A joker, a pirate and a writer walk into a bar … Andrea Goto takes a spin through the city with two seasoned tourism pros—and discovers just who the real characters are. Photography by Beau Kester.
I may have lived like a local for the past 13 years, but Savannah’s tourism culture still colors my daily life. It has taught me to stay out of the left-hand lane on Bay Street. It has taught me to venture to a downtown restaurant only if I can call ahead for reservations. It has taught me to be patient—and roll up my windows—when following a horse-drawn carriage.
I like our camera-wielding, fan-waving visitors, easily identifiable by the white or DayGlo orange stickers they wear on their shirts. But I often wonder what it would be like to actually serve as their guide—to be personally responsible for showing them the best of what our city has to offer. To find out, I invited two industry veterans to play “tourist” with me, taking their first whirl on the pedal-powered Slow Ride and then falling into the corner booth at the Crystal Beer Parlor for some local fare. Once they were good and relaxed, I hit them up for the 411 on tourism in the 912.
Savannah Magazine: What do you love about working in the Hostess City’s hospitality industry?
Jeffery: I’ve always been an actor. I played baby Jesus when I was three months old and it’s been starring roles ever since. (Laughter.) I get to act as part of my job, entertaining our guests every day. I enjoy making a good impression. On the way here, a couple saw me in costume and said, “We saw you on the tour today—you were the best part!” I said, “Thank you, darlin’. Now go tell TripAdvisor.com.” (Laughter.)
Phil: In my business, I get to tell people what to see, what to do, where to go. And I get to clear up their misconceptions about Savannah.
SM: Such as?
Phil: They see Gone with the Wind and ask, “Where are the plantations?” And I say, “Across the bridge in South Carolina, sweetie.”
Jeffery: Yes, people get really upset when they can’t find the plantations. And they’re very surprised when they see the alligators on Hutchinson Island going across the street.
Phil: I have to point out that Savannah has always been an urban center. It wasn’t like the rest of the South. It’s not rural and it’s not really urban, it’s—
Jeffery: —just Savannah!
Phil: Exactly. And how many times have I said that? If a guest sees something they don’t like—and whether or not it’s a fluke—you can always just say, “That’s Savannah!” It’s a catchall. Because if it’s weird or strange or unusual, it can absolutely happen here.
SM: Are people more open to our culture because we are a tourist destination?
Jeffery: That part of tourism in Savannah is interesting. Middle America is more accepting of our gay culture. They will come (to Club One), stand in line and knock you down to get into the drag shows.
Phil: People from very conservative red states come down and say they’ve read “The Book” and want to see Lady Chablis perform. I’ll say, “Now I have to warn you, she’s pretty bawdy—that’s what she does.” And they say, “Well, you’re only in Savannah once!” That’s a great attitude.
SM: John Berendt’s book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, brought the throngs. Films like Forrest Gump kept them coming. Is the magic still happening?
Jeffery: When I started 18 years ago, Midnight was just rolling. And now I get so many people who haven’t heard of it. It used to be 90 percent had read the book or seen the movie, and now it’s maybe 10 percent.
Phil: I had a guest ask about the Forrest Gump bench today and I said, “If there was an actual bench there, there would be a lot of deaths.” People go way too fast around that square.
SM: So when visitors come to The Kehoe House, what’s the first thing you tell them they need to do in addition to going on an Old Savannah Trolley Tour—
Jeffery: —where we bring Savannah’s history to life! (Laughter.)
Phil: I tell them they gotta go to the river. I love Kevin Barry’s—in my opinion they have the best fish and chips in the city. And there’s this little dive bar down there—Bernie’s. You know Bernie’s?
Jeffery: I love Bernie’s!
Phil: Bernie’s is the kind of place where you hand them $15 and they hand you a bucket of oysters and a knife. It’s great.
Jeffery: I get aggravated when people come and want to go to a chain to eat. You’re in Savannah, Ga., for god’s sake.
SM: What about experiences?
Jeffery: I always send people to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. I don’t care what religion you are. It’s breathtaking.
Phil: And Colonial Cemetery. That’s a beautiful historic place.
SM: Jeffery, speaking of the dearly departed, what historical figure do you most enjoy playing on the tour?
Jeffery: Johnny Mercer. I get on the trolley and go, “Hey, y’all! Welcome to Savannah. My name is Johnny Mercer. I’m America’s most prolific songwriter.” Once I actually had a woman say, “Johnny Mercer was shorter. Fatter. And had a gap between his teeth.” She said that right in the middle of my act. I said, “That’s right, sugar. But you know what? In heaven, they give you a makeover. And I bet you can’t wait until you get yours.” (Laughter.) Don’t mess with me. Don’t mess with Mr. Mercer.
SM: What are your thoughts on the future of tourism?
Jeffery: Many people downtown are unhappy about the way tourism is handled. They don’t want people walking down the public streets, and on the public sidewalks and in the public parks in front of their multimillion dollar homes. My position on that is, you don’t move to the airport and ask them to change the flight plan. From the ’80s on, I’ve watched this town explode—and it’s because of tourism.
SM: You live downtown, don’t you?
Jeffery: Yes. And tourism pays to have my sidewalk cleaned, my grass cut, the squares manicured, the trees maintained. It just really annoys me that the businesses that make tourism work could be jeopardized because somebody doesn’t want somebody walking in front of their home on a public sidewalk at 9 o’clock at night. It’s a huge controversy going on right now.
Phil: You become part of the show. Living downtown, there were a number of times I’d be outside in my robe, hung over, trying to get something out of my car and a carriage would come by. I figured it was my responsibility to smile and wave at the tourists. They loved it. This is a weird city—I love it here. It brings out the weirdness in people.
Jeffery: And what happens in Savannah … well, everybody knows about it. Gossip spreads like pollen around here—and covers everything.
Phil: Yep. That’s “just Savannah.”