Outsider Films

Good times at Fun-Lan Drive-In

The Fun-Lan Drive-In Theatre has been here, sitting in unlikelihood on busy, urban East Hillsborough Avenue, for almost exactly 54 1/2 years.It probably looked just as unlikely when it opened in January of 1950 (with a Cary Grant flick titled I Was a Male War Bride), but in a wholly different way. It was probably the brightest and most bustling thing for a mile in any direction, at least on weekend nights.

Now, it seems strange not because of lights and commotion, but simply because, behind the keyhole entrance and thoroughly old-school marquee fronting on the road, there's a large, tree-lined plot that doesn't have a technical school, warehouse or car lot on it.

And also, you've gotta admit that a drive-in looks pretty damn jarring anywhere these days.

The frighteningly comprehensive website Drive-ins.com lists 168 theaters that have opened in Florida over the years. Of that number, only 10 remain in business. Statewide. The last Pinellas County survivor, the 28th Street Drive-In — where I saw Titanic, with intermission — shut down in 2000 to become a bus barn for the school system, leaving only Fun-Lan and the Ruskin Family Drive-In still standing in this region.

It's easy to figure out why drive-ins, which still thrive in more than a few parts of the nation, aren't exactly an ideal Sunshine State entertainment proposition. They're traditionally romanticized as a summer's-night affair, complete with a cool breeze and maybe even a blanket under which to fondle one's date. But here, where the temperature and humidity remain pretty much the same after the sun goes down from April through October? Folks are about as likely to go outside and stay there for a while as they are to crank up the oven, pull a chaise lounge into the kitchen and swaddle themselves in hot, wet towels.

Fun-Lan continues to beat the odds (and grow, having added two screens to its original single-screen format), though. The fact that they've hosted a popular Wednesday-through-Sunday Swap Shop since 1981 certainly helps. But I like to think that Fun-Lan stays open, and often crowded, for one reason: Heat or no, noise or no, less-than-digital-quality picture and sound or no, going to the drive-in is a fucking blast.

It's special, somehow. At least, it's special when compared to going to the GoogolPlex, wincing inwardly at the price of everything, and having to restrain your girlfriend from physically assaulting the nearest cell phone-etiquette-retarded jackass. I know this is a truism, and not just my perception, because the following scene occurs all the time:

SOMEBODY: We rented [insert decidedly un-hip movie title here] last night, and I was really surprised. I usually don't like that kind of [insert fairly innocuous but still vaguely derisive euphemism for "un-hip" here] stuff. But it was really entertaining, for what it was. Have you seen it?

ME: Yeah, I saw it at the drive-in.

SOMEBODY: Ooooh, the drive-in. You go to the drive-in? I love the drive-in! We haven't been in forever. We should go. (Nudges SOMEBODY ELSE.) Hey.

SOMEBODY ELSE: What? Quit nudging me.

SOMEBODY: We should go to the drive-in.

SOMEBODY ELSE: Fun-Lan? Is that place still open?

ME: Yeah. It's great.

SOMEBODY: Oh, we're definitely going.

SOMEBODY ELSE: Hell, yeah. I love the drive-in.

The feeling that I really should go get a big bag of takeout, park in front of one of Fun-Lan's giant screens and check out a comedy or slasher pic swirls around my brain more or less constantly from September until May. I admit, however, that I've been less than conscientious about actually doing it in recent years — best intentions, life's what happens while you're making plans, yadda yadda yadda.

So when Peaches and I read the theater's listings for this week, we decided to brave the heat, the wet and the remote possibility of being struck by lightning to make tonight Fried Chicken & Drive-In night.

Because, as I've said, what could be more summery?

Furthermore, what film could possibly complete the carefree summer drive-in experience like the guilty-pleasure romp that is Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11?

Weird, right?

Actually, screening Moore's incendiary documentary at Fun-Lan makes a certain sort of sense — on paper. Fun-Lan is an independent business, and while I don't think I've ever seen an indie film there, Moore's movie has been booked into every even slightly alternative theater possible, as a defense against potential chain-wide bans. Plus, the majority of Fun-Lan's patrons are African-American. Which means they're part of a voting bloc that's reportedly losing faith in the Democratic Party by degrees, and emerging as an even more crucially pivotal element of the upcoming presidential election than usual. (In 2000, African-American voters helped Gore carry several states where he lost the white vote; Bush received less than 10 percent of the black vote nationally — an amount Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe called "historically small.")

Still, as we pull out of the Popeye's drive-thru and fretfully eye the perpetually volatile summer thunderheads above, I've got a feeling ours might be the only car pointed at Screen 3 for a weekday 9 p.m. showing. After nearly being misdirected to the screen featuring (shudder) White Chicks, we find one other car in the Fahrenheit lot; its occupants have hauled lawn chairs out onto the asphalt. We stretch our legs, chow down, have a smoke, and generally revel in doing all of the things one can't do inside a theater.

By the time the movie starts, a dozen cars are lined up in two rows. It's a fraction of the crowds assembled for Fun-Lan's two other features, but it's also more vehicles than I expected to join us.

The rain holds off. Our only distractions are the lightning behind us and the frenetic action of Spider-Man 2 to our left. The latter isn't easy to ignore; I wish they'd put White Chicks on that screen instead. The picture is fine, the sound, broadcast over FM radio (there aren't any speaker poles at Screen 3) likewise. We stay in the car for this one, occasionally firing up the engine for a little A/C.

So how was the movie? I'm not going to dissect it here. You've heard about it. You've either seen it already, or you aren't going to.

The movie isn't the point, anyway. Or rather, it's only part of the point. Fun-Lan might just be my favorite place in Hillsborough County. It's one of the few places in Hillsborough County, in fact, that have remained a constant over the decade-and-a-half I've spent living in the area.

And I don't keep going back because the movies are good. I keep going back because the times are.

Contact Scott Harrell at 813-739-4856, or [email protected].

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