field. The tree would be a local tree. The movie park bench, the bus stop, the drugstore, the bank—we would know them all. Every glance out the window as Andy was bused to jail would be our glance: our vista, our little broken world.

The movie needed actors, lots of them.

~  ~  ~

I had already acted in a movie by then, a local film based on an urban legend. Titled, unfortunately, Men in Black, the movie was released just a few short years before the Will Smith blockbuster of the same name. People kept asking me, “What was Will Smith like?” And: “Wait. What part did you play again?”

It was a small part, listed in the credits as simply “Girl”: the main character’s daughter. I don’t think I was ever even onscreen with the actor playing my dad. After edits, my part was reduced to a voice over, a face to fill the picture frames beside a phone.

My own dad had recently left his job as director of the town economic development corporation. Over the years, he had led tour after tour of abandoned factories to potential developers. Mansfield Tire & Rubber Company had closed, Ohio Brass, Tappan, GM. All those warehouses wide open. Developers, possible new businesses, could have their pick among the echoing, stalled plants. And they chose none.

Finally, my dad quit, took out loans, went in with friends—and bought the old Westinghouse factory himself.

Once the town’s largest employer, maker of home appliances large and small, the Westinghouse factory in Mansfield was huge, right by the railroad tracks (so close, a train passing would shake the building). Really, it was two buildings, connected over a road by an enclosed bridge. One night, a semi truck ignored the clearance sign and hit the bridge, crushing the bottom floor.

The Westinghouse complex included over a dozen outbuildings, sprawling over forty acres. Built in the 1920s, the factory once employed more than eight thousand people—the largest employer in town. Its heyday was the 40s and 50s. In 1990, Westinghouse ceased production in Mansfield. This huge, landmark structure which had once produced the first fully automatic electric cooking range, the first upright freezer, the first frost-free refrigerator—went up for sale to the public.

My dad saw something there, not just ghosts. He rented the warehouses to manufacturers, and the office space to companies. There was even a ballroom in the main building; my own homecoming dance was held there.

The stage at the ballroom had once been used as a television studio. Here, national commercials for Westinghouse had been filmed in the 50s and 60s. Here, Westinghouse had built something called The Home of Tomorrow in 1934, including a model kitchen, to showcase its products in action. Here, backstage behind the dusty curtains, was a robot.

Elektro, built in the Mansfield Westinghouse factory, was seven feet of aluminum on a steel frame. “[O]ne of the most photographed mechanical men,”[i] Elektro was created for and displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The robot could speak seven hundred words, perform twenty-seven commands, glide on rubber tire rollers, raise and lower his arms, turn his head—and smoke a cigarette. In the blueprints for Elektro’s design, he’s smoking, a bellows in his head used to suck in the haze.  His lips are thick, his nose flat, his body a bulky silver tube. He performed at the fair, a twenty minute show every two hours, with Sparko the robot dog.

It’s hard to follow Elektro’s path after the World’s Fair (and little Sparko completely disappears from history). Like many stars, he seems to fall on hard times. He was displayed, but never operated at the Palisades Theme Park in Oceanside, California. He appeared in movies, including 1960’s Sex Kittens Go to College (“The Sci-Fi, Sex Comedy Sensation”[ii]) where he starred as Thinko, the Campus Computer. When Collins College needs a new head of the Science Department, Thinko “come[s] up with Dr. Mathilda West, who has degrees in lots of things, but turns out to be disruptively attractive as well.”[iii]

Some sources say Elektro was sold for scraps, but after the Westinghouse factory closed, someone discovered the robot—or his components—backstage in the ballroom. He was restored by a man named Jack Weeks, son of John Weeks, who had co-invented the robot, and rests on display at the Mansfield Memorial Museum, billed as “The Oldest Surviving American Robot in the World.”[iv]

~  ~  ~

The Westinghouse factory, once sold, was renamed The Mansfield Commerce Center.

I wonder if it was so named because of the ease in switching all the signs.  Westinghouse’s logo was a W on a white, circular background. My dad just turned the circles upside down. The W for Westinghouse became M for Mansfield.  In my family, we called the factory simply “the Building,” and I spend much of my adolescence there.

When the factory closed, when the workers left, they left almost everything. My younger sister and I would roam through the rows of abandoned offices.  We would race each other in rolled desk chairs.

Other times, we simply roller-skated up and down the long, cement hallways, the deserted warehouses echoing with our wheels.  Skating for hours in musty silence was like gliding on a long, narrow river.  Up in the steel rafters, pigeons nested, swooping in and out of the broken windows. Flying through the factory, we could skate for miles.

When the factory closed, the workers were laid off, many whom had worked for Westinghouse for years. It was in the newspaper for a long time, all the stories leading up to the end of an era. With permanent black markers, workers autographed the last Westinghouse washing machine to come down the assembly line in 1990. Then they hugged, said their goodbyes, turned off the lights and left.

Months later, my sister and I found the autographed machine. “They just left it here?”  she said.

It stood in a near-empty room, one of the mysterious corner areas with broken windows and skylights and a bird smell. The washing machine was white and gleaming, brand-new except for the marks scrawled all over its surface like tattoos.

I wanted to keep it. I wanted to bring it home and use it.  Stash it in my room, where I am certain it would not have fit. Someone should have taken it, I thought. Someone should have read and remembered those names.

~  ~  ~

In 1992, two years after Westinghouse closed in Mansfield, The Shawshank Redemption filmed at the Building. The crew used the old Reformatory for many shots, both exterior and interior: the guard towers, the entrance way with its checkered floor, admittance rooms, the warden’s office, even a locker room.

But there was a problem with some key scenes: At the Reformatory, the massive, six tiers-tall blocks of cells faced out.

The architects didn’t want the prisoners communicating with each other, which seems cruel, isolating, even though the Reformatory was never meant to be.  It was never intended for maximum security. Called an intermediate prison, it was built to hold first time offenders, especially those deemed too old for juvenile hall, but too young or too green for the state pen: petty crooks, pickpockets, a twelve-year-old arsonist.

Still, the Reformatory’s history is not without horrors. In 1948, two inmates, released early for good behavior, killed a tavern owner in nearby Columbus, then returned to the Reformatory for revenge. When they couldn’t find the warden, they kidnapped the superintendent of the prison farm, his wife, and the couple’s twenty-year-old daughter. They murdered all three in a cornfield. The crime spree did not end until two weeks later when one of the parolees, dubbed the “Mad Dog Killers,” was killed in a shootout with police. The second Mad Dog was executed for murder.

For the movie, the prison cells needed to face in, over an aisle. The prisoners needed to be able to talk. And because the cells in the Reformatory didn’t do this, for a time there was talk of the movie picking up stakes and heading to Tennessee where there was another prison, apparently one with better cell blocks.

In the story as my dad tells it, he stepped in. The second largest warehouse on the Westinghouse campus was a huge space with giant steel girders arching over the ceiling like buttresses on a cathedral, perfect for a prison scene. Unfortunately, my dad and his partners didn’t own that building and the owner wasn’t thrilled about having a movie crew there. They would make a mess, he said. The space would be impossible to rent afterward. My dad was the one who talked him into it (think of the publicity!), and The Shawshank Redemption moved in.

The crew built a set inside the factory: a three-story wall of prison cells—facing in. The sound stage fit. It seemed to belong there, as if the Building—this busted, broken space in Ohio—had been waiting for Hollywood all this time.

In the movie, Tim Robbins’ character escapes by squeezing through a tunnel he has dug with a spoon. The filmmakers built this tunnel at the Building, making it open on one side so they could film Andy inching through. My little brother, who was about five at the time, crawled through the movie tunnel one afternoon. He liked tight spaces. He could often be found at our house hiding in the small area between the toilet and the wall in the downstairs bathroom, or squeezing in the cabinet under the sink in a space my mom had cleared out for him, placing a pillow, his blanket and a few books inside.

~  ~  ~

My siblings, mom, and I used to go walk the set after filming had finished for the day. We would stroll down the aisle between the cells. It was cool and quiet in the prison, almost peaceful. Light filtered from the skylights and the high, broken windows.

What I remember most about these walks was the light. Everything seemed golden. Though the walls were fake, it felt like something was waiting behind them. A story was about to happen. All that was needed was a camera to click on. I could have been a part of it, if I wasn’t so stubborn.

So many people from town—kids from school, actors from the community theater, local cops, were in The Shawshank Redemption—it felt like the movie was census of Mansfield. It felt like a production of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town with scenery. At one point, the movie was so desperate for extras, if you showed up dressed vaguely in period costume—wore a skirt if you were female, a cap if you were male—you could be in a crowd scene. Everyone was talking about the movie, and I got sick of it. Acting had been my dream, my private thing that my family and school and town didn’t really participate in, let alone understand, and now it was everywhere. Everyone got the acting bug. I wanted to matter; I didn’t want to be an extra, and I especially didn’t want to be an extra simply because there was a movie in my town.

Of course a movie would never come to my town again, not like that.

Air Force One, the 1996 film with Harrison Ford, shot a few scenes at the Reformatory, though Ford himself never came to Mansfield. The band Godsmack filmed a music video there. Marilyn Manson was photographed at the Reformatory for a 1996 Details spread, and there was hope that this too would lead to a video at the old prison, but nothing panned out.

On the website for the Reformatory, “Film Requests” is still highlighted prominently, as is film tourism on the Mansfield/ Richland County Convention and Business Bureau site; specifically, the “Shawshank Trail,” a series of fourteen local spots seen in the film, including the prison, a park bench, various meadows, and an old oak tree. It’s a self-guided tour. You drive your car.

People do it, actually. A lot of people. The Shawshank Redemption, a film released two decades ago, still supplies Mansfield with much of its tourism. National Public Radio even did a story on Mansfield and the movie a few years ago, calling the Trail “Mansfield’s Shawshank industry.”[v] Correspondent Cory Tuner had somber words for the town:

Mansfield has fallen on hard times. Westinghouse, the Tappan Stove Co., Ohio Brass, and Mansfield Tire and Rubber have all closed plants in Mansfield since America’s heavy manufacturing boom went bust. The latest casualty: the local General Motors plant… All in a city of fewer than 50,000. [vi]

Yet the majority of the comments on the story when it was posted to NPR’s site are in defense of Mansfield. NPR listeners take offense to the Rust Belt moniker, with comments such as: “labeling Mansfield ‘rust belt’ totally misses the beauty of the locale and its people,”[vii] and “I am very disturbed at the reference to ‘rust belt’ Mansfield and most all of mid-Ohio are extremely beautiful, bucolic, and altogether look like one state-wide movie set… No rust anywhere in these golden fields.”[viii]

Perhaps these listeners haven’t taken Route 30 into town, where the fields along the highway give away to warehouses bronzed in rust, clogged and capped smokestacks, the brownfield where one of AK Steel’s plants used to sit before it was bulldozed and sold for scrap—and in the near distance beside the railroad tracks, what the local paper, the Mansfield News Journal dubbed the “humpbacked whale”[ix]: The Building.

~  ~  ~

The premiere of The Shawshank Redemption was held in Mansfield—the North Central Ohio premiere, anyway. I can’t remember if any of the movie stars came. Maybe the producers showed up only to disappear again in long black cars. They showed the film at the Renaissance, the big 1928 movie theater downtown, which in recent years has been known as the home of the Miss Ohio pageant (and in the 1970s, was known for showing Deep Throat).

After the credits rolled to a standing ovation, they trucked the audience out to the Reformatory in gray prison trucks for the after-party. At the Castle, the dressed-up crowd was served hard, stale bread, served up on a thin, metal tray. Water was served in tin mugs, pale soup.

My parents attended the premiere—and the food choices were not understood, my dad said. It did not go over well, the hard bread and watery soup. This was a big deal, the premiere, the after-party. It was supposed to be Hollywood. There was supposed to be shrimp.

The movie didn’t do well, either, at least not at first. It barely recouped its budget from the box office takes, but found a life on video, and a cult following. Mansfield finally found something to sell: the memory, the making of, the experience. We would manufacture again, make dreams—but not even our own dreams, dreams of a Hollywood fiction.

My dad sold his share in the Building. That semi truck hit the bridge. A woman was killed by a train on the tracks right in front of one of my dad’s co-workers as she tried to protect her stalled car from the train. The man screamed for her to get out of the way, to forget the car; he ran—but he could not reach her.

New owners tore part of the Building down, the warehouse that had housed the Shawshank set. The Mansfield News Journal said it was time; that building was an eyesore, a reminder of the manufacturing history that Mansfield had lost, the jobs that were lost, the kind of life that was lost to us forever.

Do I regret not being in the movie, not being an extra: a face in a crowd, a blur in the background, a teenager captured forever on film, if only for a scene? I do.

I regret it when I hear the twentieth anniversary of the film approaches, and a campaign has been launched to try to get Morgan Freeman, the most sympathetic of the movie stars, back to town. I regret it when I hear the tree from the movie was hit by lightning and hurt by wind a few years ago, and now, despite the many who make pilgrimages to see it, who have tattoos of it, who crawl under fences and onto private property to glimpse where Andy buried his treasure for Red, it’s unclear whether the tree can be saved. A piece of the tree, a jagged bit of trunk, is on display at the prison, in a locked glass case. It’s part of the “Hollywood Tour,” where the guides dress as prison guards.

Around Halloween, the Reformatory offers “ghost tours,” which have been featured on ghost hunter reality shows—more than once (there are a lot of ghosts). You can get married in the main block, which I am told is quite nice: the large entrance way with its chandelier, the black and white tiled floor. Every spring, a fashion show is held at the Reformatory. “Glamour in the Slammer.” It always sells out.
 
 
 
 
 
 


[i] Buckley, David. “Elektro and Sparko.”  History Makers. 14 November 2001. Web. 15 June 2012.

[ii] “Sex Kittens Go to College.”  The Internet Movie Database. n.d. Web. 15 June 2012.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] The Mansfield Memorial Museum. 2010.  Web. 15 June 2012.

[v] Turner, Cory. “On Location: Mansfield Ohio’s Shawshank Industry.” All Things Considered. NPR. 4 August 2011.  Web. 15 August 2011.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Miller, Patricia.  Website comment. Turner, “On Location: Mansfield Ohio’s Shawshank Industry.”

[viii] Rector, Anne.  Website comment.  Turner, “On Location: Mansfield Ohio’s Shawshank Industry.”

[ix] Kennard, David. “Editorial: Westinghouse Played Key Role in Mansfield Economy.”  The News Journal. 27 November 2010.  Web.  15 May 2012.

 

~  ~  ~

Alison Stine is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and the author of two books of poems: WAIT, winner of the Brittingham Prize (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), and OHIO VIOLENCE, winner of the Vassar Miller (University of North Texas Press, 2009). Her essays and poems have been published in The Paris ReviewPoetryThe Kenyon ReviewTin HouseNew England ReviewBlack Warrior ReviewThe Huffington Post, and others. Her awards include the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. In her work, Alison focuses on rural and post-industrial settings of the Midwest and documents stories of abandoned places and people in the area known as the foothills of Appalachia, where she lives.