Originally created 03/09/99

Tighter reins won't dampen St. Pat's hoopla



SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Once a year, this quaint Southern city known for its stately squares, Victorian homes and Spanish-moss draped oak trees turns green -- green clothes, green grits, green milkshakes and, of course, green beer.

But some Savannahians fear new restrictions to control the wild partying may turn the nation's second-largest St. Patrick's Day celebration blue.

"They're trying to kill St. Patrick's Day," said Rudy Gasdik, who co-owns eight shops along River Street. "Putting up gates is not going to keep out the crazy, wild people. It's going to kill the retailer."

As always, the six-day St. Patrick's Day celebration will culminate with a parade on March 17. But unlike past years, beer-toting festival-goers will no longer be able to roam freely, and they'll have to pay just for the right to enter River Street -- the post-parade partyground.

To curb overcrowding and underage drinking, temporary gates will be erected on River Street. Those who want to drink will have to fork over $4 for a wristband. In addition, pints of green brew -- or any other alcohol for that matter -- will no longer be poured out of windows or doorways.

Gasdik said he raked in $40,000 from two 20-foot beer tents set up outside his retail stores last year. Only the Savannah Waterfront Association, the event's sponsor, can sell alcohol outdoors this year.

"It was getting out of hand so we decided to put some constraints on it," Mayor Floyd Adams Jr. said. "The city's reputation is at stake for the simple reason that we don't want Savannah's St. Patrick's Day reputation to be that you can come here for a drunken brawl."

Many have said the street party that follows the parade is just an accident waiting to happen. In 1996, a man fell to his death from a riverfront railing.

Joe Cetti, chairman of the parade committee, said the City Council's attempt to alleviate overcrowding and excessive drinking at the street parties is a step in the right direction.

"If people want to come down here and cause trouble they can go other places, we don't want them," said Cetti, who despite his Italian name lays claim to an Irish heritage. "We welcome them all but you have to draw the line somewhere and say enough is enough."

Past festivities have drawn upward of a half-million visitors but city officials expect only about 300,000 spectators this year since the big day falls midweek.

The celebration is not all about partying. It remains steeped in tradition with the annual morning mass and a wreath-laying ceremony to honor dead war veterans.

Then there's the parade, which dates back to 1813, and lasts up to 3 1/2 hours. This year, it will weave its way through 2.3 miles of shady, picturesque squares with 265 units including high school and college marching bands, military units, Clydesdale horses, floats and a seemingly endless stream of green-clad Irish (at least for the day) marchers.

The parade committee banned alcohol along the parade route in the late 1970s, after rowdy behavior by drunken marchers and spectators prompted parochial schools to pull their students out.

Despite the changes, many partiers expect the celebration to be as rowdy as ever.

"It'll never go away. It's not going to be any different," says Robert Mathusa, 54, a New Yorker-turned-Savannahian, sipping a cocktail at a riverfront bar. "St. Patty's Day is ingrained in Savannah."