The vertical marquee of the Historic Savannah Theatre reigns over the corner of Bull and East McDonough streets, across from Chippewa Square. If you’ve been to Savannah before, then you might already know, that’s no typical Savannah square.
It’s where Forrest Gump sat on an iconic bus stop bench and told us life is like a box of choc’lits.
There’s an ironic connection between the beloved theatre and the beloved movie character. Mr. Gump’s life frequently intersected with the biggest historical events of his era. And much of the history of Savannah in intertwined with the history of the Savannah Theatre, the oldest American theater still in use.
Certainly grandchildren, if not children, of the earliest Savannah settlers were still living when the legendary showplace opened in 1818. Its designer, the noted architect William Jay, was born in 1792 or ’93, about the time that Eli Whitney was inventing the cotton gin just outside of Savannah.
The first curtain-openers were British comedies, “The Soldier’s Daughter” and “Raising the Wind.” The theatre changed owners several times in its early years, but once it steadied and its reputation grew, so did the stature of visiting actors and singers. The local appearances of major stars marked significant moments for Savannah in a pre- or early industrial society not desensitized to celebrity by the Internet.
Oscar Wilde, the rock star writer, poet and dramatist of his day, performed at the theatre while visiting Savannah in the 1870s. Sarah Bernhardt, once known as “the greatest actress the world has ever known.” reprised her role in La Tosca there in 1892. Shakespearean heavyweights like Edwin Booth, Ellen Terry and the husband-and-wife tandem E.H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe all took the stage there. So did a vaudevillian named W.C. Fields.
And while it can’t be confirmed, the strong suspicion is that Edwin Booth’s promising younger brother also acted on the Savannah stage. That was before John Wilkes Booth fulfilled his notorious destiny in an unrelated line of work.
What isn’t suspicion, though—but sad fact—is that major fires have been a part of Savannah history. The Savannah Theatre couldn’t escape them all. The theatre had to be rebuilt after a 1948 blaze, although the resulting art deco redesign—updated in 2002—gives the theatre a timeless, distinctive look.
The updates extend to state-of-the-art sound and lighting and also to the genre of performances now on the calendar. Lively musical and variety shows with names like Jukebox Journey, Return to the 50’s and The Beat Goes On pay homage to different recent musical eras.
It’s hard to imagine from the comfort of your updated seats listening to high-clarity amplification of performers under sophisticated spotlights belting out familiar songs from the Eisenhower, Kennedy or maybe Carter era that you’re inside a structure that first opened in the James Monroe era.
The reminders come before and after the show, in the form of compelling photos, news clippings and other artifacts on display in the lobby.
And as you explore the neighborhood on your way back to The Studio Homes at Ellis Square, don’t bother looking for Forrest Gump’s bus stop bench. It isn’t there. It was a prop for a movie. It’s merely enduring Savannah lore.
The theatre? Now, that’s enduring Savannah history.