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This party is for our citizens
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When Americana songwriters John Doe and Dave Alvin composed 1985’s alternative country classic “Call Of The Wreckin’ Ball,” they celebrated a despicable character so nicknamed because there was little doubt he was “the baddest of ‘em all.”

Now, in the year 2005, an entirely different sort of celebration will be held right here in downtown Savannah – yet the catalyst for both endeavors remains the same.

It’s all about destruction, baby.

However, whereas the protagonist in that tune (originally recorded by the seminal X offshoot The Knitters) was a no-account loser with a heart of stone, the protagonist in this public party is the City of Savannah – and by all accounts, everyone involved (from local government to the citizens to future visitors to our idiosyncratic gem of a destination) stands to come out a winner on this one.

Described as a celebration of the reclamation of Ellis Square, “The Wrecking Ball” is a four-hour-long public party that’s free to all ages. It centers around the scheduled destruction of the oft-maligned multi-level City Market Parking Garage (at the intersection of Barnard and Congress Streets), and the subsequent construction of a larger, subterranean garage on the same spot.

Proponents of the project say that not only will this ultimately help to alleviate downtown’s well-documented parking woes, but it will also facilitate the rebirth of one of Savannah’s earliest planned squares, which has been “lost” for over half a century.

The event is meant to serve two goals. First, it encourages enthusiasm for a massive construction project that is expected to take the better part of two years to complete – and which will likely cause no small amount of inconvenience to businesses, patrons and residents of the Historic Downtown district.

Second, it allows those of us who have grown up with this clunky, utilitarian eyesore to reflect on its passing into the dustbin of history.

“This party is really for our citizens,” says Laurie-Jean Stellberg, Coordinator for the City’s Tourism and Film Services Department.

“It’s for everyone to experience what exists there now: the businesses, the restaurants... everything that’s down in that area. And to see the garage as it is so they can appreciate it when the new square is there.”

Stellberg says that this event has been modeled after a similar party which was held in 1953 on the occasion of the razing of Ellis Square itself to make way for what was commonly deemed a progressive development.

However, at that time, many in the community felt that a great disservice was being done to the City’s fabled master plan, as set forth by Savannah’s founder James Edward Oglethorpe in 1733. They and others have longed to see the few squares that have been radically altered or eradicated over time returned to something approximating their original splendor.

“We know that some people were very much in mourning when the parking garage went up in 1953,” Stellberg continues. “We look at this as a way to start the process of rescuing what was lost.”

Stellberg laughs when asked if anyone seems to be in mourning at the prospect of losing the garage itself.

“Not a one that I’m aware of! We’ve had very positive response to the plan. We’ve had public meetings to get input, and Savannah’s citizens are assisting in designing the new square. This can hopefully be the best of both worlds. We’ll eventually have underground parking and the beauty of the old ‘Marketplace Square’ at the same time.”

Stellberg says the event planners have no real way to estimate how many people will be attending the street party, but they feel that word is getting out about the unusually wide variety of entertainment they have lined up, and she expects there to be a large turnout from all stratas of local society.

“We’re going to be letting people write and draw on the side of the garage, so they can make their final remarks – and we’ll have a still photographer and a video cameraperson there to capture everything for posterity. People can also see the architect’s model of the proposed design,” she says.

“We’re also supplying free parking and running shuttles on a continuous loop to and from the Liberty Street and Robinson Parking Garages to make it easy for folks to come down, enjoy themselves and hopefully finish their holiday shopping at some of the great surrounding shops.”

The list of participating merchants had yet to be finalized as of press time, but includes (among others) Kitchens On The Square, Locos Deli & Pub, City Market Cafe, Moon River Brewing Company, Thomas Kinkade Gallery, and Finnegan’s Wake Irish Pub.

“We’ve put together a coupon book,” says Stellberg. “Everyone can get one. Then they can get a to-go order and sit and enjoy the entertainment from our tables and chairs.”

There will be two stages used for The Wrecking Ball. One will be located at the intersection of Barnard and Congress Streets and face South towards Telfair Square. The other backs up to the garage itself and faces the City Market Arcade.

“We hope to have the live acts alternating seamlessly on the two stages,” Stellberg says with a tone that suggests her fingers are crossed behind her back.

The lineup itself is impressive in its scope; Local thespian and singer Trae Gurley’s acclaimed tribute to the late Frank Sinatra; singing rhythm and blues guitarists Ray Lundy and Jeff Beasley’s high-energy electric combo Too Blue; the modern rock and pop of regional favorites Liquid Ginger; Angela Beasley’s troupe of Puppet People; and local magician and educator Magic Marc.

As if that weren’t enough, the entire show will end with a fireworks display.

There will also be a number of free giveaways to the crowd while supplies last. The city has purchased hundreds of commemorative hard hats, stress balls (you know, the squishy things that build up your hand muscles), and popcorn balls. Stellberg says the stress balls are only meant to carry on the whole “ball” theme of the party, and that she doesn’t expect anyone in the crowd to be overly anxious during the event.

“No. That would be me,” she chuckles.

She’s also quick to point out that the “hard hats” they’re handing out are not what one might call “up to regulation.”

Far from it.

“They do fit on your head,” she smiles. “They’re stylish and chic, but they’re just replicas. They say Ellis Square Wrecking Ball on the front. But I think it’s pretty obvious you wouldn’t want to wear them for any sort of protection. They’re awful flimsy.”

That may not be a problem, however, as it turns out that for all this talk of wrecking balls and the destruction of the garage, Stellberg says anyone who comes to the event expecting to see something even approximating a controlled demolition will be sorely disappointed.

“That’s important for everyone to understand. The garage will be closed that day, but it will then reopen at least until the end of the year. And the Mayor and Aldermen will participate in a symbolic ceremony of sledgehammering the side of the building. There’s no actual wrecking ball!”

Another way that locals who feel a particular connection to either Ellis Square or – for that matter – the old parking garage, can purchase a brick that will be used in the final design and construction of the project. Each brick sells for $50, and can be inscribed with the buyer’s name, the name of a loved one, or some other short sentiment of their choosing.

“The design of the square itself has not been finalized,” adds Stellberg, “so we can sell as many as there is a demand for, and it will help defray our costs.”

Which brings us to what surely must be the single most pressing question on the minds of the more frugal taxpayers who find themselves bemoaning the massive cost of such an elaborate undertaking:

Did anyone approach Magic Marc to find out how much he’d charge to simply vanish the garage like David Copperfield did with the Statue of Liberty back in the early ‘80s?

Apparently, the answer is no, although, Stellberg wants to know if he could.

“That would be a great idea! I bet we’d probably get a lot of national press on that one (laughs).”

For what it’s worth, “Magic” Marc Dunston also laughs loudly when asked the same question.

“Well, I’m gonna tell you right now: That would cost a fortune. Copperfield making the Statue disappear was easily a $2.5 million illusion,” says Dunston. “For me to do something like this would probably require at least $500,000 to $600,000 just to pay for all the mirrors and everything. Well, the smoke and mirrors.”

So is Dunston insinuating Copperfield used mirrors to fool his audience?

“I’m part of the International Brotherhood of Magicians,” he responds firmly. “We operate under a very specific and honorable code. I cannot release any secrets or tricks of the trade – and I refuse to say anything further!”

“The Wrecking Ball” kicks off Saturday at 3 p.m. with a show by illusionist Magic Marc. Trae Gurley does his Frank Sinatra Tribute at 3:30 pm, followed by Too Blue at 4:30 pm, Liquid Ginger at 5:30 pm, and a fireworks finale at 7 pm.

The entire event is free and open to the public. For those who require handicapped access to the gated event, assistance will be provided at the intersection of Bay and Barnard Streets.