Destin's past captured in black and white

H. C. “Hank” Klein
Arturo and Olivia Mennillo on the old Destin bridge in1945.

Have you ever noticed large framed photographs of Destin and the Emerald Coast on the walls of seafood restaurants, offices, businesses, and condos? Ever wonder who the photographer was who captured those images of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s? In this month’s History Mystery we will learn about the photographer whose work preserved the places and people of the Emerald Coast area.

Those beautiful pristine beaches, sport fishing, founding families, street scenes, and celebrity visits were all recorded for history by Arthur Anthony Mennillo II, who was born on July 2, 1922, in Troy, New York, and was known as Arturo. He graduated from the Antonelli School of Photography located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Severo Antonelli, an Italian immigrant, founded the school in 1936.

Upon graduating from the Antonelli School, Arturo enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. After boot camp, Arturo was assigned to Eglin Army Air Field in Valparaiso. He was assigned duties as a photographer due to his previous education.

While stationed at Eglin, he met Olivia Brunson, the daughter of Captain Reddin “Salty” and Gladys Brunson of Destin. They met at a fish fry for airmen stationed at Eglin sponsored by the Destin Community Center. Arturo was “smitten” not only with Olivia but also with Destin. He thought Destin was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. Arturo and Olivia married in Destin on Sept. 30, 1942.

After his service in the Army Air Corp, Arturo could have gone into the fishing business just like his father-in-law and the other men in Destin. But fishing was not for Arturo. He was a photographer and loved the camera and the art it could perform. Arturo’s Studio was located on Main and Brooks Street next to the Brooks Bridge in Fort Walton Beach. Olivia also worked in the studio. She took courses to learn colorizing and hand-tinting of black and white photos. Olivia managed the studio, selling rolls of film and taking appointments for in-studio sittings. Arturo was usually on the road calling in to find out his next assignment, whether it was a women’s club function or advertising pictures of the latest cars at Lee Pontiac.

Arturo often attended the Choctawhatchee High School football games getting the best shots for the Playground News' sports pages. His work included social events at the Harbeson Hotel, Kiwanis bake sales in front of Christo’s Five and Ten-Cent Store, as well as portraits of locals taken at his studio.

Arturo was the photographer for the local newspaper, Playground Daily News, the forerunner of the Northwest Florida Daily News. He also helped the local police department and Okaloosa County Sherriff's Office with their photography needs. Arturo documented traffic accidents and all sorts of crimes, including the occasional murder.

This is a self portrait of Arturo Mennillo.

Arturo left Fort Walton Beach in 1965 as an official photographer for the U.S. Embassy in Saigon for what was to be an 18-month tour. He had planned to return to Fort Walton Beach and Arturo Studios but embarked on a whole new career, remaining in Vietnam for 10 years. He then went on to assignments in Africa, Iran, Hong Kong, and Singapore for the U.S. Embassy before finally coming back to the states more than 20 years later. Arturo was a prolific photojournalist with articles and images appearing in Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines.

In 1998, two years after his father’s death, Arturo’s son Tony Mennillo decided to take up where his father left off when his father left the area in 1965. With over 10,000 original, high-quality black and white 4 x 5 negatives that his father originally took, Tony re-opened Arturo’s Studio in 1998. That year Tony published his first pictorial history book, "Destin Florida Highway to Heaven."

In 2002, he produced his second book, "Fort Walton Beach...A Miracle Strip," and in 2012, "Salty Memories...Along the Coastal Highway" was published. Each is what is commonly known as a coffee table book and contains vintage photographs of Destin and the Emerald Coast, originally taken by his father, with stories wrapped around the original Arturoiconic photos.

Tony and Arturo Studios continue to use the vast photo negatives his father left him to provide enlarged pictures of the local area as it looked in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Next time you visit a local business or restaurant and notice one of those iconic photos of Old Destin on the walls, think of Arturo Mennillo, that young kid from New York who found a home in Destin and captured its beauty as a small fishing village with his camera for all of us to remember and enjoy today.

Hank Klein

H. C.“Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker on local history. He visits often and lives in North Little Rock, Ark. with his wife, the former Muriel Marler of Destin. Klein recently published two Destin history books — DESTIN’S Founding Father...The Untold Story of Leonard Destin and DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940. Both can be obtained from Amazon.com, The Destin History & Fishing Museum in Destin, Henderson Beach Resort in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at klein@aristotle.net.