“How does one write even a forward for this journey into a period and place so touched with the golden haze of nostalgia as to be almost unreal?”
-Governor Ronald Reagan, 1971, on Hearst Castle
The Grand Midway Hotel is one of the earliest businesses in Windber, providing a central station for arriving coal mining immigrants. Over the years it served as a brothel, a setting for weddings, for funerals, and for fine dining. There are 32 rooms. Mid-century the Midway bar -which is shaped as a large indoor boat- was known as the Midway Cafe run by the Timko Family with the famed Laddie Timko Jazz Band. After the 1960s it was re-invented as the psychedelic Kaleidoscope Bar. After 2000 it was re-invented yet again as the Gothic / bohemian crossroads setting for many a traveling artist. The Midway has appeared on several National television shows for heightened paranormal activity, including the Sci Fi Channel’s ‘The Haunted Collector’. The Midway is the main location in the upcoming feature film ‘Zombie Dream’. Inside the place looks like a cross between Disney’s Haunted Mansion and Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
The Grand Midway Hotel has become a bit of Warhol’s Factory, a bit of Hearst’s Castle, a bit of Coppola’s Zoetrope, a bit of Byron’s Villa Diodati. It serves as an ongoing private base camp for several contemporary artists and projects. Little by little each year the building upgrades, more events are summoned, and more artists join the growing hotel private Shangri-La mythology.
After the Timko family, the hotel’s arts lineage continued with Betsy Black, Damien Youth, and myself -Blair Murphy- buying the building on Ebay in a pretty ballsy leap of faith to create a kind of breathing canvas. From day one the adventure has been magnificent. Betsy and Damien cultivated our bold hotel project for about a year before returning to New Orleans. I stayed, buying them out, continuing as hotel host through the next decade. Since then many projects and hundreds of artists have come through here. Damien created two beautiful CDs of music from his hotel memories, Phantoms of Fables and The Underground: A Hobo’s Opera. I created some novels and feature films here.
The place today is soaked in beautiful and strange art.
Eventually the coal trains started running again…right outside our front doors!
These have been good days with good memories. One wkd visiting guest Jason Kirin made this short home movie, A Day at the Grand Midway (music by Damien Youth)…
We eventually were invited to represent property on the the town Monopoly board…
We even sponsored a little league baseball team, the Midway Hats.
A drawing by musician Paul Kazupas when he lived in the hotel, portraying the enchantment we’ve all felt here…
Old postcard of Midway redesigned with enthusiasm by Cassey Basset…
Thank you for visiting our Shangri-la! -Blair Murphy
Filmmaker at Home in Windber’s Grand Midway Hotel
Roomy Retreat (full page) IN THE SPOTLIGHT,
TRIBUNE-DEMOCRAT, Sat Sept 28, 2013 by Ruth
A listing on eBay for a 32 room hotel in Windber brought Blair Murphy to the area from Los Angeles in 2001, shortly before 9/11. “I was looking for a place to get away from the big city, along with a buddy of mine,” said Murphy, 48. “We wanted a big space to use for artistic projects. We bid on the hotel and a couple weeks later, we moved in. It was the middle of nowhere before Flight 93.”
The Grand Midway Hotel needed many repairs, and Murphy and his friends lived there from day one. “We never stayed anywhere else,” he said. “The first year was rough, but romantic. We’re all artists, and the building was like a canvas. I felt like we were working on a painting.” The first year, repairs were done on the roof, windows, pipes, insulation and electrical needs. “And I got to learn all of it,” Murphy said. It was so cold that first winter, the water pipes froze, and Murphy’s friend’s friends, who were from New Orleans, decided to go back South. Murphy bought them out and considers the hotel his escape home where he can invite other artists in to work on their projects. He is a novelist and filmmaker and has friends who are painters and poets.
While he considers the Grand Midway a private home with no relationship with the public, Murphy does open up what had been the bar area two nights a week for a coffeeshop. The coffeeshop started out on Wednesday nights, then became so popular Blair added Thursdays from 6 p.m. to midnight as well. “I have no goals to expand any further,” Murphy said. “It’s not about money.” Murphy’s coffeehouses draw the more artsy sector of the public out of the woodwork for an exotic selection of coffees and teas and games of chess and Dungeons and Dragons, all while tarot card readings are given and various videos, usually of a science fiction variety, play in the background. All for $3, with endless refills. In addition, an onsite bookstore offers science fiction, fantasy and horror selections for purchase. “Some come in costume,” Murphy said. “It’s all to create a mystical atmosphere into another world.” Coffeehouse nights have attracted visitors from as far away as Ligonier, and actor Butch Patrick, best known for playing Eddie Munster on the television show “The Munsters,” dropped by from Pittsburgh.
The most striking feature of Murphy’s residence and an example of his hotel-as-canvas concept is a mural painted on the dining room ceiling. The depiction of the Universe card, the highest ranking card in a tarot deck, which comes with positive vibes, was done by Terence Kauffman, owner of a tattoo parlor up the street. “He said he had never done anything this big,” Murphy said. “It took him six weeks.”
After moving in, Murphy heard stories about the old hotel being haunted and said he felt a bit spooked and even heard footsteps. “This is an old building worth championing,” Murphy said. “I felt comfortable with it since I was raised in a funeral home. The bonus is, I like Halloween and horror movies.” Murphy also hosted several Draculacons for friends, held in the spring because his friends in the scare business are usually busy at the more traditional haunting time of year. The Grand Midway got some attention when it was featured on a national television show, the SyFy Channel’s “Haunted Collector.”
Murphy has a bachelor of fine arts in cinema from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He is originally from New Jersey and spent the 1990s on Venice Beach in California. When he first arrived in Hollywood, he worked by day for Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, and by nights as a videographer for the entertainer Prince. He sold his first feature project, a vampire film called “Jugular Wine,” to Blockbuster and saw it be distributed all over the country. Murphy still has L.A. connections and has tried to get some films made in the area, but hasn’t had any luck yet. A ghost story he wrote would have been produced by Jon Davison of “Robocop” fame and Roger Corman, but the deal fell through. “That happens often,” Murphy said.
Murphy has been a judge for the Johnstown Film Festival and had his own film, “Writer’s Jail,” shown. His most current film project, “Zombie Dream,” featuring Eric Roberts and Butch Patrick, will receive its first local screening at the Silver Drive-In in April, after the owner gets his new projector installed. “It will be so cool because part of the film takes place at the drive-in,” he said.
Murphy said he wrote “The First Noelle” as a gift to the community. In the novel set in the early 1930s and 1940s written specifically for the area, a little girl discovers that Santa gets his coal in Windber and steel for his sleigh from Johnstown. “I wanted something from the area that had appeal and charm,” Murphy said. “This area has gotten some knocks, and I wanted to put a positive spin on it. The book almost got picked up for a film.” Last Christmas season, Murphy put about 200 copies of the book in local mailboxes for free, marked from The Pennsylvania Elves. The book is available on Amazon.com and is on sale at Murphy’s coffeehouses for $8.
Murphy’s family includes a malamute named Lucien and a black cat named Egypt.