Addendum to “10 Careless Lies….”

There are a couple of points I need to review (because I have no problem correcting myself or clarifying a muddy issue).

The city of Savannah’s name

Further discussion on Facebook with my fellow tour guides reveals the origins of the name “Savannah” to be very murky indeed. The word savanna is one the Spanish may have picked up from the Taíno Indians in the Caribbean, then fed back to other Indians on the North American mainland. That is, perhaps, how it was acquired by the migrating Shawnee who drove out the Westo tribe and made their home along the Savannah River. They might have referred to themselves or the landscape as “Savannah” or it may be the South Carolinians just couldn’t pronounce their tribe name correctly and it came out sounding like “Savannah” whenever English people said it. There is another possibility: that savannah was an Algonquian word already in use among area tribes and completely unrelated to savanna, but they just happened to sound the same. Basically, although we know where our current usage of the word savanna came from, it’s up for debate where the name of the Savannah River originated.

I still feel better attributing the name of the city to the river than to any characteristics of the surrounding landscape. No matter how you tell it, it was still a group of Indians who applied the name to the river and it just seems most reasonable that’s what made James Oglethorpe pick it for the city. The river was already well-known, as evidenced by its specific designation as our northern boundary in the text of Georgia’s original charter, which you can read here. Beware, old-timey folk had not yet been introduced to the virtue of paragraph breaks, periods, or our modern spelling conventions. It’s sort of a word quagmire, is what I’m saying.

My colleague James Caskey, owner of Cobblestone Tours, did hand me a laugh when he reminded me of another silly myth about the origin of Savannah’s name:

“During the boat’s journey up the river, someone bumped the captain’s daughter, Anna, right over the side. As she flailed around in the water, her father desperately shouted, ‘Somebody save Anna!’ So, that became the first city’s name.”

I hadn’t heard that one in a long time and had completely forgotten about it! Surely no one has ever related this tall tale without a wink and a nod? I mean, it’s cute as a joke, but not even the dumbest tour guide could mistake it for fact… right?

Sherman in Savannah and Juliette Gordon Low’s family

I got a little blowback on this in the comments on my last post. In fact, I originally wrote an entire paragraph about the supposed connection between William Sherman and the Gordon family because I heard someone say once that Nellie Kinzie Gordon (Juliette Gordon Low’s mother) was Sherman’s rumored mistress. I cut that part because my last entry was already sprawling over 5,000 words and I felt it didn’t count as a common myth since I only ever heard it one time. Guess I should have followed my instinct.

Anyhow, Nellie Kinzie Gordon was not Sherman’s mistress. It is true her house was one of the first he visited after he marched into Savannah. What for? Well, Sherman dropped in on all the local bigwigs; doesn’t mean he was sleeping with them. He had to touch base with the folk who were going to be putting the city back in order after he left. Nellie probably seemed like a good ice breaker. She had married one of the most prominent men in Georgia (who was at that moment serving in the Confederate army and whom she adored), but was herself a Yankee. I’ve never read anything to indicate she and Sherman knew each other personally before the war, but I’m sure he knew of her family. They were both Midwesterners- she from Chicago, he from Ohio. Her family were among the pioneers who founded Chicago, so I think it’s fair to say they were prominent people. Nellie had very elite connections all through the Federal government and several relatives serving in the Union army, so she and Sherman undoubtedly had some acquaintances in common. She was the most likely person to help him start a dialogue with a freshly defeated, resentful Southern aristocracy.

And what was Nellie going to do? Slam her door on the red-headed juggernaut who had just “made Georgia howl” from here to Atlanta? Nope. She smiled politely and invited him inside to play with her little daughters, Eleanor, Juliette, and Alice, while she began wheeling the deals that would keep her family in one piece and ensure her husband still had a career when he came home. Nellie was so much more interesting than a mere mistress. To imply sex was all she had to work with is worse than sleazy, it’s boring. Y’all know women, even 19th century women, are capable of actual negotiations, don’t you? I recommend this book for a thorough and entertaining overview of the Gordon family. I know Juliette is on the cover, but half the book goes to Nellie!

So, I hope that clears up those two points. Keep reading and don’t forget to call me up for a tour if you’re ever visiting Savannah!

Edit

Thanks to Tim at Dash Tours for providing more details on Nellie’s connection to Sherman.

“Sherman was a friend of Eleanor’s father and had known her during her childhood. He was dropping off letters from Eleanor’s brother, who was in the Union Army. Sherman had lost his infant son while marching through Georgia and didn’t find out until he reached Savannah. He and General Howard visited the Gordons often during their stay, mostly to play with the children.”

I knew Sherman and Howard enjoyed playing with the children and that Sherman had just lost his son. I probably read about him meeting little Nellie and carrying letters from her brother and then forgot all about it. Basically, Nellie and Sherman ran in the same circles and elite people occupy very small exclusive circles. That’s why they all know each other. The important thing is, Sherman kinda having a previous acquaintance with Nellie Kinzie Gordon ≠ Nellie being his mistress.

10 Careless Lies Told by Careless Guides

Oooh, shots fired! Pow! Pow! Everything I do, I do out of love. I want the tourism industry in this city to meet world-class standards. At the moment, it’s still a scantily regulated hodgepodge of large, distantly owned corporations (i.e. Old Town Trolley) and variously qualified small operators. This leads to very uneven experiences for tourists who visit Savannah and may make them leery of ever coming back, especially if they sense they’re being lied to for the sake of someone’s bottom line.

I don’t mean to hate on my fellow tour guides and make them look bad. Most of them are perfectly nice people who do not spread incorrect information out of malice. It’s just that the majority of tour guides in this town are regular ‘ole employees working for a larger company. They get paid by the hour or by the tour. They are paid to show people a good time; they are not paid to do extra research during their off hours. Company owners or managers should be the ones putting forth that effort and conveying the information to their staff, but, well… management, you know?

As a result of this lackadaisical concern for accuracy, patent untruths sometimes seep into the tourism cannon and can circulate for years like a dead goldfish in the toilet bowl. So, here is a list of ten such casual lies I hate the most, arranged in order from mildly annoying to egregiously stupid.

1. Chiggers (red bugs) live in Spanish moss

Yeah, it’s a small inaccuracy and a minor peeve, but it bothers me because there’s no reason to tell people the wrong thing when it’s just as easy to tell people the right thing. Chiggers are rotten little monsters that will make you itch like hell (speaking from experience here), but blaming their presence on Spanish moss is an unfair libel against a picturesque and harmless plant. These tiny red devils lurk near the ground in grass and under low vegetation. I got eaten up by them when I was very young just from screwing around in some woods and tromping through pine straw. No doubt they turn up in Spanish moss that’s been lying on the dirt long enough, but chiggers would never find their way to moss that is still hanging high up in the trees. Please don’t interpret this to mean I’m giving you the all-clear to yank moss from the nearest branch and go prancing around with it. There is a species of jumping spider that lives only in Spanish moss….

2. The city was named for the surrounding landscape, i.e. Savannah = savanna

This one is an understandable confusion. After all, it’s been making the rounds since at least the 19th century. I don’t fault any tour guide who repeats it, but I would like to see this detail corrected. The idea is that our first settlers from England looked out over the Georgia coast, saw the tall smooth cord-grass waving over the vast salt marsh, and named the city for the grassy African plains they thought the landscape resembled.

It sounds good for a minute, but makes less and less sense the more you think about it. A bunch of white English dudes named the first city in their new colony after a geographical feature of the African continent? You know, that continent they had already been plundering for two centuries and which they had no reason to love? And had any Europeans actually made it as far as the savanna at this point (the 18th century)? Weren’t they still mostly scooting around the coast and hiring other Africans to traipse around the interior for them? On top of that, I’m pretty sure the first people here, especially our founder James Oglethorpe, were not completely stupid. Surely Oglethorpe was capable of telling the difference between a treeless grassy plain and a muddy salt marsh. I mean, the boat sailed right through it. He got a close look. What slams the final nail in place on this one, though, is the fact Savannah was never a treeless grassy plain. There’s even a picture to prove it!

Savannah, GA, 1734, Peter Gordon, Bonnie Blue  Tours

Pictured: trees. So many trees. Not pictured: grass.

This drawing of Savannah was done in 1734 and given to the Trustees of Georgia as a gift. Also a gift to historians, as it turns out. This is how we know what the city looked like early on. Oglethorpe found a high bluff overlooking the river and decided it would be the perfect place for his new city. How convenient the bluff was covered in pine trees the colonists could use to build their first little homes. In fact, the whole area was thickly forested in old growth pine. It was a forest.

Hm, so why did Oglethorpe name this place Savannah? According to Savannah in the Old South, which is a favorite resource of mine and one I re-read every few years, the name was already there. It was the river. And the river got its name from the Indians. Various Indians had been living along the Georgia coast for thousands of years and had given the river various names. In the 17th century, a tribe called the Westos dominated this territory and named the river after themselves, so it was the Westos River. English settlers over in South Carolina did not like the Westos very much because the Westos wouldn’t trade with them. So, South Carolina sidled up to a competing tribe, the Savannahs, and traded them guns ‘n ammo (the actual stuff… not the magazine…). The Savannahs cheerfully drove out the Westos, set up trade with South Carolina, established Savannah Town on what is now Beech Island, SC, and renamed the river for their own tribe. Although those Indians and their settlement were gone by the time Oglethorpe and the Georgia colonists arrived here in 1733, the river still had that name. I guess Oglethorpe thought “Savannah” sounded pretty and maybe figured it would reduce confusion about the city’s location if he just named it after a river that was already well known. Lucky break, I say, or we might be living in the historic city of Oglethorpia right now.

3. Savannah’s Waving Girl spent her life waiting for a lover who sailed away and never returned

savannah, ga, bonnie blue tours, waving girl statue, morel park, savannah river, river street

Florence Martus and her collie, still waving to ships from the east end of River Street.

Ok, this one gets especially creepy when you consider she began this tradition as a child. Sucks the romance right out of the whole scenario, doesn’t it?

Florence Martus was the Waving Girl’s real name and she was born to a local lighthouse keeper in 1869. Her father originally tended the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, but then the family moved to Elba Island and that’s where Florence spent most of her life. You can see Elba Island if you look east down River Street. It’s easy to spot for the large, light blue liquid natural gas (LNG) tanks squatting on it.

Savannah, GA, Bonnie Blue Tours, Elba Island, LNG

That’s attractive.

Florence developed the habit of running down to the shore and waving her handkerchief to sailors on ships coming and going from the port. Being a sailor in the 19th century was such a demanding, underpaid, suck-tacular job, ships’ captains regularly had to kidnap men to make them do it. So, you can imagine how much it must have warmed the hearts of these bedraggled men to see this fresh-faced girl offering such a sweet welcome. Naturally, the sailors waved back. Florence upped her game after a while and began greeting ships at night too by waving a lantern back and forth. Now, no one likes to tell stories more than sailors, ‘cept maybe fishermen, so tales about this waving girl at the port of Savannah spread far and wide (acquiring many invented details along the way) and sailors from all over the world would look for her and wave back. Florence never married and remained on the island until she was too old to live on her own anymore. She died in 1943, having greeted more ships and sailors in her lifetime than anyone can even count. The city erected her statue in Morel Park many years ago to continue her welcoming tradition.

Why did Florence Martus remain unmarried and wave at ships decade after decade if a failed romance wasn’t the reason? The truth can be very frustrating sometimes, especially when the truth is that we simply don’t know. The romantic legends do make for really good storytelling and it’s no surprise any tour guide would prefer to tell it that way. Honestly, I know many a tourist would prefer to hear it that way. It’s so much more satisfying than “Just because.” And the truth becomes even more unattractive when evidence points to the likelihood Florence had some sort of compulsive disorder and waving at every passing ship was how she expressed it. Sorry guys, but that’s the way it is. And that’s the way I tell it on my tours whenever the subject comes up.

I do not feel it diminishes The Waving Girl as a cherished local legend, however. The fact she has a statue makes it clear enough her actions transcended disappointing reality and made her into a symbol. Florence Martus is not important because of Florence Martus, but because of the imprint she left on the international seafaring community. She was the first greeting for countless men who sailed here and the last memory many of them took from here. I’ll take that over a clichéd old romance any day.

4. Mary Telfair never married because of a thwarted romance

Savannah, GA, Bonnie Blue Tours, Mary Telfair

I JUST WANT TO BE LOVED!

Ugh, why is it both literary and historical tradition simply do not know what to make of a single woman? Some versions of this story say Mary soured on romance forever after being dumped by such-and-such suitor, some say she and her sister Margaret fell in love with the same man and he chose Margaret over her. Why does it always have to be a lost love or a jilted romance or some tired old canard like that? This one gets on my nerves in particular because it dismisses the deliberate and perfectly self-aware decision-making process of a very, very intelligent woman whose impact on Savannah was vast and valuable and should not be ignored in favor of trite gossip.

She never took a husband because she simply never found one she wanted. It’s true Mary Telfair didn’t have much to offer in the looks department, but she was very intelligent, well traveled, well connected, highly educated, and fabulously rich- qualities that surely piqued the interest of many an upwardly mobile gentleman looking to make an advantageous match. But the self-possessed and headstrong Mary Telfair did not fancy being anybody’s meal ticket or societal stepping stone and likely never encountered a man she believed had nobler intentions. Also, her standards for people in general were set maybe a little too high.

As for the man she and her sister allegedly both fell for, that would be William Hodgson. Mary and Margaret encountered him while vacationing in Europe and there was never any question which sister he was going to end up with. Hodgson completely flipped out for Margaret. He wrote her steamy letters nonstop between the time they got engaged and the time they got married and gave up a juicy appointment to a consular post in Turkey because Margaret didn’t want to live there. This internationally lauded diplomat and preternaturally gifted linguist gave up his career to live in stupid old Savannah because he loved Margaret so much. It puzzles me a little. I mean, Margaret had all the same advantages as Mary (also the same lack of visual appeal), but was four years older than William and already 45 years old when they got married. Maybe he had a fondness for mature ladies and didn’t want any kids? Was he blown away by her mental acuity? Did he just fall head over heels for no real reason in truly classic style? I think if there is a deep romantic story to be told here, it’s probably William Hodgson’s and not any of the Telfairs’. At any rate, there is no reason to believe Mary ever carried a torch for the guy. She stayed single because she liked it that way. Plenty of modern women should be able to relate.

5. General Sherman did not burn Savannah during the Civil War because he thought the city was so beautiful/ because he had a mistress here

Oh, please. This one’s easy to poke holes in. We can dismiss the first point because Sherman burnt or ransacked plenty of attractive places during his March to the Sea. Beauty was not going to slow this beast down. Also, Savannah did not look as good then as it does now. Go check out some old-timey photographs, you’ll see I’m right. The second assertion, about the mistress, also wobbles under closer scrutiny. Sherman spent a little bit of time in Florida and Georgia when he was stationed down south during the Seminole Wars, but that’s about it. After that, he got married and had a career that sent him zooming between Washington DC, California, Indiana, and New York. None of those places are even close to Savannah, so when was he supposed to digress down here to keep his mystery lady satisfied?

Well then, why didn’t Sherman burn Savannah down when he got here? It’s pretty straightforward, really. He had no reason to do so and lots of reasons not to. The 9,000 or so Confederate soldiers who had been in the area skedaddled the night before Sherman’s arrival. The general in charge of that maneuver, William Hardee, knew he’d never stand a chance against 60,000 Union soldiers and decided the wiser strategy would be to take off and leave Savannah the opportunity to surrender and perhaps escape destruction. It worked. Savannah offered no military resistance, surrendered politely, and Sherman was glad to hunker down here for a while. It was in his best interest to keep the city intact, especially the port. He needed to get Union boats up the river to resupply his men and deliver the mail. His army needed a break too. They had just marched nonstop for six weeks to get here from Atlanta and the last of that was through pine barrens where there were precious few farms to raid for supplies. They were low on everything and desperately tired, despite being triumphant conquerors of Georgia. On top of all that, it was cold. The soldiers got here just before Christmas and left at the beginning of February, so that means they waited out the worst part of winter before moving on. That’s it. We were more useful as a pit stop than as.. a pit, I guess.

6. Gangsters shot up people in front of the Lucas Theatre in 1928

The Lucas is a movie palace built in 1921 and operates today as a movie theater and venue for live performances. It’s right next to Reynolds Square, a square which serves as the starting point for many different ghost tours. So, it’s no surprise ghost guides keep passing this story from one to another like a cold sore. So many tour groups walk down this block and they need something to fill the space. To make it more compelling, there are some suspicious looking, smudgy little holes in the tile on the front of the building. Oooh, bullet holes? And Savannah played a major role in the rum running trade during Prohibition and there were loads of illegal stills hidden away back in the sticks. Gangster shoot outs are totally believable! It’s just too good to be true! Yep. That’s the problem. I’ll let my colleague James Caskey handle this one, from his book Haunted Savannah:

The first problem with this story is that the shooting never happened. [...] An exhaustive search of the archives at the Georgia Historical Society reveals not one bit of supporting evidence…. [...] the black marks pointed to by tour guides are decidedly not caused by .45 caliber bullets. A round from a Thompson machine gun would have almost certainly shattered the Spanish style tile [...].

Thanks, James!

I do ghost tours and I understand the need for, um, stretching the truth sometimes. We must keep our skills sharp in the ancient Southern art of exaggeration-fu. I’m also pretty sure people expect to be BSd just a little bit on a ghost tour. I mean, come on, you’re already on a tour where people tell ghost stories. But I personally draw the line at details or stories that don’t jive with what I know of actual history. It just… it feels less like good storytelling and more like telling a lie to make a buck. And I don’t like it when I see other tour guides doing that. To be fair, though, I’m sure many who tell this story picked it up from the coworkers who trained them and have no idea it isn’t true (see my earlier point about quality control being management’s job).

I’ve been pretty understanding so far, but that’s enough of that. The last four entries on this list are the idiotic falsehoods I hate most. Their details splatter against the windshield of common sense like verbal bird poop. They strain the available supply of synonyms for the word “stupid”. They make me want to set things (mostly other tour guides) on fire with the power of my white-hot rage. They make Savannah’s entire tourism industry look bad. I give no quarter to any tour guide who continues disseminating the following infuriating and clearly untrue yarns. Those who do are basically the Typhoid Marys of storytelling and should be quarantined on Hutchinson Island where they can forever stare forlornly back at the city they maligned with their unforgivable disregard for truth and basic logic.

7. Something about slaughtering pigs (or possibly people) in  Wright Square

I won’t name names or point fingers at any particular company, but I’ve heard this one up close and in detail. It’s been a long time, so the story’s gotten fuzzy on me. I know it was still making the rounds on the ghost tours a couple years ago, but I’m not sure it still is. Anyway, if a guide tries to tell you anything about feral hogs being chased out of the woods surrounding colonial Savannah and into a pit in Wright Square where they were then barbequed alive and devoured by voracious English settlers, just kick that guide right in the knee, snatch your money back out of their pocket, and go spend it on booze or something. Even when Budweiser pretends to be beer it isn’t lying that boldly.

There’s a variant on this involving strangers in the city being barbequed and cannibalized. Both versions of this story hit me right out of nowhere when I first heard them years ago. I have no idea where they came from, since there is absolutely no physical feature in any of the squares that would suggest such nonsense and nothing I can think of in the city’s history that may have been distorted into this macabre and stupid legend. This. Never. Happened.

8. Our lovely (and expensive) Jones Street is the origin of the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses”

I kind of just want to type a frowny face here and walk away. I know for a fact tour guides out there are still selling this little pork pie to people and I don’t understand how they can say it with a straight face. Doesn’t it just strain credulity? And sound dumb? Really, really dumb? Also, twenty seconds on Google is all it takes to deflate this myth: Keeping Up with the Joneses was the title of a popular early 20th century comic strip. And no, the guy who wrote that comic strip had never been anywhere near Savannah. I would never spout off this brain dead drivel to a group of tourists for fear someone’s smartypants kid would whip out their iPhone, look it up, and prove me wrong on the spot. I can’t believe the guides who keep saying it aren’t struck by how unlikely it sounds. I can’t believe none of them have been shown up by teenagers with phones.

9. People used to stuff their mattresses with Spanish moss, would get eaten up by the chiggers that lived in it, and that’s the origin of the saying “Don’t let the bedbugs bite”

This is another one that makes me sigh and knot my brow in exasperation. It bothers me not merely because it is factually untrue, but because you don’t even have to know the facts to know this doesn’t make the tiniest iota of sense. Any tour guide who tells this to a group of tourists is openly insulting their intelligence.

We’ve already gone over the matter of chiggers in Spanish moss. I could stop there, but I’m not going to because chiggers ≠ bedbugs. Just because “redbug” rhymes with “bedbug” does not mean you can use the words interchangeably. These are two completely different insects. Actually, chiggers aren’t even insects, they’re classed as arachnids. The last thing these two creatures have in common is their Phylum! The ease with which one can ascertain these two bugs are, indeed, two different bugs is not the only thing about this story that drives me nuts. Even if someone on a tour did not know that chiggers do not live in Spanish moss and even if they did not know for sure that bedbugs have no relation to chiggers, they might dimly perceive the specious nature of this tale due to a vague recollection that bedbugs are, well, everywhere, including places where Spanish moss is not to be found. That includes the Old World before the discovery of the New World (where the offending plant is native).

Why, why do people keep repeating such obviously half-baked and easy to disprove tripe? I expect a lazy person not to bother correcting a mistaken story, but someone had to exert themselves to get this one wrong in the first place. It makes so little sense, I feel sure the guides who tell it must be consciously suppressing their own critical thinking skills in order to force the words out of their mouths. You don’t have to, my compatriots. I’m setting you free from this lunacy right now.

Aside from all the inconsistencies regarding the bugs themselves, this legend also rests on the assumption- which seems to be the basis for many historical myths- that our ancestors were dumber than my cat when he gets his head stuck in a jar. Yes, they did use the soft, springy Spanish moss to stuff their mattresses and cushions. In fact, people used to do all kinds of neato peato stuff with Spanish moss which you can read more about here and here. But do you think they were so stupid they didn’t know there were critters living in it? They had ways of curing and ginning the stuff to make it usable, people. There may have been regular ‘ole bedbugs crawling around in their mossy mattresses (because those things were impossible to get rid of until people started bathing in DDT), but no one at the time ever mistook them for redbugs. And there is no reason we should be making that mistake now.

By the way, you may have noticed a theme appearing here. Any time a tour guide tells you thingamajig in Savannah is the origin of blah-blah world wide colloquialism… just assume it’s bullcrap. We’ve never been such a major player on the international stage that our quaint habits are rewriting the English language.

10. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1876, doctors tried to hide the scale of the disaster by sneaking corpses out of Candler Hospital via secret tunnels and burying them at night in Laurel Grove Cemetery (or possibly Forsyth Park)

All I can do here is raise one eyebrow disdainfully and ask, “Really, ghost tours?”

How is that supposed to have worked, pray tell? In the middle of an epidemic, someone had time to dig tunnels from the old Candler Hospital to Laurel Grove Cemetery a mile away? Without anyone in town noticing? The current hospital building was only completed in 1876. They must have added those long tunnels really fast to be ready for that epidemic! Wouldn’t it have been faster, easier, and just as discreet to catapult the bodies across town from the roof of the hospital? Would have been a hell of a lot more fun than lugging putrid corpses around under the city, I tell you what. Why haul them all the way to the cemetery at all? You got this mile-long tunnel handy; just stuff ‘em in there, it’s the same thing! Now, burying people in Forsyth Park is a pretty nifty alternative except mass graves suddenly appearing in the middle of a large, popular public park would probably blow your cover.

Eeeeuuuuuurrrgh. This trash makes me want to punch all of the faces. Aside from the practical impossibilities, the story of the Candler Hospital tunnels relies on two other fallacious assumptions. 1: Again, all of our ancestors were morons. 19th century Savannahians couldn’t count, I guess? Or they were really distractible and kept forgetting how many of their friends and relatives had died? Or they just forgot from year to year that every summer was Yellow Fever Season and someone was for sure going to die? Did people used to interact on the Schrödinger’s Cat principle and assume anyone they couldn’t see was both alive and dead at the the same time? ‘Cuz that’s the only logic I can come up with for trying to sneak away the bodies of folks everyone already knew were dead. 2: Overestimating the severity of the epidemic and the degree of panic. As noted before, every summer was Yellow Fever Season and Savannah had 3 major outbreaks under its belt (1796, 1820, 1854) by the time our last big one rolled around in 1876. That’s at least one brush with deadly disease per generation. Not to say people were used to it or it wasn’t scary for them, but it doesn’t qualify as a surprise. And although the yellow fever of 1876 killed the most people in terms of sheer numbers (more than 1,000), it was far less severe than previous epidemics when you consider the mortality rate as a percentage of the total population. So, I know people were freaked out, but they dealt with it.

This logistically insulting, aggravatingly persistent ghost story is a sleazy way to exploit fascination with the very real hospital tunnels that once served a morbid, yet perfectly ordinary purpose. They were morgue tunnels. Just passageways built to connect the main building to the new morgue, all of which were upgrades made to the old 1819 structure in 1876. People die in a hospital and the bodies have to go somewhere and how are you going to keep them cool and prevent rot before the advent of refrigeration? You build your morgue underground, of course. It was a world class facility, in fact, and was even written about and touted in medical journals of the time. Nothing secret or shady about it!

Blatant lies like this, as well as the other fibs and falsehoods I’ve listed, dismay me badly. It’s rude to the people who pay you money in exchange for the truth, first of all. It’s also unfair to get paid for work (research) you haven’t actually done or that you don’t have the skills to interpret usefully. People can often sense when they’re being lied to even if they can’t tell precisely what’s wrong, and having that experience while in Savannah is likely to leave tourists with a bitter taste in their mouths. It will discourage people from coming back to the city if they think every tour company is run by a con man or every guide they meet is some joker who doesn’t take their job seriously.

It’s a problem I think the City needs to tackle by becoming more active in the licensing process. Right now it’s pretty much “take a test, pay some money” and poof! you’re a tour guide. Comparably historic cities like New Orleans and Charleston have much more stringent licensing requirements and way more comprehensive tour guide manuals. I think it would be great and would improve the overall caliber of the tourism industry here if the process required prospective guides to enroll in a semester-long course that goes over the material in depth. The time commitment would weed out fly-by-nights and a structured class would promote better retention of the facts and ensure a high baseline of knowledge among employees across all types of tour companies. My hope is that it would also foster respect for History as a discipline. A high-quality work force is most likely to attract high-quality tourists to this area and those are the kind I prefer.

But until the City of Savannah calls me up and asks for my opinion on the matter, the next best thing I can do is empower you, dear tourist, with my knowledge. Now you know the commonest untruths to beware of while you’re in town. Use this power wisely. Together we can smack down the jokers!

A good tour is a great high

Boy, I was buzzing for days after the tour I gave on May 10th. It’s dorky to admit you love what you do unless what you do is something super cool like working for the Mythbusters, or something beyond comprehension like being Neil DeGrasse Tyson. But I’m here to tell you my name is Bonnie and I love being a tour  guide. If only there were a support group for me!

But I do love it! It’s not just a matter of showing off my city, either. A good tour is also a good performance, and that satisfies the actor in me. There is a reason almost every actor in this city works as a tour guide at least once in their lives, if only for a season. Not many of them make a career out of it like me, but they all get licensed and put a few tourist dollars in their pockets.

I’m running these public tours now Thursday-Sunday, which can be booked in advance on Zerve.com. I’ve got a morning history tour, an evening ghost tour, and I recently created a drinking tour that I am very proud of. I call it “Lightly Sauced- Raise a Glass to History“. The title is pretty spiffy too, if I do say so myself. Now, I hate drunk people and I hate pub crawls. Some tour guides have a gift for conducting pub crawls and really enjoy doing them, but I am not that tour guide. “Lightly Sauced” is not a pub crawl. It is a real history tour, just with a little something extra. My idea was to do a really classy drinking tour that doesn’t have the goal of getting everybody drunk. Instead of running around with a crowd of noisy inebriates, the group size is limited (all of three of the tours have limited sizes) and the ticket price covers the cost of all the drinks, food, and tips for the wait staff. As I was putting the whole thing together, I came up with the notion of featuring drinks that have some kind of historical connection to Savannah or at least the Old South.

That wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I knew I wanted samples of Madeira wine because Madeira was a big deal here back in the 19th century. The Davenport House Museum does a special presentation every February called Potable Gold: Savannah’s Madeira Tradition. Now I kinda wish I’d gone to it. Guess I’ll have to wait until next year. Surprisingly, the only restaurant I could find that served Madeira was Jazz’d Tapas Bar. Good thing it’s a nice place. And since small plates are what they do, it gave me the genius idea of including a snack everyone on the tour could share. The start time is 4:30 and it runs 3 hours; that’s well after lunch and a little before dinner. I didn’t want everyone staggering around on an empty stomach! Brian, manager of Jazz’d, was spooky like a horse about working with me. I had to reassure him I wasn’t a fly-by-night tour poacher (yes, those exist), bound to screw him over either through malice or incompetence. It takes finesse to work all the numbers so the ticket price covers all the costs while also making some money for me. Then there’s the logistics of making sure all the restaurateurs get paid and the servers get tipped. I simplified that by opening up a new credit card expressly for this tour so everyone gets paid as I go.

My next thought was to check out the mead bar at Savannah Bee Company. Mead doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with this city’s history, so that one’s kind of a wild card. I just really like Savannah Bee and their manager (also a local singer), Danielle Hicks, was just so enthusiastic about participating. Plus, how often does anybody get to do a mead tasting?

Mint juleps seemed like the next logical inclusion. Ask anyone to name a Southern cocktail and 99% will say “mint julep” first. So, no connection to Savannah, exactly, but decidedly Southern. And I think Margaret Mitchell says something in Gone With the Wind about Scarlet O’Hara drinking a mint julep, and that book is set in Georgia, so that’s close enough for me. I was surprised again to find that almost no one in the Historic District serves mint juleps! Some people have told me it’s because they’re complex and time-consuming to make, so bar tenders don’t like them. Understandable, I guess, but a little disappointing. The bar at the 17Hundred90 Inn and Restaurant was my only option, so I’m lucky it’s a nice place and the location fell perfectly in line with where I wanted to go.

Lastly, I knew from the beginning I had to include Chatham Artillery Punch. It’s the only drink on the list that was actually invented in Savannah and it’s a classic. It’s also got, like, 6 different liquors in it, so a good one to end on. Wouldn’t want to start off that way, right? There are at least 3 restaurants downtown serving this drink, but 2 of them are on River Street and I didn’t want to veer that far off-course. It would also be mean to make people navigate the stairs after loading them up with wine, mead, and a cocktail. By process of elimination, then, the bar at The Pirates’ House would have to be my final stop. (As an aside- am I a weirdo for being unduly pleased by the restaurant’s bold use the plural-possessive in its name and correct placement of the attendant apostrophe? Is that just me?)

So everything worked out quite nicely! I was able to feature the drinks I wanted and all the stops lined up conveniently from west to east, starting near City Market and ending at The Pirates’ House. All I had left to do was run a test to check for bugs.

That’s where my May 10th tour came in. Some (delightful, wonderful, very helpful) friends joined me at 4:30 in Telfair Square. I was afraid no one would come because my invitation got basically no response, probably because all my friends are poor and I needed a little money from people to pay for the libations. But John, Brenda, Christa, and Tina came to my rescue! Hooray! We had such a great time and I got some very helpful feedback. Here are some pictures I took along the way. Sorry for the crummy iPhone camera quality:

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, Jazz'd Tapas Bar, bar, madeira, wine, friends

Partyin’ like it’s 1799 with some Madeira at Jazz’d.

Raise your glasses, guys! And here’s a close-up of the Madeira with Jazz’d’s (oh God, too many apostrophes now) delicious Baked Cheese Terra Cotta plate:

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, Jazz'd Tapas Bar, bar, madeira, wine, baked cheese terra cotta plate

Flatulence and drunkenness. These things go together like cheese and wine, right?

The mead at Savannah Bee was much appreciated and I found out it was the first time John and Brenda had ever been in the store. They’d been walking past it for years and just hadn’t gotten around to shopping there. It is a shame not to shop at Savannah Bee!

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, Savannah Bee Company, mead bar, mead

Everyone is remarkably serious about their mead.

Here is our bartender hard at work crushing the mint for the juleps at the 17Hundred90. He’s told me his name on two different occasions and I am ashamed to have forgotten it both times.

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, 17Hundred90 Inn and Restaurant, bar, mint julep

Smash it! Smash it!

I was a little nervous because John is something of a mint julep connoisseur. He makes his own each year for the Kentucky Derby. What would I do if he told me the drink was lousy? I couldn’t get it anywhere else, but I wouldn’t want tourists to drink crappy liquor. Happily, John informed me the mint julep met his standard. These drinks all have Bonnie’s Friends Seal of Approval. That was my other motivation for the test-run: I needed people who regularly drink alcohol to vet the booze for me. I hate the taste of alcohol and I don’t drink, so I have no basis for comparison. I overcame my lack of qualification for this tour by delegating the tasting responsibility to my willing guinea pigs.

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, Columbia Square, mint julep

Very willing.

So, last stop was The Pirates’ House and that was a trip! Our bartender was the a woman named Avery, the self-appointed all-mighty Keeper of the Punch. Seriously, she will cut you if you screw with her Chatham Artillery Punch.

Piates' House, Savannah, GA, Georgia, Chatham Artillery Punch, bar, Lightly Sauced

And she’ll smile while doing it.

Avery likes her job. She likes her job a lot. And by the time John, Brenda, Christa, and Tina got to the bar, they liked her job a lot too. I checked in with the group and they all assured me they were not drunk (isn’t that what drunk people always say?), but very pleasantly buzzed. I hung around for a while until I had to get set for a ghost tour and polled everyone for feedback about their experience. The one significant change I made, at my friends’ insistence, was increasing the duration from 2 1/2 to 3 hours. I agreed with them it would set a better pace. If you do the tour and you think it’s too long, you can blame my buddies. It’s their fault. They really lobbied hard for the longer run time.

So if you want to have as much fun as John, Brenda, Christa, and Tina while staying mostly (or moderately) sober and learning some stuff about Savannah, or if you want to impress your friends and family by scheduling a really special experience for them, come with me and get “lightly sauced”!

Bonnie Terrell, Savannah, GA, Georgia, Chatham Artillery Punch, Pirates' House, Lightly Sauced

Drink up, me hearties, yo ho!

Savannah Scenes # 3: Savannah

Ok, I’ve really got to pick up the pace on this project now because I’m developing a backlog of movies. The library had The Conspirator ready for me sooner than I expected, Netflix got CBGB here faster than I expected, and I still haven’t watched my friend Nathanael’s copy of Forces of Nature after holding it hostage for 3 months. (Sorry, Nathanael!) Now I’ve got plans to watch CBGB on Tuesday with my movie-and-punk-music aficionado friend, Jim. If I don’t tear through this review of Savannah now, I’ll start getting details mixed up, like thinking Joey Ramone was a duck hunter or something. …God, that’s a fabulous image.

Savannah was filmed here in 2011 by Unclaimed Freight Productions, a very busy local studio which is also responsible for the afore-mentioned CBGB and a soon-to-be-made Gregg Allman biopic. It’s based on a book called Ward Allen: Savannah Market Hunter, by Jack Cay. It’s the true story of Ward Allen, a local aristocrat born and raised for the genteel lifestyle who told everyone to suck his decoys and became a duck hunter instead. He continually battled local bureaucracy for his right and the rights of other hunters to shoot and hunt along the Savannah River and sell their haul to local hotels and other businesses. Oh, and his best buddy was a black guy. In the Jim Crow south. If you’re interested, here are a couple of Savannah Morning News articles about the movie, one from February 2011 and the other after a screening in March of 2012.

I remember when they were filming this three years ago. I think every actor and extra in town was involved one way or another. I have to hand it to Unclaimed Freight- they pulled in some A-list talent for this low-budget flick about a guy hardly anyone in Savannah, and no one outside of Savannah, has ever heard of. Jim Caviezel (Jesus himself!) played Ward Allen. Jaimie Alexander, now famous for playing Sif in the Thor movies, portrayed his wife Lucy. I think the frosting on this celebrity cake, though, is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Ward Allen’s hunting buddy Christmas Moultrie. Probably not a lot of people knew (or could pronounce) his name in 2011. But now that Ejiofor is bound to be carried out of the Academy Awards under a pile of glittering Oscars for his work in 12 Years a Slave, we can all be retroactively proud that he made a movie here first. There was also Hal Holbrook, looking like he had a great time playing a sympathetic judge. Holbrook, of course, is better than A-list- he’s legendary.

So, how do I think this low-budget period piece fared? And did it make good use of our fair city? Um… well… it certainly had its good points and its… not so good points. Let’s rip off the band-aid and go straight to one thing that did NOT work:

Savannah, Christmas Moultrie, Chiwetel Ejiofor

GAH!

Oh, hey, an unexpected bonus: I learned that if I use the PrintScreen function while watching a movie on this computer, it will automatically save a screen capture to the Dropbox folder! Anyway, back to the point I intended to make here. OH DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT? Movie making and theatre are both very dependent on illusion. You, Unclaimed Freight, were trying to create the illusion of a luxurious and well-funded period piece. While I admire your ambition and your general ingenuity on display throughout the film, this is a moment that makes your limits painfully, terrifyingly obvious. When the only old man makeup you can afford comes out of a jar labelled “Uncanny Valley Nightmare Cream,” you should have the good sense to avoid close ups. Shoot him from behind or in silhouette or hire an actual old guy to stand in for Chiwetel Ejiofor, anything but this!

Ok, now that’s out of the way, let’s move on to recognizable locations. First up, it’s

First Baptist Church, Savannah

Pictured: not a courthouse

First Baptist Church pretending to be a courthouse! The church was built in the 1830s in the Greek Revival style, which was very typical at that time. I have had people on my tours comment that Christ Church, also from the same time period and of the same style, looks like a courthouse, so I’m not surprised the production team felt this one did too. I read in one of the newspaper articles about Savannah that they shot the interiors in an actual historic courthouse in Effingham County.

Lucy, Savannah, Chippewa Square

Jaimie Alexander as Lucy with Chippewa Square in the background.

A lot of the in-town scenes were done around Chippewa Square for some reason. Here is Ward Allen’s eventual wife, Lucy, crouched in the square with his dog. You can see the pedestal of the Oglethorpe monument there just left of center.

Perry St., Savannah

Perry Street town homes

Here is Ward Allen coming to deliver freshly shot fowl to Lucy’s house (romantic?) on Perry Street, which, again, is right alongside Chippewa Square.

Savannah, Jim Caviezel, Perry St.

No anachronistic details here. Nope.

I must pause to point out one little detail that drove me nuts. See that sort of small beige box on the door frame to the right of Ward Allen’s elbow? Yeah, I’m pretty sure this house actually has an intercom or something right there. I meant to go have a look myself, but never got around to it. It drives me crazy that the production team just, I don’t know, stuck a box over it? It doesn’t look like something that belongs there in 1918, it looks like something that’s being covered up. They couldn’t use a plant or swing the camera around and shoot from the other direction or something? Argh!

Savannah, Harper-Fowlkes House

A very tidy market indeed.

Also very close to Chippewa Square is the Harper-Fowlkes House (I’d recognize that back porch anywhere!), which served as the duck market (duck monger’s?). I must say, that is a very, very clean and sparsely populated open-air market. That was another small problem I had with this movie: it feels a little bit sterile and a little bit empty. I’m sure it’s because they could only afford to hire and costume so many extras and there’s a limit to how much dirt you can truck in to cover the street when you’ve only got a $1 million budget. Oh, speaking of dirt!

Savannah, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bull St.

For olden times, just add dirt.

I often tell my tourists it’s so easy to shoot a period film here. You just get rid of the parking meters and cover the street in dirt and you’re in business! Unclaimed Freight clearly operates under the same philosophy. This is a shot of Christmas Moultrie with the camera pointing out from behind the columns of First Baptist Courthou- I mean Church. As is the norm, they hid the asphalt with a tractor load of soil and mulch. And how fortunate most of the sidewalks downtown are herringbone brick and not concrete. I am a little insulted, however. Savannah is not so backward that we were still putting up with dirt roads after WWI. The major streets at the very least, like Bull Street there, had already been paved in brick for a few decades. Hmph.

Aside from places, I was able to spot a few people I recognized as well. Here we have Savannah’s favorite ice cream man, Stratton Leopold!

Stratton Leopold, Savannah

You brought me some Mocha Chocolate Chip, right?

Stratton Leopold is the owner of Leopold’s Ice Cream, which has been in business since 1919, never mind a three decade hiatus. He is also a successful movie producer, so seeing him in front of the camera took me by surprise. He only has a brief scene near the end in one of Christmas Moultrie’s flashbacks.

Then I got to see a much closer acquaintance of mine, or at least he is since I was in Our Town at Asbury Methodist in November:

Billy Hester, Savannah

Those sermons ain’t gonna write themselves!

It’s the Reverend Billy Hester! He runs Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, which also has a killer theatre program. Performing in Our Town there was one of the things that distracted me through the fall and kept me from blogging for such a long time. Billy and his wife Cheri do, in fact, have professional acting resumes. Cheri was also in Our Town. I played Mrs. Gibbs and she played my neighbor Mrs. Webb. She told me a little bit about living in New York many years ago and how she used to be a hand model there for a little while. She said that was a really weird job. I think we got on that topic because I complimented her manicure. Anyway, later on she was telling some of us about Billy’s involvement in Savannah and that she was kind of annoyed he ended up in this costume here-

Billy Hester, Savannah

Wardrobe department get confused about the setting?

-without any on-screen explanation. So why is Billy wearing Wickham’s coat from Pride & Prejudice?

Wickham, Pride and Prejudice, 2005

For real, what movie did the wardrobe people think they were making?

According to Cheri, poor Billy is the foolish-looking victim of the editing process. There was a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor in which a bunch of these guys are involved in some kind of historical reenactment. Probably Civil War something, but I can’t remember now. So, Billy’s just stuck there in his last scene looking like he raided his great grandpa’s steamer trunk long before Macklemore made that sort of thing trendy.

At this point, I have to give credit where it’s due and show you where, I think, most of the budget went.

Savannah, marsh, aerial

Just to make sure you remember the title of the book.

 

Savannah, marsh, aerial

I believe I can fly

Savannah, marsh, aerial

I believe I can touch the sky

Savannah, marsh, aerial

I think about it every night and day

Savannah, marsh, aerial

Spread my wings and fly away

I don’t know how much these wheeling aerial shots cost, but I’m guessing “nearly all of the money”. At first, seeing the camera swoop over the marsh every few minutes annoyed me because I thought it was gratuitous, if attractive, padding. Then I realized, “Oh, duh, Ward Allen is a duck hunter. This is the perspective of a bird in flight.” Once I got it, I really appreciated these moments for their cinematic beauty and atmospheric serenity. Also, the music was really good. Then the movie had to go and vaporize my good will with one of the very last shots:

 

Jim Caviezel, Savannah, greenscreen

*ZAP!*

Seriously?! You’ve been spoiling me for nearly two hours with graceful visuals and now you offend my eyeballs with this obvious and heinous green screen? Not even Jim Caviezel is pretty enough to make up for it!

Ok, so, I would not call Savannah a failure, but it had some pretty serious shortcomings. Most of the problems are with the writing, honestly. I applaud Unclaimed Freight for choosing to make a movie about a local hero in a small(ish) city embroiled in conflicts that hardly anyone alive now can appreciate. The thing about trying to turn an extremely localized story into a successful movie is you have to find some way to universalize it, even for Savannahians like me. I didn’t know a thing about Ward Allen or why he might be interesting. I still feel like I’m waiting for some kind of punchline. There were a lot of ways to tell Ward Allen’s story, but this movie felt like it was trying to tell it in all directions at once. There were many themes to choose from and I really wish the writer and director had chosen one, maybe two, and developed that more fully. Is this a love story between Ward Allen and Lucy? Is it a story of stalwart devotion between a black man and white man in the racist turn-of-the-century South? Is it about a man who eschews society’s expectations and chooses wildness over civility? Is it about a vanishing way of life? Sadly, Savannah tried to cover all these things, which left the finished product feeling rather shallow.

I had some problems with the structure too. Framing it as a flashback from Jack Cay’s perspective is kind of ok, since the movie is based on his book. The problem there is that Ward Allen was dead long before Jack Cay came along, so Cay’s recollections are actually stories that were told to him by Allen’s pal, Christmas Moultrie. That mean’s Cay’s flashbacks are actually someone else’s flashbacks. And then the characters experience flashbacks of their own within those flashbacks! It’s disorienting and, frankly, sloppy. If you are not Christopher Nolan, you probably should not be creating a world with that many levels. I understand the desire to make sure Jack Cay had some kind of presence in the film, but perhaps it would have been better from a storytelling perspective to streamline things and let Christmas Moultrie alone tell it from his perspective. At any rate, no more flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, ok? And certainly not from multiple points of view.

I’m a little undecided about the acting, particularly Jim Caviezel. I read a critic’s assertion somewhere that Caviezel was the only actor in Hollywood who could underplay while still overacting. It made me giggle and it may be correct. I enjoy watching him play Mr. Reese on Person of Interest, but I really watch that show for Michael Emerson. Seeing Caviezel in Savannah didn’t really sway me one way or another, though. Jaimie Alexander had little enough to do in this movie, really. Lucy is a character that comes in strong already and never really grows from there. I guess it’s forgivable since this movie wasn’t about her. I found Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Christmas Moultrie to be the most relatable and real person in the film, though there wasn’t nearly enough of him. Why would you put a talent like Ejiofor in your movie and then hardly give him anything to do? Part of the problem was that Ejiofor came across so easy and natural and it made everybody else look like they were acting. Also, there were the accents. I’ve gone over this already and yes, the dreaded Hollywood Southern was in full, ear-bleeding force here. Poor Jaimie Alexander came off especially bad. How can that be when she was born and raised in the South?! Then again, it’s happened before: see Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias. Chiwetel Ejiofor sounded most natural to me and he’s English! Same deal in 12 Years a Slave, which featured two other English actors as Southern plantation owners. Why are English actors so much better at this than American actors?

There you have my thoughts on Savannah. Worth watching? I guess if you’re a completest (like me). It’s fun picking out people and places I recognize. But if you don’t live here it may not stand up too well on its own merits. If you like watching Jim Caviezel pretend to be uproariously drunk a whole lot, though- go for it!

Savannah Scenes #2: Glory

Ok, let’s just gloss over the fact I have neglected this blog way, way too long (Look, I was in a show, then it was the holidays, and we also had to move my unwell grandma up here from Florida- my neglect is completely legitimate!) and pick up right where I left off.

Luckily for me, being on a budget as I am, the library system here has many locally shot movies available for free. I watched Glory months ago and I’ve got another DVD sitting on the shelf that’s due soon, so I need to get this post taken care of and move on to the next one.

Glory came out in 1989 and it’s about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the Federal army’s first all-black regiment. We’re talking about the Civil War, of course. This regiment was perhaps obscure to most (white) Americans before 1989, but we live in a post-Glory world now, so you better be ashamed of your ignorance if you don’t already know what I’m talking about. Much of the story’s first half, training the soldiers and whatnot, is set in Massachusetts, whereas the second half, the attack, is set in South Carolina. Exactly none of the movie was shot in either one of those places. It was all shot here, near here, and down the Georgia coast.

A lot of the scenery is in some random field or woods or marsh that could be anyplace nearby, but several locations were easily recognizable to me. After the opening battle sequence, things slow down for a minute and you see all these Federal bigwigs hobnobbing inside some fancy, fancy house. Then, Matthew Broderick (as Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th’s newly appointed commander) steps outside the front door and has a chat with Carey Elwes while leaning against the front gate of the house.

Mercer-Williams House, Savannah, Georgia, Mercer House

The Mercer-Williams House

Oh, hi, Mercer-Williams House! Yeah, they used it for the interior as well as exterior shots. I knew that, yet I had kinda forgotten and it caught me by surprise for a moment. Now, some of you undoubtedly know this was the infamous residence of Jim Williams, the Savannah socialite forever immortalized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Speaking of which, I guess I’ll have to cover that one too eventually. Anyway, Williams was still alive and living at the house during the shoot. I can’t remember if he had finally been acquitted of murdering Danny Hanson yet or if he was still tied up with his fourth trial. I could check THE BOOK I suppose, but I just don’t feel like it. Hey, this is a blog, not an essay. Go find yourself a Grad student if you want real work.

I had a family of five for a tour recently and mentioned the movie to them when we walked by the house. One of the guys was a fan of Glory and was so pleased when I told him it had been shot here in Savannah. He had no idea. (I guess he never bothered to watch any of the extras on the DVD?) I snatched that pic up there from Flickr just so you’d know which house I was talking about. I found screen captures online for several of the other locations I’ll mention, but simply could not find that one scene with Broderick in front of the Mercer House! I don’t know what the deal is with that.

So then the action moves to Jones Street for a minute or two where the new recruits are signing up:

Glory, recruits, Jones Street, Savannah, Georgia

Glory’s recruitment scene, shot on Jones St.

I think that’s the block between Whitaker and Barnard. Remember now, this is all supposed to be in Massachusetts. It’s great how Savannah can dress up as pretty much any 19th century American city. It’s definitely way cheaper than filming in Boston and way warmer when you’re shooting in February and March (like these guys). I often tell people on my tours all you have to do to film a period piece here is remove the parking meters, cover the street in dirt and poof! Unclaimed Freight Productions turned that formula on its head, though, when they filmed CBGB here in 2012. Don’t worry Punk fans- I’ll get to that one later!

So, the next location to catch my eye was the training ground for the new recruits of the 54th Mass. Their barracks was our roundhouse:

54th Mass., Glory, Savannah, Georgia, Roundhouse Railroad Museum

Training camp for the 54th Mass.

I am ashamed to admit this, but I have never visited the Georgia State Railroad Museum. I know, I know! Shut up. It’s on my to-do list. I did attend a friend’s wedding there a few years ago. According to the Coastal Heritage Society  the “Georgia State Railroad Museum is believed to be the largest and most complete antebellum railroad repair facility still in existence, in the world!” You can tell they’re very excited about that. So, if trains are your thing, you’ll be glad to know this place is just a couple blocks west of the Historic District, right down Louisville Rd. Even though I haven’t toured the place (yes, I know- shame!), I still knew exactly what I was looking at because of the distinctive, massively recognizable round smoke stack you see in the middle there. I watched the DVD’s commentary track and the director said the point of setting the barracks there was to emphasize the built-up and industrial nature of the North so it would contrast with the later scenes that take place the pastoral South.

Most of the good stuff develops in this camp. You know, it occurs to me how gutsy it is to make a Civil War movie that sets most of its action far away from the battlefield. But Glory isn’t so much about fighting, it’s more about becoming. Robert Gould Shaw starts off as a privileged, though diffident, gentleman and transforms into a real commander. The black men he commands go on different journeys. Thomas (Andre Braugher) learns to be a fighter, Trip (Denzel Washington) learns to stop picking fights all the time, and Morgan Freeman, um… ok, not sure on that one. He’s a mentor… which he is in every movie. Well, if I owned a copy of that DVD and could watch it again, I’m sure I’d pick up on something. And the white folks all around them, um, a few of them learn to be ever so slightly less racist. A tiny bit. Keep in mind I’m talking about the movie here. I know that in reality probably nobody involved with the 54th Mass. was anywhere near so lovable. It all made for good cinema, though.

Moving on to the last location shot I want to point out:

Glory, Savannah, Georgia, River Street

A much-altered River Street in Glory.

Look, it’s River Street! But where’s the river? Since when does River Street have two sides? What black magic is this?!

I remember another tour guide (Who was it? Was it Don?) telling me about this. To shoot the scene where the army parades down a street in Boston, the production team did up the buildings on one side of River Street, then built a facade of completely fake buildings down the other side. They did a bang-up job. I had to stare at this scene pretty hard before I could spot anything I recognized. In this screencap, you can easily make out the dome of our City Hall right in the back. I don’t think that’s architecturally appropriate to the mid-19th century, but I bet the filmmakers shrugged and figured nobody would be looking at that anyway. Movie makers do that a lot, actually. It’s funny how often they’re right. In one shot of this scene, I think I also juuuuuuust made out the edge of the Hyatt behind Matthew Broderick’s head during a close-up. Ah, sometimes an inch of framing is all that separates the 1860s from the 1960s.

There was shooting in other nearby locations, but nothing especially recognizable. One salt marsh or woodland looks much like another. The last part, where they attack the fort, was done on Jekyll Island, about 1 1/2 hours down the coast. I really need to get my act together and visit Jekyll Island too. That’s another thing on my to-do list.

So, my opinion of Glory? I liked it more than I thought I would. I don’t usually care much for war movies and I’m always bored to tears by the Civil War (bad Southerner!). I was afraid at the beginning this was going to be one of those movies that’s ostensibly about black people, then the whole story is told from the perspective of some white main character. Hollywood reduces black people (or other minorities) to second-class status within their own narrative all the time because it makes the head honchos feel safer about their investment.  It looks like I was mistaken, though. It did feel like a movie about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and not about Robert Gould Shaw. I know Matthew Broderick got top billing (and that was probably a marketing strategy), but it was much more of an A-list ensemble piece. Glory shows up pretty well if you do a race-centric version of the Bechdel test on it: 1) it has at least two named black characters in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides the white characters.

All in all, Glory is a classic Savannahians can be proud of the city’s involvement in. But I’m not getting too comfortable. I know I’ve got a whole lot of bad-to-mediocre movies coming at me. Stay tuned….

Savannah Scenes #1: Cape Fear (1962)

This seems like a good opportunity to initiate a little project I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m gonna round up every movie I can get my hands on that was shot in Savannah and write about them! I bet you’ve watched all kinds of movies that were shot here and you didn’t even know. I mean, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is kind of a giveaway, but how about Glory (which I haven’t seen) or Something to Talk About (which I… also haven’t seen) or The Last Song (which I’m not looking forward to seeing)? Not to mention the just-released independent film Savannah, starring Jim Caviezel, and the to-be released on October 11th CBGB with Alan Rickman! Ok, I guess it’s a no-brainer a movie called Savannah would be shot here, but CBGB is about that club in New York. Savannah substituted for 1970s New York City in a movie about the birthplace of punk rock! That is hilarious and how would you ever have guessed if I didn’t tell you?

This project may morph into a movie-centric walking tour. There’s only one movie tour in town and that’s Savannah Movie Tours. I suppose I could ride along with them to snag some material, but I don’t want to poach their stuff. Besides, Georgia’s decade-long film making dry spell ended in about 2010 when the legislature finally put together a real sweet incentives package to lure filming back here. Worked like magic and now there are all sorts of new movie stories to assemble. I know several actors in town who have had small speaking parts in various movies or who got to be extras. I’m sure I can round up some good stuff. Hell, I was an extra myself in an episode of Ruby several years back. If you ever watched that show, by the way, my dad is a mailman and delivers the mail to her house.

So, I begin my new adventure with a silver screen classic: Cape Fear, the 1962 original starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. I became aware of this movie last summer when SCAD’s Cinema Circle screened it at the Trustees Theater. I really wanted to go because Connect Savannah did a very nice write up about it and mentioned much of the movie was shot in Savannah. Robert Mitchum was even arrested for real in this town and put on a Georgia chain gang when he was about 14. Reportedly, he was not very happy to come back to Savannah for filming. I missed the show because of work or something and have been meaning to rent a copy ever since. How lucky I am it popped up under the Free Movies heading in Comcast On Demand!

I had a great time watching it last week. It was such a surprise to see the Universal International logo, then BAM! there was the Gordon monument in the middle of Wright Square:

Cape Fear, Gordon Monument, Wright Square, 1962

Wright Square takes front and center at the beginning of Cape Fear.

Yeah, I used my iPhone to snap pictures of the screen. There was probably a slicker way to get these images, but oh well. Technology fail, yeah!

Then POOF! there was the Customs House and Bay Street (and Robert Mitchum prancing through traffic like a total fool, a very dangerous thing to do on Bay Street today).

City Hall, Cape Fear, 1962, Robert Mitchum

The front of City Hall at the beginning of Cape Fear.

Then Mitchum went sailing right inside the front door of City Hall. They used the actual interior of City Hall too. God, the set designer had the easiest job in the world for the first half of this movie. That old elevator shaft on Mitchum’s right is still there and still looks just like that and they still use the damn thing:

Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah City Hall interior

The interior of City Hall as it appears in Cape Fear.

For Mitchum’s first ominous encounter with Gregory Peck, when he reaches in the window and snatches the keys out of his car, all that was done in a Bay Street parking lot just east of City Hall in front of the Cotton Exchange. Don’t worry, I don’t have any cheesy pictures of that. I was puzzled for a little while, though, by this shot right here:

Boar's Head, Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah

A shot of the entrance to the (I think fake) Boar’s Head in Cape Fear.

It’s implied that’s a restaurant in town, close to the docks. There is, in fact, a restaurant on River Street called The Boar’s Head Grill and Tavern, but there’s no way this shot could have been done anywhere near there. You would never see exposed shore and waves washing up anywhere along the waterfront. If you do, that means you’ve gotten your stupid self caught here in the middle of a hurricane. I had to review these few seconds a couple of times to convince myself this was a fake. It looks so much like the actual Boar’s Head and yet not quite. The real Boar’s Head says on their website they originally opened up in 1959. I wonder if someone saw that restaurant and decided to recreate the exterior in a more preferable location. The interiors were certainly done on a sound stage.

Later on in the movie, we have a clear view of the old Armstrong House, which is supposed to be the girls’ school Gregory Peck’s daughter attends:

Armstrong House, Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah

A shot of the Armstrong House serving as a girls’ school in Cape Fear.

That’s it there on the left. I only just now remembered Armstrong Junior College (Armstrong Atlantic State University these days) didn’t leave that location and move to the south side until 1965. I’m so accustomed to walking by that house and knowing it’s been a law firm for decades, it feels weird to look at it and know it was still a college at the time.

Just as Gregory Peck’s movie daughter is getting out of school, we get these shots of Robert Mitchum-

Forsyth Park, fountain, Savannah, Cape Fear, 1962

A shot of the Forsyth Park Fountain in Cape Fear.

Robert Mitchum, Forsyth Park, Savannah, Cape Fear, 1962

Robert Mitchum struts down the center of Forsyth Park in Cape Fear.

-striding through Forsyth Park as sinisterly as a man can stride anywhere. Of course our signature fountain had to be in this movie somewhere. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a legal requirement for every movie that shoots in this town.

Those are most of the recognizable bits that caught my eye. I’m pretty sure the Bowden family home (Gregory Peck’s character) was also somewhere around here, but I didn’t recognize it. Looked like it might be on Skidaway Island or something. If I owned a DVD of this movie with a commentary track, maybe it would say. Oh yeah, and some of the shots on the beach looked like they were actually done around the Tybee Pier. I don’t know about the marina scenes when Peck first takes a swing at Mitchum, but one marina looks much like another to me. I guess they probably shot the cypress swamp/river scenes around here too. They would only have to drive a few miles outside of town to put in boats at the Ogeechee. All the finale with the houseboat and everything was clearly done on a sound stage back in L.A. A very well-built one, but still a sound stage.

So, my thoughts on the experience of watching Cape Fear? It blew my mind how much downtown Savannah still looks just the same. I did spot a few background items, the facades of which have since been restored, or buildings I know were torn down later in the 60s or 70s. But really, it looked to me like someone parked a bunch of vintage cars on the street, stocked up on some black and white film, and rolled camera. That movie could have been shot yesterday. As for the movie itself, the script is tight and tense, it tackles uncomfortable subject matter without being salacious about it, all the actors hit the right pitch, and all of the characters are well-developed and smart. Thrillers these days have an awful tendency to feature characters who compound their difficulties by making obviously stupid decisions. What I love about Cape Fear is that the good guys get deeper and deeper in trouble in spite of making all the right decisions. I think this movie is a noir masterpiece and it makes me proud to know it was shot here.

If you are a Cape Fear fan, as I now am, why sit at home and admire the setting from afar? Schedule a trip down here and take a walk with me in the very footsteps of Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck! I promise not to drown you, shoot you, or hit you in the head with a rock.

And then they came for my house museums….

The neighbors are at it again. Tour guides and tour company owners like myself have already spent more than a year dodging the choler lobbed at us by Historic District residents. Looks like the house museums are up next. Guess it’s their turn. I don’t mind the reprieve, frankly.

I’m being a little unfair, I know. The downtown residents are often my ideological allies, such as when they furiously defended their turf against the encroachment of double-decker tour buses. That prevented a massively stupid development, utterly inappropriate to this setting, while also eliminating another potential competitor for me. Denizens of downtown also vocally opposed the possibility of a cruise ship terminal along our waterfront, which probably would have been no less disastrous for us than it has been for Charleston. I do think City Council would have reached that conclusion on their own, but it’s still nice to know someone’s got an eye on them. I love Savannah too and find comfort knowing it is inhabited by these legionnaires of legality who will leap to the city’s defense at the tiniest provocation and save me the trouble of rattling my own saber. (I don’t have one.)

Sometimes my allies become my enemies, though, as a result of our differing requirements: I use the Historic District to earn a living and they use it to live in. While tour operators sometimes make the mistake of dismissing residents’ needs or simply having no manners while on the job, downtown residents sometimes make the mistake of being peevishly possessive and misdirected in their ire, which has led to the present kerfuffle with the house museums.

The Savannah Morning News ran this article, “Issues arise with historic home,” on July 17. The follow-up ran in Sunday’s paper: “Museum operators wary of potential ordinance change“. Basically, it’s been all party-party at the Harper-Fowlkes House over on Orleans Square for two years and the people who live nearby are “fed up” (as the two articles repeatedly state). They got the City onto it and the Harper-Fowlkes House Trustees were cited for breaking the Savannah Zoning Ordinance. As it turns out, it is illegal for the museums to lease themselves out for private events because they do not count as “assembly halls” under the definition spelled out in the ordinance, which dates from 1960. The first article cites Metropolitan Planning Commission staffers calling it an “error… of omission”. It also says that nobody ever enforced the prohibition except when there were complaints.

Ok, let’s deal with the legal issues on this one first, then I’ll get into the financial problems. The people living near the Harper-Fowlkes House or any other museum have every right to be annoyed when that venue hosts disruptive events. However, I think the neighbors on Orleans Square are mistaken in coming down so hard on the Harper-Fowlkes House Trustees, which were guilty only of rudeness and amended their booking practices in February. The real problems here are 1) the City’s failure to update a 53 year old ordinance that was written at a time when no sane person would want to have a wedding or party of any sort in downtown Savannah and 2) the City’s failure to enforce it’s own crap rules until somebody compels them to do so. Lackadaisical enforcement of existing ordinances is also a problem in the tourism industry. Along that line, Adam Van Brimmer (the columnist) pointed out in Sunday’s article that use of the Charles Morris Center in Trustees Garden for special events is also illegal under the current rules. Charles Morris developed that area expressly for the purpose of hosting special events! Did no one review the paperwork when he was building it? I mean, there is a ton of permitting and bureaucratic hoop-jumping involved in restoration and new construction and nobody at the City realized, “Hey wait a minute- this compound’s very reason for existing is illegal”? Seriously? And house museums all over the Historic District have been hosting weddings and receptions with no complaints for years. I don’t think any of the curators even knew it was illegal (or at least none are copping to it), and who can blame them if the City has never enforced this law before? So, neighbors of the Harper-Fowlkes House, while it was wrong of the museum to ignore your initial complaints, the real problem here is that we are all saddled with a dumb and outdated ordinance and the City has no desire to enforce it anyway.

Your grievances having been acknowledged, what is it you want, downtown neighbors? The Harper-Fowlkes House made the initial mistake of setting few restrictions on event hours and noise, probably because they lacked experience handling that kind of thing. The proposed amendment to the ordinance which is under consideration now would set hours for music, delivery and breakdown of equipment, and require each historic property to petition the Zoning Board of Appeals for every event. That sounds alright to me, but the attorney representing the spurned inhabitants of Perry Street is quoted as saying it “doesn’t protect the neighbors” without any elaboration. That was in the first article, but the second one provides no further clarification. What is that supposed to mean? And is the lawyer actually being vague or is this just a case of bad reporting? Because I really have no idea what the problem is and it makes the people involved seem vindictive and childish.

I have no doubt some of the aggrieved individuals are making their gripe without having a proper idea of how the museums function and what they require in order to keep functioning. Tour guides have encountered the same problem- people making counter productive proposals because they don’t know how the industry works. One of the neighbor ladies is quoted as saying, about the Harper-Fowlkes House, “The house that once had been a hallowed hall became a setting for loud, even raucous parties in the courtyard.” First of all, I hate when I hear tired old phrases like “hallowed hall.” Almost nothing we now think of as a “hallowed hall” ever actually was, much less a building that used to be somebody’s house. People lived in there. And let me tell you, no one knows how to party like 19th-century high-society! The underwear was crotchless and all the drugs were legal, so you just work that equation out on your own. But that misperception is a minor personal peeve and has nothing to do with this legal conflict, really.

Time to talk about money. The perilous thing about this quarrel is it endangers a vital revenue stream for local museums. Where do people think the money comes from to maintain these houses? The people who own historic property downtown must have an idea how much their homes cost them. I would expect them to have more sympathy for curators who have to magic up the money to maintain large houses and gardens while also minimizing the compounding damage from thousands of visitors tramping through every year. I’ll bet you a dollar at least some of the angry neighbors who started this legal action assume museums are able to cover their costs with only admission fees and the money they get from hosting weddings and stuff is just “extra”. Luckily, the article from August 4th cited some real numbers to combat that impression: the Harper-Fowlkes House made $90,000 off rentals last year, but still faces a $70,000 shortfall this year; rentals make up 5% of the Davenport House’s revenue; and the Telfair Museum stages 50 external events a year that subsidize 150 educational programs it presents all year long. Several other museums in town are considering renting themselves out for special occasions because they need the money, so a lot of people have their eye on how City Council updates the ordinance.

So, I hope City Council comes through on this one (they get things right sometimes) and works up a satisfactory amendment. They’ve already gotten off to a blazing start by… postponing action for another six weeks. Well… the slower they move, the easier it is to catch them before they do something stupid.

In sickness and in health

Why is it when I really want some more business, there are no tourists to be found and when I really, really wish everyone would go away and leave me alone, tourists from near and far suddenly start burning up my cell phone minutes? Convenient timing is never an option when you’re self-employed, is it?

Let me back up. It all began, I’m pretty sure, on May 29th. I had a couple of people for a ghost tour and began to notice partway through I was having a little trouble speaking. As in, I had slight difficulty getting air to make noise as it exited my mouth. Whatever. I shrugged it off. The next day, I had one tour in the morning, then two tours in a row later on. The later tours were both with the same ladies- a history tour first, then a ghost tour. They had Living Social vouchers to redeem. Now, by the time I got around to meeting those two ladies late in the afternoon, I knew I was not entirely well. I felt perfectly fine, but my throat had become increasingly sore and my voice distressingly insubstantial. By the time I got home that night, I was swallowing razor blades and could barely even drink anything. I forswore speech in the hope all would be well the next morning. No small talk with the cats, no blathering to myself like a lunatic. Complete nun-like silence.

The pain had dissipated by morning, but I still kept my mouth shut because I had a large tour scheduled for that evening and was doing my best to save my voice. This was no ordinary tour: my friend Christa and I had been planning it for a while. Christa is the webmistress for the local branch of this group I hang with called No Kidding. It’s a social group for people who don’t have kids. Anyway, she had asked me months beforehand if I would like to conduct a ghost tour for No Kidding and I thought it would be fun. I did a history tour with much of the local gang last year. Since I have a policy of not making repeat customers pay when they bring new people, I knew that would complicate things this time around. How could I remember who had done it before and who hadn’t? And most of the group was bound to be repeats anyway. So, I had the brilliant idea to do the tour for free, but in exchange for tips and, most importantly, online reviews. Christa sent the word out via Evite, but that got only a tepid response, so I expanded the circle and created an invitation on Facebook as well. I think I sent it to around 80 people. I knew, of course, only perhaps 30 would respond at all, maybe 18 would plan to come, and at least a few of those would flake out. So, I was not worried at all about having too large a crowd. There you have my plan for Friday, May 31st: meet group of friends and acquaintances at 8pm in Johnson Square, deliver 90-minute ghost tour, rake in tips, beg for internet reviews. I knew a bunch of people were coming, I knew some of them were bringing friends and had kind of planned their night around it; it was important to me not to pull the plug on the whole thing since rescheduling and getting everyone to commit again would be impossible.

So….

My mom called late Friday morning and I answered my phone. Imagine my horror, my utter dismay, when I found I could not speak! I could barely make any noise at all! Poor Mom on the other end of the line said, “Are you there? I can’t hear you” a couple of times before I was able to make her understand me. It doesn’t help that my cell phone typically gets poor reception inside my apartment, so she probably thought it was a technical malfunction at first. It wasn’t until she actually said, “Oh, you have laryngitis” that I thought, “Oh God, I do have laryngitis!” Noooooooooooo! I earn my living talking to people! How could this have happened? I’ve had my voice get a little tired and my throat a get little sore after putting in a long day, but never anything this catastrophic! And just when I had tours on my book through the weekend!

I put a notice on Facebook about my predicament, but let everyone know we would go ahead as planned. 8pm rolled around and I was all set in Johnson Square. I ended up with a nicely sized group of 17 people. By the time we began, I was able to make an unattractive squawking noise and form it into word sounds. I told everyone they had to stand real close and listen real hard. If it had to be that way, I’m glad it was with people I knew and who would be sympathetic.We had a good time, but I was glad when it was over. At least my ploy worked. I did well on tips and racked up a few new reviews on TripAdvisor and on my Google listing. Kyle at the Small Business Development Center tells me Google likes to show you off in the search results more if you’ve got reviews with them. Sure thing, Google. Whatever it takes. Some generous souls even added reviews to my listing on Yelp.

I was supposed to do another ghost tour at 10, but had broken down and asked those people if we could move it to the same time the following night. They kindly agreed, which was such a relief to me. (As it turned out, I still wasn’t in very good shape the next night, but oh well.) I almost never ask people to reschedule or cancel a tour. I think the only time I ever cancelled on people was a few years ago when I became very sick for no apparent reason and rolled around in pain all night. So, rest assured, if I ever call you up and cancel or ask to move your appointment, it’s only because I have been rendered physically incapable of providing the tour you want.

After that Friday, I began to feel the cold (I guess it was a cold) the laryngitis had heralded. And of course it knocked me flat right when I had some steady business. There was so much phlegm in so many wrong places! It made me cough hard enough to hurt myself and the cough kept me up at night and made me so tired. I was able to work, but wasn’t good for much else once I got home. The cold wasn’t debilitating enough to justify staying in bed, but just severe enough to afflict me with low-grade misery whenever I was conscious. It went on for weeks. I’m not sure I’ve ever had an illness that lingered so badly. I’m still coping with the last remnants of that hellacious post-nasal drip even as I write this. I’m not sure that was an ordinary cold at all. I don’t know what that was. I’m glad I’m (mostly) over it. Naturally, now that I’m not hacking like a 19th century consumptive, there are almost no appointments on my book.

Figures.

Savannah: impulse-buy of the South

Savannah’s actual nickname is “The Hostess City of the South,” but I’m thinking we need to change that. For one thing, I always get this picture in my head of one of those little Hostess snack cakes (the chocolate ones with the white squigglies on top) and the Talmadge Bridge in the background. For an another, it’s completely inaccurate. Savannah rarely gets the chance to play hostess to anyone because no one ever takes the time to make plans before coming here. Despite the best efforts of the Tourism Leadership Council and Visit Savannah, this place is still not a primary vacation destination. It’s an afterthought for most people or an impulsive last-minute decision at best.

I’m not the only person to make this observation. I’ve been hitting up the downtown concierges a lot lately (trying to drum up some business) and many of them have been telling me the same thing. It really seems to be the case that people just sort of wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll go to Savannah today.” So, they drive down from Atlanta or up from Jacksonville or whatever, stagger into the hotel, set their luggage down, then stand around with no idea what to do. They confusedly gravitate toward the biggest, shiniest attraction they see, like bewildered, sunburned little moths. That’s how everybody ends up on a 90-minute ride with Old Town Trolley and a brief sojourn on River Street, then drives back home Sunday morning thinking they’ve covered all the important stuff and have no need to return and continue exploring. It makes me sad. Most of the reservations I get are from people who are in town only for the day or only for the weekend, lots of last-minute gigs. The time I meet up with them is about the time they are just beginning to realize there is a lot more to do here than they thought and they should have planned ahead or should have planned to stay longer. Hardly anyone ever tells me they are staying for a week or two weeks or a month. I can probably count the number of such tourists I’ve met on one hand. I have met many people who tell me they have come to Savannah several times, but “Never made it up from River Street.” Oh, that also makes me so, so sad.

What people also tell me is that they have been to Charleston several times or they’ve been coming to Hilton Head for years and finally decided to spend a day in Savannah. A lot of visitors only think to come here once they have exhausted all the good stuff in neighboring cities (or think they have, anyway). Savannah doesn’t appear to be a first choice for much of the traveling public. It’s the place you go to when Charleston, Atlanta, Raleigh, Charlotte, and Jacksonville have all lost their appeal. I do find it encouraging that some of those same people also say, “There’s so much to do here!” or “It’s so beautiful- we should have come sooner!” But will it be in their budget to come back again any time soon or even in the next few years? I don’ t know. I also meet a lot of tourists who are on their way to or from somewhere else. “Oh, we’re going down to Miami and decided to spend a day in Savannah.” “We’re coming back up from Florida to Virginia and are stopping in historic cities along the way.” Savannah tends to be part of a larger itinerary, not an attraction in and of itself. People don’t come to coastal Georgia for the purpose of visiting Savannah. They visit Savannah because they happened to be in coastal Georgia.

So, there you have my little theory. Savannah is the vacation equivalent of an impulse-buy, an item you tack onto your list after you’ve already checked off the “important” stuff. Hm. In that way, I guess it is like one of those little snack cakes that grabs your attention as you’re pushing your cart toward the cash register. Well, that does add a new layer of meaning to our title as Hostess City.

 

“Where’s your accent?”

Oh mah Gawd! I really wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me that on a tour, or its variation “You don’t sound southern.” I would have enough dollars to pull a Scrooge McDuck and swan dive into a vault full of them (much softer than gold coins).  Do people in other parts of the country get asked that as often as Southerners? Do Canadians go to Chicago and ask the folks there “Where’s your midwestern accent, eh?” (Not a stereotype. Canadians totally say “eh”- I’ve heard them.) Do Hawaiians visit New Jersey (though why you would trade Hawaii for Jersey is anyone’s guess) and ask “Hey, how come you don’t sound like that guy from Cake Boss?” I wasn’t even doing one of my own tours last week, but training with the Savannah Slow Ride, when a lady from Philadelphia asked me that.

I especially love the way people say “You don’t sound southern,” accusatory emphasis on the “sound,” as if I’m an imposter infiltrating the Old South for some nefarious purpose or maybe just screwing with them in particular. I used to get that a lot when I worked as a cashier at Cracker Barrel years and years ago. I think diners at the restaurant felt cheated because here they were in the most countrified eatery they could possibly find and the cashier didn’t even have the courtesy to sound like a good little redneck.

Look, people, Southerners don’t live in a vacuum any more than you do. We’re really just like you except we survive in a hotter, sweatier part of the country. Also, our food is better. There are many factors affecting my accent. For one thing, Savannah is a city. Not an especially big one, but it’s not a podunk hick town either. Just as with any city, especially one with a port, Savannahians and their accents have long been been influenced by the myriad people with their myriad languages and dialects going to and fro. We have never been isolated. Within the city itself, accents vary depending on class, level of education, and outside influence. If you were born here, but your family had moved from Virginia, you might not sound the same as your neighbor whose family has been here for 5 generations. So, the local accent can vary from household to household and even within the same family. My sister sounds noticeably more southern than me and we grew up together! Similarly, my dad and his sister (my aunt June) were both born and raised here and grew up in the same house; their speech is very different, however. She sounds just how you’d expect a southern woman to sound, but he sounds like he could be from anywhere. In his case, it may have something to do with a lifetime of high academic achievement, including two college degrees. I don’t know why, but higher education tends to refine regional accents. As for me, I think it’s because I have been involved in theatre since I was a kid and part of the process is learning to speak clearly and without an accent. Also, lots of reading and high academic achievement.

I know some of you have been led far astray in your expectations by the media, especially Hollywood. Let’s start with the grandmother of all bad, bad Southern accents- Gone with the Wind. If you love that movie, that’s just fine. It is a Technicolor American masterpiece. It is a classic. But Vivian Leigh’s Georgia accent was rubbish. Pure, putrilaginous, infuriatingly persistent rubbish. It’s been a while since I’ve watched that movie, but I don’t remember being convinced by anybody’s fakety-fake accent. Scarlet herself sounded the worst, though. Nobody down here talks like that. Nobody ever talked like that. The only people who talk like that are gay men named David and Blanche Deveraux. And it’s an affectation for both of them. What drives me nuts about Gone with the Wind more than anything is it set the tone in Hollywood from that point forward. Actors portraying Southern characters would just lazily adopt Scarlet O’Hara’s idiotic style of speaking without any consideration for regional differences in accent. They couldn’t be bothered to put the work into getting it right. For everyone in the country who didn’t live south of the Mason-Dixon line, that was usually good enough. For everyone who did live south of the Mason-Dixon line, it was an insult. So, for decades movies have only acknowledged two kinds of Southerners: affected society belles who talk like Scarlet O’Hara and inbred bigots who are barely comprehensible. I’m here to tell you there is a lot of variation in between those two extremes.

So, let’s discuss where media portrayal of the Southern accent is going in the 21st century. To address the Savannah connection first and foremost on your mind, Paula Deen, let me go ahead and tell you what any native Savannahian will tell you: She ain’t from here. Paula Deen lives on Wilmington Island now, but she’s originally from Albany, GA (or “Al-benny,” as they pronounce it there). Albany is straight west and a little bit south of here, in the middle of the state. I’ve never been there, but I have driven west all the way to Americus and I can tell you that part of Georgia ain’t nothin’ but two-lane state roads and pecan groves. It’s exactly where you would expect to find a more isolated population with a more pronounced accent. But also, Paula Deen has an image to maintain now and that image is Southern and sassy, so I’m sure she dials it up a little bit for the cameras.

Outside The Food Network, Southern characters have been developing a stronger and less cartoonish presence on TV. Gone are the days of Gomer Pyle and Andy Griffith; arrived are the days of Sherrif Rick (The Walking Dead) and Detective Amanda Rollins (Law & Order: SVU). These are characters who happen to be southern and who play an active part in their respective series, not southern “characters” whose only job is to lighten up the situation by acting like ignorant rubes. Basically, the southern straight man has finally become a reality, at least on TV. Feature films still kind of seem to lag behind. The most recent cinematic release I can think of that portrayed a bunch of southerners living in the Deep South was Beautiful Creatures and that thing was a mess. Plus, Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson are English, as was Vivien Leigh, and we all know how that turned out. Oh, wait, there was also Beasts of the Southern Wild. That one’s set in Louisiana, and Louisiana is a very special case when it comes to accents (or anything, really). Still, everyone sounded convincing to me, though I remain ambivalent about the movie as a whole. Anyway, Hollywood is still a bit of a wasteland when it comes to taking people with southern accents seriously, but television has really opened up. There are characters with noticeable accents on Law & Order: SVU, CSI, CSI: Miami; there are multiple shows set in southern states like Justified (so I’ve never watched it, but it is set in Tennessee), The Walking Dead, and True Blood (which I have also never watched because I’m too poor for HBO, but it’s set in Louisiana). And it may surprise you to learn that silly fluff like May Name is Earl also scores pretty well on the accent-meter.

So, fear not, dear Yankees! You are not being cheated. The truth is,  I do speak with a southern accent. You just don’t know what that accent actually sounds like. You have been mislead for years. It looks like popular culture is coming around, though, so maybe the next generation will have the right idea when they visit here.

Then again, while southerners are portrayed more realistically in fictional TV shows, they are becoming more ridiculous in reality TV shows (Swamp People? Myrtle Manor?!). Looks like we’re still screwed after all.