Old Savannah: One Sweet Century

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The scoop on Leopold’s Ice Cream

When Hollywood producer Stratton Leopold isn’t on set, he’s happiest elbow-deep in soapy bubbles. Ever since he was a small boy, the Savannah native has helped out at the family soda fountain, washing sundae glasses and scrubbing down metal ice cream churns. To this day, he attests, he’s never broken a glass.

Stratton’s Greek immigrant father, Peter, and Peter’s brothers George and Basil, began creating handmade ice cream and candies after learning the craft from an uncle. In those days, Leopold’s Ice Cream was located at the intersection of Gwinnett and Habersham streets. Now, the cross street is filled with pedestrian grocery shoppers and cyclists, but in 1919, the brand-new parlor was flanked by two bustling streetcar lines. Passengers were known to hurry in for a treat during their commute, and many familiar faces lingered for a scoop over the years, including famed songwriter Johnny Mercer, who enjoyed his very own booth. 

Stratton and his father. Photo courtesy Leopold’s

While Stratton always had a taste for the sweet life, he was also fascinated by science and filmmaking.

“When Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum was filmed during my freshman year at Benedictine, I remember seeing that shot of him exiting the Armstrong House,” he says. “I was fascinated by the equipment … the lights were smoking, and it was a seminal event for me.” 

When his father passed away, Stratton took over the original Leopold’s location and kept the business going for a couple of years before closing and uprooting to New York. While Stratton found his way into the film business, back home in Savannah, Uncle Basil continued to dish out the beloved ice cream at his own establishment, Basil Leopold’s Restaurant in Medical Arts Shopping Center.

Stratton’s career as executive vice president at Paramount Pictures and work as a freelancer took him from coast to coast, but he always came home to Savannah. When Basil passed away and his restaurant closed, hometown friends encouraged Stratton to bring back the family business. He still owned the original shop but didn’t feel the neighborhood was quite ready for a grand reopening in that particular location. 

The original Leopold’s. Photo courtesy Leopold’s

“I told my friends that if I found the right place, I’d do it,” he remembers. 

The truest friends push you toward your greatest potential, and Stratton’s pals certainly did — they found the location themselves.

“I’ll never forget it,” Stratton shares. “They called one Friday afternoon and said, ‘We found you a place, but you gotta move now because it’ll be sold by Monday’.” 

Stratton and his wife, Mary, hurried downtown and peered through the windows of 212 East Broughton Street. Inside was a single open space — not the two rooms Leopold’s visitors see today — with a four-station beauty salon on the left and rows of church pews on the right. It was a bizarre, classically Savannah combination. And it was perfect.

The original location. Photo courtesy Leopold’s

Stratton and Mary put a bid in at asking price, and it was accepted. The Leopolds knew they wanted to capture the spirit of the original ice cream shop, and Stratton’s worlds collided when famed production designer Dan Lamino designed the Leopold’s interior, transforming the space into the gilded old-fashioned ice cream parlor that visitors have come to know and love. The original black marble soda fountain, wooden back bar and telephone booth all found homes in the new location, and Stratton displayed mementos from his time in Hollywood throughout the shop.

The menu is marked by original recipes that made Leopold’s famous — tutti frutti, lemon custard, classics like chocolate and vanilla — and includes new seasonal favorites and collaborations with local businesses. In May, locals and visitors eagerly await Japanese cherry blossom, rose petal cream and mint lime sorbet, among other flavors. 

This year is particularly sweet, as Leopold’s Ice Cream celebrates 100 years of business with an annual birthday block party on Broughton Street and, of course, $1 scoops.

Since its life as a parlor, the original Leopold’s building has been a furniture store and a laundromat. Currently, a team is working to restore the space to its original splendor, in part to better host birthday parties and private events. Even the original sign from 1919 has been carefully touched up by Savannah Tech historic preservation students. 

As Leopold’s mindfully grows, Stratton and the Leopold’s family look forward to sharing their special anniversary with the people who have been at the counter since the very beginning. 

“We’re just honored to be supported by Savannah,” he says. “This is truly a labor of love. It’s a wonderful feeling, and something we’ll never forget and never stop sharing.”