From Savannah to Hollywood: A movie producer’s ‘day job’

When he’s not producing Hollywood movies, Stratton Leopold is scooping delicious ice cream at his family’s shop.

Leopold's Ice Cream Store in Savannah, Georgia 370 (photo credit: George Medovoy)
Leopold's Ice Cream Store in Savannah, Georgia 370
(photo credit: George Medovoy)
SAVANNAH, Georgia – When he’s not producing major Hollywood movies, Stratton Leopold is scooping delicious ice cream at his family’s historic, old-fashioned ice cream store here.
Leopold’s prodigious film credits include movies like The Sum of All Fears, Mission: Impossible III, The General’s Daughter, and the re-make of The Wolfman, but the noted producer has always loved the ice cream business, dating back to when he worked as a soda jerk in the store his Greek immigrant parents and uncles opened at Gwinnett and Habersham streets in 1919 and which he and his wife, Mary, now run at a new location on Broughton Street.
As a youngster, Leopold washed glasses “at the very same soda fountain that we have now, at around age eight or nine.” “It petrified my mother,” he recalls, “because she was afraid I would break something and cut myself.”
His first paying job at the store was washing ice cream churns.
“Back then,” he recalls, “when you made ice cream, you put it in... metal churns, which were lined in parchment paper. They were five gallons... fairly deep, so, with a long-handled brush, my job was scrubbing those. I think I made 50 cents an hour.”
At 14, Leopold started scooping ice cream, taught by fellow soda jerks. And after all his years of working in Hollywood’s glitzy film world, making movies is still his “day job,” as he likes to call it.
“[Working in the store] gets you close to people,” he says. “Just to interact and talk to folks... if they’re visitors, where they’re from... it’s a lovely way to spend a few moments.”
Leopold’s latest film, Parker, is an action flick set for release in September; among the cast members are Jason Statham, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Chiklis, Nick Nolte and Patti LuPone. Directed by Taylor Hackford, the movie was filmed mostly in New Orleans, with other locations in Palm Beach, Boca and Sarasota, Florida, allowing Leopold to get back to Savannah on weekends.
When you step into the historic Savannah ice cream store, it quickly transports you back to the 1930s and ‘40s, thanks in large part to Daniel A. Lomino, a friend of Leopold’s, nominated for an Academy Award for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who worked on the store’s interior for its new location at 212 East Broughton Street.
Leopold has been faithful to his late father’s recipes, serving one of the richest ice creams I’ve ever tasted, whether you choose caramel swirl, huckleberry cheesecake, honey almond & cream, or any other wonderful flavor. And on this note, Leopold and his wife proudly mention that their store was recently named one of the 10 best ice cream shops in the world by
I happened to discover Leopold’s at the end of a bus tour of Savannah’s famous movie locations. The city has often been called “the Hollywood of the South,” and with good reason: its picturesque public squares and memorable architectural gems have made it a movie director’s dream-come-true, a kind of Hollywood backlot with places like Mercer House, the mansion seen in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. One movie location in town that also generates much attention is Chippewa Square, where the famous park bench scene in the Tom Hanks film Forrest Gump was shot.
On the other side of the square stands the neo-Gothic home of Mikve Israel Synagogue, the third-oldest Jewish congregation in America, whose historic artifacts include an 18th-century deerskin Torah; letters to the congregation from presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison; and an 18th-century circumcision kit.
The Reform synagogue, now in its third home, was originally founded in 1733 by a group of Sephardi Jews arriving from London.
The current, architecturally-magnificent structure was built in 1876, the only synagogue in America with a neo-Gothic style.
Each year, Mikve Israel holds the “Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival” in Forsyth Park, drawing thousands, with this year’s event scheduled for October 28.
On another historical note, when General Sherman took Savannah during the American Civil War, the city suffered serious food shortages, including the absence of matzah for Passover, but the Jews of Philadelphia and New York, cities that were part of the Union forces, stepped in to fill the gap.
From the vintage Coca-Cola logo to the classic white paper caps worn by soda jerks, many of whom are college students, Leopold’s is all about another time – in some ways, you might say, recalling the producer’s own youth in Savannah, a period that he wistfully remembers as “idyllic.”
It was also during this period that songwriter Johnny Mercer would spend time in the store on visits to Savannah. Mercer, who knew Leopold’s father, Peter, often said he wanted to write a song about Tutti Fruitti ice cream, but this never came to pass.
In keeping with his work in the movies, the producer also has added show biz memorabilia in the store, like a Movieola editing machine; a Panavision camera; and the cane from The Wolfman, with its hidden sword.
This is all in addition to large posters of some of the well-known movies he has worked on which you see on the wall upon entering the store.
A more recent addition is a 1950’s Juke Box that Mary bought him for his birthday and which customers can play – three songs for a quarter or one for a dime! One of the store’s popular ice creams – Chocolate Chewies and Cream – recalls a chapter from Savannah’s Jewish past.
Some background: the Chocolate Chewie was a cookie baked by Gottlieb’s, a Savannah Jewish bakery opened in the 1890’s by Russian immigrants. The bakery has since closed its doors, but Leopold remembers it with great fondness – “the challahs... all their sweet rolls, their breads.”
These days, Leopold’s is producing the Chocolate Chewies – “crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside,” notes the producer – and mixing them up in parts in vanilla ice cream, an ode, you might say, to the storied Savannah bakery that is no more.
The store’s newest tradition is a patriotic program called “I Pledge for Ice Cream,” originally an idea proposed by one of Leopold’s customers, an educator. Now in its third year, the “pledge” is simple enough: any child 12 and under who can recite the pledge of allegiance gets a certificate for a free ice cream cone.
The store even sets up a kind of stage – complete with flag and dais – and the youngsters, accompanied by adults, stand up and do their thing. In the first year alone, about 400 youngsters took part in Savannah. Mary Leopold, who is on the board of the National Ice Cream Retailers Association, entered the program in a national competition – and it won first place.
Designed to coincide with July 4th, the patriotic program also ties in with National Ice Cream Month in July, which was launched by Ronald Reagan.
“All we want is for every ice cream shop in the country to just do it,” Leopold says.
Ice cream stores in other cities now participating in the event are listed on a website, Meanwhile, Savannah’s ice cream producer dreams of his “perfect world” – a world where he would stay in Savannah, do smaller films, “and scoop ice cream.”