A Book Called 'Midnight' Brings Glare of Kleig Lights and Stars to Sleepy Savannah

Clint Eastwood is only the latest pilgrim to arrive toting this town's 'holy book'

To saunter along Savannah's brick-lined streets, in the shade of oaks older than the nation, is to live a moment in another era.

Chimes ring out from historic belfries on every corner at noon. A churchman sweeps the steps of a sanctuary. Shopkeepers slip their chairs out to the sidewalk for a sip of ice tea in the sun. Neighbors wave. Girl Scouts gather. The smell of magnolia is as sweet as honeydew mellon.

But time may catch up with this hidden jewel yet. After surviving the Civil War and then resurrecting itself from squalor, Savannah is now coping with a new challenge - being discovered.

Some say it began with the publication of John Berendt's bestseller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." The book chronicles a scandalous local murder and interweaves lively stories of some Savannah eccentrics - an introvert who threatens to poison the city's water supply, a cross-dressing nightclub singer, a traveling pianist, and more. But few expected the book's popularity, and with it the city's.

The book has spent 152 weeks on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, has been translated into 12 languages, and is due out in movie form by Christmas. Since it was published in 1994, about a half a million more visitors than usual have rolled into town. At least six tour companies specialize in "Midnight" site tours. Book-based cottage industries have sprung up selling everything from cookies to key chains.

"This book has really made its place in Savannah's history," says Martha Hicks Ellzey, an antiques dealer so enamored by "Midnight" that she moved from Macon, Ga., to Savannah last year. "I mean, I don't want to compare it to Georgia's holy book, you know, 'Gone With the Wind,' but that's exactly it," she says. "It's done for Savannah what 'Gone With the Wind,' did for Atlanta. And in this case, you can actually see these places and meet the people and eat the food. In 'Gone With the Wind,' it was all just a Hollywood set, and it was fiction."

But not everyone thinks the book can take full credit for the endless line of tour trolleys. According to Clifford Meads, vice president of the Savannah Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the influx of people is just an exaggeration of a Southeast phenomenon.

The region is now attracting more relocators and retirees than any other area of the country. Savannah is a big part of that: Mr. Meads's office gets 300 to 500 inquiries a month from people planning to move to the city.

And once the movie version of "Midnight" is released, a new wave may wash in. Another movie, "The Gingerbread Man," was filmed here this spring, and the city has four movie contracts in the works. A new convention center is set to be finished in 1999, attracting even more visitors.

But to long-time resident Sarah Barto, if the past six weeks of filming "Midnight" are any indication of the city's future, she already rues it. "Ten years ago, it was so beautiful here. It was so serene," says Ms. Barto, sitting in a lawn chair on the street corner counting the large trucks and tour buses shooting by so she can complain to city authorities.

"Now I just feel like we've been inundated. Do you know Jim Williams's sister now lives in Mercer House," she says referring to a character and his home in "Midnight."

"That poor woman - they take pictures of her when she goes out to pick up the paper. People just barge right into her house. They pick leaves out of her yard to have something to take with them."

"It's hysterical in a way," she says. "When you get over being angry, you just have to laugh."

A few, however, remain untouched by Hollywood and the hype. Earlier this week, the day after movie director Clint Eastwood left town, a woman resting on a park bench beneath the draping Spanish moss had this to say about "Midnight" mania: "They're filming a movie? I didn't know they were filming a movie."

Perhaps the sleepy Southern nature of the city is salvageable after all.

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