Friday, November 28, 2014 Kislev 6, 5775

A Scoop of Savannah

August 13, 2009 By:
George Medovoy, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Mary and Stratton Leopold dig into ice cream -- and history, which includes that of Congregation Mickve Israel (below). Photos by George Medovoy

When the remake of the 1941 horror classic "The Wolfman" hits the big screen on Nov. 6, it's likely that Stratton Leopold, one of the film's executive producers, will be back home here, scooping ice cream behind the counter of his retro ice cream store on historic Broughton Street.

Leopold, whose prodigious film credits include "The Sum of All Fears," "Mission: Impossible 3" and "The General's Daughter," grew up being a soda jerk in the store his Greek immigrant parents and uncles opened at Gwinnett and Habersham streets in 1919.

And today, after all those years behind the counter and all that success making movies, ice cream is still Leopold's first love because, as he likes to say, making movies is "my day job."

You may never have heard of Leopold's as a place to visit in the lovely Georgia city of Savannah, where 42 London Jews, mostly Sephardim of Portuguese origin, first landed in 1733 and founded Congregation Mickve Israel, the third oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States.

But Leopold's should be at the very top of your list of places to taste in Savannah. Leopold has been faithful to his late father's recipes, producing one of the richest, super-premium ice creams I've ever tasted, whether you choose a regular flavor like caramel swirl or a seasonal flavor (huckleberry cheesecake).

From the vintage Coca-Cola logo on the wall to the classic white paper caps worn by the soda jerks, many of whom are working students from the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, it's all about another place and another time.

Leopold mused about this lost period when he recalled famed lyricist Johnny Mercer, Savannah's favorite son, spending time in the family store, mostly people-watching.

The Mercer family lived just one block away from the store, and Johnny often said he wanted to write a song about Tutti Frutti, his favorite ice cream, though he never actually did.

Of course, the eventual co-founder of Capitol Records did write many memorable lyrics, like "Moon River," which won a 1961 Academy Award.

Leopold received expert help for the store's interior design from Daniel A. Lomino, a Hollywood colleague and movie art director, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

It was no coincidence that the tour of Savannah movie sites that I signed up for ended with a stop at Leopold's, which sits on the edge of Savannah's Historic District, whose 22 city squares have been used as fictional settings for so many Hollywood films.

These beguiling squares, designated a National Historic Landmark District, offer up scene after scene of mansions of varied architectural styles.

From the standpoint of Hollywood, you would have to call this a director's dream, a ready-made back lot, if you will, which is why Savannah is often called "the Hollywood of the South."

Early into my tour, which was on an air-conditioned van with overhead screens to show scenes from the movies whose locations we were seeing, we stopped at Mercer House, which is a splendid Italianate mansion used in the Academy Award-winning movie "Glory" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."

Of all the movie locations we saw, though, I'd have to say that the one that elicited the most interest was Chippewa Square, more popularly known as "Forrest Gump Square." On the other side of Chippewa Square stands the imposing home of Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer.

On a separate tour of Mickve Israel's vaulted sanctuary and museum, I saw the original 18th-century deerskin Torah; letters to the congregation from Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison; and a circumcision kit from 1733.

The Reform synagogue, now at its current third home, was consecrated in 1878, the only remaining U.S. Jewish house of worship built in the neo-Gothic style.

Savannah Jews served with distinction in the Confederate forces of the Civil War, but ties with the Jewish communities of the North were not broken. After Sherman took Savannah and there were shortages of food here, the Jews of Philadelphia and New York provided Savannah Jews matzah for Passover.

Back to Leopold ... "I love the ice cream business. It's so fulfilling, it's so grounding.

"In my perfect world, I would stay in Savannah, I would do smaller films ... and [I would] scoop ice cream."

For more information, go to: www.savannahvisit.com.

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