A couple of weeks ago I met up with Stratton Leopold, a Paramount movie executive and owner of Leopold’s Ice Cream, a local family business he and his wife, Mary, revived 10 years ago.
Our talk hopscotched, bouncing from his rise in Hollywood to his love of football, civics and community giving, as well as ice cream and growing up Greek American. The thread throughout most of the conversation was his father, Peter, who immigrated to the U.S. from Sparta, Greece at the turn of the 20th century.
We were settled at a table mid-parlor, surrounded by props and photos from many of the films he has produced, including “The Sum of All Fears,” “Mission Impossible III,” “Captain America,” and “The Wolfman,” but Stratton made little fanfare about them. He mentioned a couple of small film projects on simmer, which may or may not happen, and a brief bit about his longtime friends, actress Helen Mirren and her husband, Taylor Hackford, who directed Stratton’s 2013 crime thriller, “Parker,” discussing how wonderful and accessible they are.
I did ask him about climbing the industry ladder and he credited coming up at a time in which it was much easier to move around and meet people. He lived in New York and then Atlanta, where he “networked like crazy,” so that he was prepped and ready to go when he landed in L.A.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But it is clearly Stratton’s personal family history, inextricably linked to ice cream, hard work and civic duty that moves him.
With a wave of his hand, he was up: “Let me show you something,” he said and walked towards the rear corridor of his downtown shop and Savannah staple where dozens of photos of Stratton with actors like Tom Cruise, Anthony Hopkins, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman, Ben Affleck, Benicio del Toro and many others, with whom he has worked, line the wall.
|Tom Cruise and Stratton Leopold. Photo courtesy of Leopold’s Ice Cream.|
I couldn’t help but point to the image of one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who hovered oddly over an ice cream cone Stratton held on the set of Mission Impossible III.
“Did you know him well?” I asked. He nodded yes and we both mumbled over one another about what a terrible loss. And “to see him perform in front of the camera,” Stratton said, his eyes widening at the power of it.
But celebrities of the usual sort were not why he led me there and he was quick to change subjects. “This guy,” he said, smiling broadly, like a kid, pointing to former NFL referee, Jerry Markbreit, whom he called on to work as a consultant for football sequences in “The Sum of All Fears,” dominated the next few stories he told, as Stratton, I learned, was a high school and college football referee for 17 years.
Though, not to be confused, he skipped again quickly: “But let’s go where the important stuff is,” he said, moving towards the parlor’s entrance and past the growing flurry of customers, as the doors had just opened on a hot, summer morning. With flashes of creamy Huckleberry, Honey and Almond, Tutti Frutti, Peanut Butter Chippy and Mint Chocolate Chip to our left, the troves of all-natural ice cream that have been ranked best in the country by the women of “The View,” we stopped in front of black-and-white images stationed above the store’s green-and-white marble tables.
Stratton pointed to a photo of him as a young boy with his father, Peter, who immigrated to Indiana from Greece in 1901, at the age of 11, and later moved to Savannah sometime between 1905 and 1910.
|Stratton with his father, Peter. Photo courtesy of Leopold’s Ice Cream.|
Locals know the story well: Peter and his two brothers, George and Basil, opened the original Leopold’s Ice Cream in 1919 after learning the art of ice cream and candy making from an uncle already settled in America.
The Leopold brothers were part of a massive wave of Greek immigration that started in the late 1800s, but escalated at the turn of the 20th century. An estimated 350,000-450,000 flooded the U.S. from 1900 to 1920, 95 percent of which were male, as the Greek government urged its young men to move abroad to earn dowry money and aid an ailing Greek economy, but always with the intent to return home.
However, many didn’t with ongoing instability in their country. As a result, Hellenic communities were set up across America. Many began their own businesses in the form of shoe shine parlors, candy shops and notably, restaurants. By 1919, 1 in every 3 restaurants in Chicago, for example, was run by a Greek proprietor and like the Leopolds, families came together to make it work.
“I love washing things,” Stratton told me with a big, genuine smile. “I was maybe 11 or 12 when I started,” he said, referring to working at the original Leopold’s, which sat at the streetcar intersection of Gwinnett and Habersham. His first job was washing 5-gallon iron metal churns with long-brush handles, as well as 5 and 10-ounce bell glasses popular at the time.
Young Stratton pulled his weight, but was forever in awe of his father’s sheer work ethic and sure it was one he could never live up to. And when his father talked of enlisting with U.S. services to fight in World War I, instead of joining cousins who returned to fight in the Greek War, that made an impression, too.
“I’m an American,” Peter told Stratton, who was dually raised by his mother, Marika, a gifted scientific mind and amazing cook, who, to the contrary, was all Greek all of the time. Stratton grew up eating traditional Greek food, speaking the language and watching his mother, also from Sparta, return home frequently. His father indicated he would visit, too, but never did.
After the war, Peter honored his time in the military by giving business to fellow soldiers also back home in Savannah and anytime anyone in uniform walked into his shop, a chair was pulled out on instant and ice cream was on the table.
Leopold’s doors closed in 1969, following the deaths of Peter and his brother, George, just as Stratton, a science whiz and by then a pre-med biology major at Vanderbilt University, changed course to follow a dream in film.
Stratton moved away for more than four decades, traveling the world on location shoots, but still made it to Savannah almost monthly. And he had always held on to his family’s history, storing many of the original shop’s fixtures, including the soda fountain, Philco radio, wooden phone booth and cabinets, all of which are either used or set out on display in Leopold’s today.
|Ana ‘calls’ her grandmother, Abuela Ana, from Leopold’s booth|
He and Mary continue Peter’s tradition of working with military men and women, especially during family deployments, and offer military discounts year-round, dishing up ice cream in the same sundae holders and banana split boats his father loyally used.
Also a longtime board member of the 200 Club of The Coastal Empire, which offers financial assistance to firefighters, police officers and their families in the event of tragedy, Stratton is passionate about “helping those who help us.”
As well, Leopold’s fosters civics boosters with writing programs for children with the local library system, throwing ice cream parties hosted by the mayor at City Hall. In addition, Stratton and Mary spearheaded the ‘I Pledge’ project a few years ago, offering a free cone to children 12 and under who recite The Pledge of Allegiance from memory during the month of July, which is National Ice Cream Month, as established by our former sweet-toothed president, Ronald Reagan, in 1984.
|Flag set at Leopold’s Ice Cream for ‘I Pledge’ project|
|Marcos and his buddy, Luke, took the pledge in July while Ana looked on|
There was a good showing the first year, but when the National Ice Cream Retailers Association gave Leopold’s an award for its efforts in 2010, “I became inflamed by the idea,” Stratton said, and took the program nationwide, encouraging other ice cream and frozen yogurt retailers to join in the patriotism. He and Mary set up a website with information and promotional tools for use, all free of charge. Last month, 40 states participated.
Mary asks Stratton if he’ll ever slow down, but all of the signs point to no.
The creamery business, “jazzes me up,” he told me and plans for expansion are underway. Currently, concrete for an ice cream production facility on 37th street in Savannah has already been poured and restoration of the original soda pop shop, which will serve as a general store and host to Stratton’s football letter jacket, as well as other local high school memorabilia, circa 1940s and ’50s, is another few months out.
“It’s an homage really,” Stratton said, though the additional storefront will help with logistics, as Leopold’s frequently gets calls to host parties, but does not currently have enough space to do so.
“I have become my father,” Stratton noted, reverence in his tone, as a centered portrait of Peter in uniform looked over us nearby.