AN EPIC TALE requires an epic effort to tell. That’s Melanie Bowden Simón’s takeaway from the herculean effort behind writing the definitive history, Leopold’s Ice Cream: A Century of Tasty Memories.
“I was a bit overwhelmed, but also very excited,” Simón recalls of the moment she was given the opportunity to write the exhaustive, coffee-table work commemorating one of Savannah’s favorite success stories — complete with a foreword by former President Jimmy Carter.
“It wasn’t my story. It feels like a responsibility. I want to do well by them,” she says of Stratton and Mary Leopold, owners of the now globally-famous ice cream shop.
“They were people I already very much respected and appreciated, and then we became friends. So not only was I writing about this iconic institution, but I also wanted to do right by my friends,” says Simón.
“It was a special project that became personal.”
The newly published book is a comprehensive history of the Leopold family’s immigrant odyssey to America, the formation of an ice cream empire, Stratton’s extensive film career, and his relationship with his beloved wife Mary.
The tale begins in 1901, when two young brothers, Peter and George Eleopoulos, came to the U.S. from Greece looking for new opportunities.
In the manner of many immigrants of the era, they Americanized their surname to the now-familiar Leopold.
From Indiana and eventually to Georgia, they grew into their new country, with Peter serving it in the U.S. military when World War One broke out.
After the war, a business opportunity soon presented itself.
The original Leopold’s shop, at the corner of Habersham and Gwinnett Streets in downtown Savannah, opened in 1919 as a fruit and grocery stand with ice cream service.
It rapidly became a social and culinary hub, with “soda jerks” working the intricate machinery for making ice cream and shakes.
“The craze for ice cream in the U.S. really started during Prohibition — it was sort of a replacement for alcohol,” says Simón. “Peter Leopold picked a great time to open an ice cream business!”
As the years went on after Prohibition, “they were able to grow the business not only because they had an excellent product that people wanted, but also because people liked them. They were really part of the community,” she says.
While brother George returned to Greece awhile to take care of family matters, Peter stayed behind in Savannah to manage the family business. He would never again leave the U.S.
“The book isn’t only about the ice cream shop — it’s really an homage to Stratton’s father. The shop is a continuation of that story,” says Simón.
“There’s the community aspect, the historical aspect, and the local aspect. Of course it’s now a huge regional thing, and even beyond that at this point.”
In 1920, Peter and George's younger brother Basil had arrived in the U.S. and was brought in as a partner. During the Depression, the shop remained popular enough that it was extensively remodeled in 1935.
In 1943, Efstratios “Stratton” Leopold was born. He grew up as a typical Savannahian, though the child of two Greek parents, Peter and Marika.
At age 8, Stratton met Howard Morrison, who would be a lifelong friend and one of Savannah’s greatest philanthropists. (Morrison passed away last year.)
At age 10, he met and befriended Johnny Mercer, who would go on to be another Savannah icon.
Stratton attended Benedictine Military School and then Armstrong College, back when it was based in an ornate mansion overlooking Forsyth Park (now the residence of developer Richard Kessler).
In college, he was bitten by the acting bug. Becoming enamored with show business — and with both his father and uncle, the shop’s founders, having passed away — Stratton closed the flagship shop in 1969 and headed to New York to begin his new adventure.
His aunt and uncle, Pina and Basil, kept the family business alive in a new location in the Medical Arts Shopping Center, giving Stratton the comfort level he needed to leave Savannah.
Thus began a long bicoastal career for Stratton as a director and producer. While in L.A., another life-changing event happened in 1991 when he met and fell in love with his wife-to-be, Mary Poulos.
They immediately moved to Savannah — and were also moved to revisit the idea of reopening the original family business.
And that they did, in 2004, at the now-familiar storefront at 212 E. Broughton St., which the couple had purchased just for that purpose.
The opening date? August 18, chosen by Stratton to commemorate the day his father died.
Simón remembers being shown the enormous cache of family memorabilia, lovingly preserved by Stratton through the years.
“I teased Stratton that he could easily open a museum with all of it — I mean they had boxes and boxes,” she says. “We began sorting things by decade. Once we started to organize it that way, it really fell into place.”
Almost all the images in Simón’s book are courtesy of Stratton and Mary, “but that said, I did do a good amount of independent research,” she says.
“I wanted to put the story of Leopold’s in the context of what was happening in Savannah all during that time. It gives a broader sense of what was going on around people.”
Simón knew of the Leopold’s, but didn’t properly meet Stratton until he attended the launch party for her novel La Americana: A Memoir, at Pacci’s downtown.
“He mentioned the possibility of a film version of the book. I was very nervous, but also excited,” Simón remembers.
“After a few meetings, my husband and I were set to go to dinner with Stratton and Mary. We drove there in my husband’s ’56 Chevy, which Stratton really liked,” she laughs.
“Mary and I were sitting in the back seat, talking, and finally she said, ‘Can I ask you something? Would you consider writing this book about Leopold’s?’ How could I say no?”
The idea was overwhelming in the beginning, she says, “especially when I saw all the photos and memorabilia they had collected over the years.”
The reality became all the more intense when Simón found out who was going to write the foreword to her book.
“President Carter’s favorite flavor of ice cream is Butter Pecan from Leopold’s! Sometimes Stratton quietly will personally deliver some to the Carters' house,” Simón says.
Of course, Carter also was very familiar with Stratton from his work building up the Georgia film industry.
“One Saturday night I got a call from Stratton, and he said, ‘I just wanted you to know that President Carter has agreed to write the foreword for the book.’ I was like, oh Lord, now the pressure’s really on!” she says.
“That was classic Stratton – he just has a way of attracting special people and experiences.”
Simón’s book has been named as a finalist for the 2020 International Book Awards in four categories: Biography, General Business, General History and United States History. It was also named one of the Best Cover Design finalists in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards (NGIBA) non-fiction category.
The credit for the success of all the design work, Simón says, goes to Wes Johnson.
“I want to give a huge shout out to Wes, who did such an expert job with the design of the book. It wouldn’t be the same without his talent and hard work,” she says.