It was interesting to watch people’s reactions as they looked up at the photo on the banner hanging outside The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens touting a current exhibit: “Picturing Jacksonville: 150 Years of Photography” back in July 2005.
Some people smiled almost sheepishly, as if they had just been told a joke that they know they shouldn’t laugh at but can’t help themselves. Some smiled and shook their heads. And you could not quite tell if they missed those days or were glad they’re gone.
This is what they were looking at: A photo of Mayor Hans Tanzler on Oct. 1, 1968, celebrating one of the most significant events in Jacksonville history — consolidation of county and city — by standing on a ladder and putting up a new city limit sign at consolidated Jacksonville’s new border at Florida 13 and Julington Creek … with the help of an actress.
OK, at least initially, that’s what people were looking at. The actress, Lee Meredith, arching her back and throwing her chest out, kicking one high heel back. Then Tanzler smiling. Then, almost like a punch line, the man down below holding the ladder, looking up with his own sheepish grin.
Although it was one of the more recent photos in the exhibit — which included an 1855 portrait of Jacksonville’s first mayor — it was an image that felt every bit as dated as the ones of people wearing their Sunday best to the beach in 1919, or the King Kong marquee at the Arcade Theatre in 1933. It reminded how times, and bras, have changed.
“That picture has become sort of the icon for Consolidation, whether you like the photo or not,” said Wayne Wood, local historian and author. “A historian’s role isn’t to decide what is politically correct or incorrect,” Wood said. “History is a way to document moments in time. And this photo does that.”
Tanzler recalls sitting around a table with his staff, brainstorming about ways to capitalize on Jacksonville’s new status as the largest city in land mass in the contiguous United States. “Jack Newsome, a big, tall, ex-newspaper guy, was my public relations guy,” Tanzler said when asked about the controversial photo. “It was his idea.”
Meredith was a 30-year-old actress whose career was built around, well, her build. Years later, in The Sunshine Boys, she played a sexy nurse in a skit with Walter Matthau.
“I think I have a chest cold,” she said, coughing and leaning toward him.
“Looks more like an epidemic to me,” Matthau said.
In 1968, the year of Consolidation, Meredith was performing in Jacksonville at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre. And Newsome, hoping to get media to show up for the sign changing for the Bold New City of the South, arranged for her to be there. “Jack wanted her to put up the sign and me to hold the ladder,” Tanzler said, laughing. “I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. If I do that, it’s going to be immediately assumed I had advantages a lot of people would like to have.”
Both Wood and Emily Lisska, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society, said the photo wouldn’t have been their first choice as a banner for the photo exhibit they helped design for the Cummer. Yet as they talked about it, both found reasons to support it.
“So many elements are coming together there,” Lisska said. “A huge moment in the city’s history, the white-hat dashing mayor, and on top of this a statement about the social history of the ’60s. It is undeniably one of the great photos of late 20th-century Jacksonville. The conversation, the reaction, the reflection that picture stirs … the more I talk about that photo, the more I love it.”