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Ohio State Reformatory still grips fans 25 years after movie's release

Posted at 12:34 PM, Sep 03, 2018

A prison movie shot in Ohio continues to grip fans nearly 25 years after its release.

The Shawshank Redemption, with wily inmates Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) surviving long sentences and ultimately thriving, first hit theaters in September of 1994. It’s one of the most enduring films of the late 20th century. So much so that it’s hard to flip TV channels many nights without hearing Freeman’s honey-toned voice chattering on about “my friend, Andy Dufresne.”

In 2019, for three days starting on Aug. 16, the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, where director Frank Darabont and crew shot the drama, will celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary. There will be events at the former prison, now a museum, and in and around the Mansfield area.

“I can’t say yet which actors are coming back, but the 25th is a big deal and we want to make it as fun-packed and interactive for people as we can,” said Dan Smith, the reformatory’s creative marketing director.

The film, based on Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, took over the reformatory in the summer of 1993. It was nominated for seven Oscars including best picture, but lost to Forrest Gump.

The reformatory opened in 1896 and housed prisoners until 1990. It draws thousands of tourists annually from Ohio and around the world. In addition to Shawshank tours, it hosts paranormal ghost walks and Halloween haunts, and in July held a music and tattoo festival, Inkcarceration.

Last fall, Sylvester Stallone was at the reformatory filming action movie Escape Plan 3: Devil’s Station.

“It was a very big deal when Stallone entered the set,” Smith said. “We got to talk with him a little bit about the history of the building. He was great. He had been here before, shooting Tango & Cash with Kurt Russell (in 1989).”

The film, directed by John Herzfeld and co-starring Dave Bautista, 50 Cent and Jaime King, is slated to hit theaters next year.

“Escape Plan utilized as much of the prison as possible,” Smith said. “Everything is 4K and high-def now so I think it’s going to look really cool.”

A host of music videos and feature films have used the haunting surroundings. Harrison Ford thriller Air Force One dressed up the reformatory as a Russian prison (the oversized Stalin and Lenin posters are still hanging there). Last year, American Idol Season 9 winner Lee DeWyze performed Paranoia for a Facebook Live session in April, then came back in August for an acoustic concert in the prison’s chapel, amid peeling plaster and cracked walls.

Though the prison has a lot to offer in its 250,000 square feet, Shawshank is still the main draw. It has intrigued authors and researchers alike.

The Shawshank Experience: Tracking the History of the World’s Favorite Movie is now out in paperback from Palgrave Macmillan. The book, by Maura Grady, an assistant professor at Ashland University, and Tony Magistrale, a professor at the University of Vermont, was first published in 2016 and grew out of an Ashland University study of fans flocking each year to Greater Mansfield.

Next year, closer to the 25th anniversary, Rowman & Littlefield will publish Mark Dawidziak’s book Our Shawshank Redemption. Dawidziak, the Cuyahoga Falls author and former Beacon Journal critic, has interviewed King and Robbins along with extras who worked on the film.

“It’s going to be a celebration of all things Shawshank, spotlighting Stephen King’s original novella, the making of the film, the importance of Mansfield and Ohio to the story, the movie’s amazing afterlife and the reasons for its enduring popularity,” said Dawidziak in an email.

Why Shawshank has stood out from the thousands of films released before and since, is an interesting question for fans, writers and academics. Dawidziak points to its major theme of hope. Andy Dufresne believed deeply in hope, and never let go of it in his nearly 20 years of incarceration.

“When The Shawshank Redemption was released in 1994, we were in a very different place as a nation and a world. The economy still was pretty good. It was a pre-9/11 world. We weren’t as divided as a country as we are now,” Dawidziak said.

“With each passing year, that message of hope has taken on increased resonance with people of all ages. At a time of runaway uncertainty, the film says hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.”