MANSFIELD, Ohio - The movie "Shawshank Redemption" has always grabbed me. Thousands of people, like me, have admitted to being emotionally touched by the movie, perhaps because of its lessons about hope, friendship and the quest for freedom from a troubling situation.
I went to Mansfield to visit one of the buildings, which played an instrumental part in the telling of the "Shawshank Redemption," which starred Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as inmates and closest of friends serving time in the prison.
However, at the Bissman Building at 193 N. Main St., which was used in the movie as the "Brewer Hotel," I found it to be a strange structure that was filled with unexplainable activities. It was much more than the film location Hollywood producers had decided would fit their bill for "Shawshank Redemption."
When the character played by Tim Robbins is unjustly convicted and imprisoned for the murder of his wife, he both learns and teaches in his long prison stretch. In the movie, the audience knows from its opening scene that Robbins' character, Andy Dufresne, is an innocent man. The old Mansfield Reformatory is as much a star of the film as are the actors.
Twenty years ago, the movie was filmed in Mansfield, which still celebrates the many locations used by the filmmaker. Second to the prison for film locations is the Bissman Building, an aged gothic structure with a menacing facade. It stretches for five stories into the Mansfield sky. On its ground floor is Ben Bissman, a fifth-generation owner of the structure, which was built by his great, great, great grandfather in 1886.
Bissman's face is far different from that of the building through which he has walked and worked since his childhood -- it is almost Santa Claus-like, though his beard is brownish-blond. The face he puts forward is a far cry from the face put forth by his building, which seems to hunker over the street as if it hides mysterious secrets. It does.
Bissman believes the place is haunted. It is probable the filmmakers of "Shawshank Redemption" knew that in 1993 when they rented the building, which is filled with Bissman's bric-brac and piles of junk. More than a century before then, his grandfather built the structure. It was used as a warehouse for all kinds of products, food and otherwise. Its five floors creak with age. Outside, it had the look "Shawshank" wanted for the hotel.
"This was going to be a quick shot," said Bissman, describing what producers and the film director had imagined when they saw the building. However, the role for the building was expanded and is seen in many shots of the film. The Bissman Building made it to Hollywood. "We got big time," beamed Bissman, his smile pushing from behind his thick beard.
Bissman the Man is nothing like Bissman the Building. Though they share the name, the man is jovial and filled with laughter. He is almost a Santa Claus-like character although his beard is brownish-blonde. The building seems to grow out of the street, stretching itself into the Mansfield sky. Its exterior is peeling with age.
Inside, its dusty and worn, wooden floors hold secrets. The secrets and mysterious corners go far beyond the huge walk-in safe built into the wall, which holds another smaller safe inside. The safe -- now unlocked -- is where Bissman's ancestors kept the money from their business transactions. Today, the doors to all the safes easily swing wide although it does take some heft to push into them. In the safes are odds and ends of business dealings from generations ago. However, it is upstairs where the place creaks even more.
The upper floors are peppered with discarded old tires, auto parts and boxes of papers. It is here the story of the old building takes a sharp turn.
"We sometimes see shadow figures along the ball wall," said Joe James, who works in the building. "We also hear little girls laughing," said James, his eyes darting through the darker recesses of the building top floors as he explains why the Bissman is also on the Mansfield Ghost Tour.
The building, much as does the old Mansfield Reformatory, has the distinction of being on two major tours in the city -- The Shawshank Trail and the Ghost Tour. Perhaps that ghost-like quality, though never mentioned in the film, seems to permeate the movie. Robbins and Freeman seemed to operate as if they were outside the realm of regular humanity sometimes in the film. That is one of the feelings many have pulled from the story.
After many years of secret tunneling, which provided his long-planned escape route from his cell, under the vast yard of the prison and beyond its cold walls governed by the sadistic warden and captain of the guards, Andy Dufresne found his freedom. The warden, a tyrant in every way, could not figure out how he could have simply disappeared into the night. Until they discovered the secret tunnel, they thought Andy must have been a ghost who was there one moment and dematerialized in the next.
"Do you think he just upped
and disappeared like a fart in the wind?" jabbed the warden to his captain of the guard who stood in what had been Andy's cell. They and the other prisoners in the block of cells were just as amazed that Andy was not there. There had never been an indication of any prison-break plans.
In many ways, Andy walked through as if he were from another world. Robbins performed the role superbly. His Andy sometimes seemed oblivious to the everyday workings of the prison, having found a peace in his own mind which kept him elevated. Until his escape route had been found, it appeared Andy had disappeared as if he were a ghost who could dematerialize at will.
Robbins' character never entered the Bissman Building. Andy's character, perhaps, could have easily fit in with the real-life drama found in the building. The place is purported to be haunted. Ben Bissman has had ghost hunters go through the structure. He contends they have found paranormal activities. Supposedly, there are several ghosts that haunt the building.
Bissman said they seem content to exist without harming anyone. James recounts the story of a worker in 1911 who peered down an open elevator shaft in the building, unaware the lift was dropping from above. It beheaded F. W. Simon. Bissman and James believes his ghost still haunts the building.
There is a photograph in Bissman's office purportedly showing a ghostly head hanging in mid-air. Bissman laughs about what he contends is in the building. Whether it is really haunted or part of an act to drum up interest, the Bissman Building and its unusual story has played a part in a highly-acclaimed movie. It is still visited by tourists who travel Mansfield's "Shawshank Trail" and is a major stopping point on the city's Ghost Tour.
Because both the Mansfield Reformatory, now a museum, and the Bissman Building received starring roles in "Shawshank Redemption" and are said to be haunted by ghosts, each has a double-edged appeal.
Both are aging structures that have seen better days. Still, the Bissman, like the Reformatory, works the audience like a faded actor, still on the stage or in front of the camera. The Bissman is waiting for its next close-up camera shot. Through its old, dust-streaked windows of wavy glass, it looks out on Mansfield. Ghost-like, it seems to wave a wagging finger, asking for visitors to walk through it and remember when it played the part of a "heavy" in "Shawshank Redemption," a movie which is now on the American Film Institute's list of the most-loved cinemas.
The Bissman is a throwback to another time and place, but still holding on. It is a place for movie buffs who want to remember the locations of Robbins, Freeman and Whitmore, and all the characters in "Shawshank Redemption."
But there is a word of caution. The Bissman is also the place of F.W. Simon, who was beheaded as he looked down the building's elevator shaft and did not see the elevator car which dropped quickly to his neck, decapitating him. The people of the building believe although Simon's body was buried in a grave, his spirit never left the place he worked. .
The Bissman Building, the old and faded actor who remembers a few moments of movie stardom, still craves the attention. Over its front door is an awning announcing it is a hotel, the one Whitmore checked into when he was paroled from the fictional Shawshank prison. But all that was make-believe, which is enough to woo movie fans. Perhaps, the story of the Bissman goes far deeper. It is also on the Ghost Trail of Mansfield, beckoning all to enter.
It is a place where movies and ghosts have joined forces. The cameras, lights and film crew are gone, but they are remembered in the Bissman Building. So, too, are the ghosts who some say were there well before the movie came calling 20 years ago.
To walk in this aged structure, where its name and its construction date of 1886 is carved into its front, is to take chances, especially on its upper floors. Hollywood came and went, leaving whatever mysteries the building held to remain undisturbed. The Bissman is a ghostly building and is not a place for the faint of heart., especially in the dark.
The "Shawshank Redemption" lights are long gone, but the dark of the elevator shaft remains.