September 4, 2007 — It seems like you can’t visit any place near interesting these days without discovering that somebody in the film industry has shot a movie there. Because I’m a movie fan, I kind of dig that. However, because I’m ashamed of being a movie fan, it’s kind of annoying. It’s like they’re pilfering all the best visual images long before you get a crack at any of them. The bastards. Good thing they don’t make skads of money doing it.
This crooked line of thought occurred to me while I stood in the middle of a 200-year-old prison staring at a placard bearing images of Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, and Steve Buscemi. And before you go IMDBing this trio, there is no movie featuring all three of these actors. If I’m wrong on that let me know. But I’ll get to all that in another paragraph. Right now you just need to know that I might now own one of the most disturbing mugs ever cast. And that was not a crack at Buscemi. He was absolutely hunkish in Final Fantasy. Just stick with me on the mug comment for a while.
The prison is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA. And that’ll be the last time I type that name out. ESP was built in 1829 at what was once, I’m sure, a respectable distance from the civilized society of Philadelphia. Now, however, 37 years after its decommissioning in 1970, it sits the short width of a city street from coffee shops, stores, and townhouses right in Center City. I mean, the entire surrounding area was rabid with quaintness. But ESP’s needs are meager. All it wants are tourists and film crews. I was happy to oblige the former and to make fun of the latter.
ESP is basically known for three things. Hosting the notorious Al Capone, influencing prison architecture, and adhering to a philosophy of strict solitary confinement for its prisoners. I’m talking no interaction ever. Just their own heads and the memory of their misdeeds. Sounds somewhat Zen, but I doubt Buddhist monks have to be led around with creepy hoods over their heads each time they leave their cells. If I’m wrong on that let me know. The inmates must’ve felt as if they were always on a gallows walk. We call that feeling "commuting to work" these days, I think. Oh, and it was also the location for one of Sting’s album covers. Notorious, indeed.
Because of ESP’s aforementioned location, we were able to stay at a hotel within walking distance of it and pretty much everything else in the city. We arrived in the morning, slightly before opening time, both to avoid any possible crowds and so that we could get a good camera shot of the exterior without too many people around. However, it’s difficult to visually digest the prison completely from the outside because of its size and the fact that you can’t stand back from it far enough because, as already noted, the city is rather pressed up against it. ESP just kind of just towers over you as you stand there on the street. But it looks pleasingly medieval with its turrets, tall stone walls, wrought iron gates, and castellations.
The overall shape of the prison, if you could see it overhead from about the height of a man plummeting to his death, is an asterisk inside a square. Each line of the asterisk is a separate wing, and there are seven wings total. You don’t walk through the front gate to enter, but shuffle through a hallway in the side wall of the entrance that takes you to the gift shop and ticket seller. It’s here that you also have to sign a waiver to enter the prison itself because, unlike everywhere else in the world, there are places on the grounds where it is possible to trip and hurt yourself.
After showing our tickets, we were handed complimentary headphone contraptions to listen to the self-guided audio tour. We took them, mostly out of obligation, but also because we liked all the wires and dials. Anything that gives me the opportunity to say “I am Locutus of Borg.”
The people in front of us turned down the headphones as cumbersome and unnecessary. This did not dissuade us, even though we knew them to be dead on. I’m so glad we didn’t. Not because the tour was more captivating to listen to than our own head-voices. In fact, we stopped listening to it after 10 minutes and just let the headphones hang limp around our necks like dead rat snakes. When we put them on we immediately heard the unmistakable voice of one of America’s favorite character actors, Steve Buscemi. Yup, Steve Buscemi was showing us around ESP. He claimed to have been struck by the place during a “location scout” for a movie he didn’t name, but I’m pretty sure he was just fulfilling community service. The novelty wore off quickly.
But the place has been filmed. By no less than Terry Gilliam. In no less than Twelve Monkeys. In one of the wings was a big sign explaining this and showing a picture of Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt doing that acting thing that everyone seems to enjoy so much. And a pic of Buscemi in headphones recording the audio tour. The placard says, “Yes, we kept the dregs of society far away from the law abiding. Yes, we housed Al Capone. Sure, Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville found the place worth visiting. But, man, Brad Pitt was here.” The prison seems to get a kick out of all this, because it’s not shy about hocking its availability as a film location on its web site.
Like I mentioned, we were there early enough that it wasn’t crowded, although by the time we left about an hour and a half later, it had started to get a little rife with people. Located throughout the grounds of the prison were employees stationed at booths that reminded me of Lucy’s “The Doctor Is In” stands from Peanuts. The employees were reading books, looking bored, and I guess making sure you didn’t trip.
One of my highlights was walking down a portion of the prison yard and seeing in the distance over the high front wall the modern skyline of Philadelphia. Absolutely picturesque. Didn’t take a picture, though. Don't know why.
Besides the expected displays on the history of the place and its inmates, scattered throughout the cells and hallways and yards were art installations. This is a great idea in conception. Let’s face it, I don’t care how architecturally or historically significant a prison might be, it’s still just rows upon rows of small cells. Here, though, they fill empty spaces and random cells with various art projects that take advantage of the geometry and history of the place.
One of the big reasons a person usually visits ESP is to see Al Capone’s cell. Guess what we almost missed? No, seriously. Guess. All right. I’ll just tell you. We walked right past Alphonse’s cell, which is set near the hub...which probably meant we passed it more than once. You can’t walk into his cell, but you can view it through one of those slots they probably slid dinner trays through. It was furnished. Looked comfortable. I’d have no problem staying there on a business trip.
In closing, I must mention my hotel. It was actually a bit dingy, but the discount was rare. And I hesitate to bring up the deal because in 100 years when people are still reading this article as a classic of its form, it might not make any sense. All for less price than an actual regular night of lodging, we got one night of lodging, two tickets to ESP, and a free mug from the penitentiary gift shop. It’s advertised on ESP’s web site. Be sure and tell ’em Large Marge sent ya. Witness the mug we chose, though. Remember those silent, hooded prisoners shuffling around like anonymous damned souls? Little did one of them know his torment was destined for coffee muggery. Damned spookier than any "Terror Behind the Walls" event the place throws to celebrate Halloween or any of those paranormal-type reality shows that like to film there all the time. And guaranteed to cure coffee addiction.
Anyway, ESP’s well worth extra-sensory-percepting, in my opinion, but I think that of every old prison I’ve visited, mostly because I always feel like I’m in a first-person shooter when I roam the corridors, and that’s a pleasant feeling for me. So balance that recommendation out in your own head.