PANAMA CITY BEACH — Front Beach Road was called “The Miracle Strip” and an observation tower dominated the sky, overlooking an amusement park, some small mom-and-pop motels, and miles of pristine sand dunes.
It was 1965, and 18-year-old Melody May recently had graduated from Bay High School.
“I went out with two of my sisters to the Holiday Lodge, where (Jim Sumpter) was gonna take a shot of girls and pick somebody to use for the publicity for Panama City,” she said.
Birmingham, Ala.-based Sumpter had been hired by the Economic Development Association, a precursor to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, to shoot photos for use on postcards and in pamphlets, newspapers and magazines to promote Panama City Beach as a vacation destination.
After photographing May and dozens of other potential models standing by the lodge swimming pool, Sumpter told May he wanted to use her for the campaign. She didn’t see why; she thought many of the other young women at the audition were prettier than she was.
“ ‘Two reasons,’ he said: ‘Your smile and your legs,’ ” she recalled.
During the next few years, May was photographed at Jungle Land (the volcano portion of which is now part of the Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain store), on top of the Miracle Strip Observation Tower (which once stood near the intersection of Front Beach Road and Alf Coleman Drive), at various Miracle Strip Amusement Park attractions, playing with fishing nets on the shoreline, and on the sand dunes (including once in an Easter Bunny outfit and another time on skis in a Santa Claus-style skirt).
“My mother made my all my outfits,” May said. “She was an expert seamstress. People in town wanted her to sew for them, but she had seven girls and two boys — all from one mama and daddy. She didn’t have time.”
Her most iconic photo depicted her standing down hill from the observation tower wearing a striped bikini.
“That one was the most used,” she said. “The caption said ‘Come to Panama City and see the other side.’ We brought the snowbirds down because it was in all the magazines in Canada. We had a lot of people coming anyway, but that’s when they really promoted it.”
May’s love of animals was put to good use in the shoots. Sumpter took pictures of her with a bunny, an ocelot, a baby billy goat (one of her favorite photos), an anaconda and a huge alligator.
“His name was Coochie, and he was over 14 feet long,” she said. “They posed me by his pool, acting shocked, then poked him with a stick to get him to react.”
Other daring photos took her to the edge of the waterfall on the volcano and to the crown of a tiki god image atop the Jungle Land sign.
“I remember how I got up there,” she said of standing atop the sign with spears in her hands, buffeted by a strong wind blowing off the Gulf. And of sitting on the waterfall’s edge, she recalled: “It got a little scary. There were unseen helpers behind me using a board to push more water over the falls when the photographer was ready to shoot. Every time they pushed, it felt like I would go over the waterfall.”
May was never paid “much” for the photos, she said. She did them “mostly for fun.”
It was a different time, she said, a simpler and more innocent time. No one thought the worst when a man wanted to audition young women for what turned out to be tame cheesecake photos. However, one of her sessions did raise a minor scandal.
“They gave me a mink to wear,” she said, “It was a short one, and I wore it over my two-piece. They said, ‘We want you to drop your straps,’ so I did, and I pulled the coat around me. Everybody (who saw the photo) was going, ‘She is naked under that!’ All the hoity-toity women talked about that.”
The beach was more conservative back then, May said, “except maybe in private.”
Today, May is a grandmother who enjoys telling stories of her adventures; she contributed some of the stories and many of her photos to the book, “Panama City Memories,” recently compiled by Birmingham writer J.D. Weeks. She also contributed the cover illustrations for the book.
May lives in the Hiland Park area and has converted a room in her home to serve as an art studio. She specializes in portraits of children and animals, painted in oils, acrylics or pastels, and has won awards for her work. (You can contact her for portrait work by emailing email@example.com or calling 769-3753.)
She enjoys dancing the bop and the shag, and she usually listens to music when she paints. Her favorite performers include Janis Joplin, Tina Turner and Johnny Cash. The morning of this interview, she hummed a few bars while working on her latest project: A painting of the iconic photo of her facing the Miracle Strip Tower.
“If I could sing,” she said, “everyone would know why my name is Melody.”