Candy Snell's last day working at Tampa's iconic Fun-Lan Drive-In and Swap Shop was bittersweet, but she was really trying her best to not be bitter at all.
Snell and her coworkers talked about their time at the flea market and their last day on the property as blank projector screens sat ghostly white behind them.
Over the past five years, Snell, who turns 48 years old tomorrow, had worked her way up from fry cook to ticket booth attendant to manager. After managing since the beginning of this year for $16 an hour, she got news last week that felt like a kick in the stomach.
On Dec. 2, Snell and her fellow workers got three days' notice from the owner that Fun-Lan would be shutting its doors permanently. Over the past week, she's helped dismantle her former workplace—her last day at Fun-Lan is Dec. 10.
Four months ago, the drive-in shut down, but the money was always coming from Fun-Lan's swap shop flea market, so Snell thought things would continue on.
But now, she's heading into the holidays without a job, and no severance after her five years of service to the legendary Tampa drive-in theater and swap shop, which opened in 1950 to show its first film.
"Upper management said they feel bad that this is happening this way," she told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "But it feels like we're left out to dry."
It's been hard work making the final preparations for the demise of Fun-Lan, emotionally and physically. Snell knows that she has good memories there, but they're hard to recall at the moment. But she has a deep knowledge of the property, the massive projector screens, the hurricanes that destroyed certain screens, along with the history and culture of Fun-Lan.
"I would love to go back in time and see this place in its heyday, when this parking lot was full of cars," she said, envisioning a Fun-Lan past. "When it first opened in the '50s, they had a miniature train for the kids that circled the entire lot. It used to be a whole family ordeal to go to the drive-in."
Jennifer Stanford worked as Snell's secretary for the past two years. Her 18-year-old son Daniel Perez worked there for just two weeks before the news of the closing came down, so now he's helping with the closing of Fun-Lan. Stanford, 46, put on her blue and gold swap shop shirt that morning and thought to herself, "This is it."
After this final shift, her and her son will be jobless.
"Kids of the vendors who were tiny when they first got here...we watched them grow up," Stanford said.
Their former working conditions and the situation the Fun-Lan employees now find themselves in speak to the larger issues with the business. It was owned under the company name "Florida Swap Shops" by the Henn family from Fort Lauderdale. The family has a colorful past, to say the least.
Betty has been the final decision maker on the property since he passed, but, "No one talks to her," Snell says, adding that she's never seen or heard from Henn in her five years of working there.
Temporary Manager of Florida Swap Shops Jerry Corgnati—who's been with the company since 1980 as a theater engineer and has been filling in as manager since August—said Betty was in Las Vegas on vacation, and couldn't be reached for comment on the sale of Fun-Lan.
Kids of the vendors who were tiny when they first got here...we watched them grow uptweet this
He did, however, reach out to Tom Chitwood—Betty Henn's brother-in-law—who arranged the sale. Chitwood told him that he knows who the buyer is, but as part of the sale agreement, he couldn't release that information yet, nor could he speak to the amount the property was purchased for.
The former employees of Fun-Lan said that they heard unconfirmed rumors that the property sold for $15 million.
They also speculated about the City of Tampa buying the property, but Communications Director Adam Smith said the city didn't purchase it. Smith added that the city is open to partnerships to establish more affordable housing in the area.
While he couldn't speak to who bought the property, Corgnati did talk about the glory days of Fun-Lan, saying that at one point the parking lot would fill up with around a 1,000 attendees, all there to see the newest film. Several people have told him that they saw the premiere of "Star Wars" at Fun-Lan in 1977. These boom days were back in the '50s-'70s he says, but in the '80s, '90s and '2000s, people began having more choices of how and where to view films, and attendance began to decline.
And even though Fun-Lan was a safer theatre for people to go to during COVID-19, the pandemic really affected the swap shop business, Fun-Lan's main income, and the theater never quite recovered.
While employees got eight days notice that their livelihoods would be upended, vendors at the swap shop only got three. They were blindsided.
Robert Rivera was a vendor at Fun-Lan for seven years, and first started going there as a kid. He sold video games, and it helped pay for his house and his car. He chose to be a permanent vendor, which means he could sell at the flea market from Thursday-Sunday for $125 a month. But he opted to be a Saturday and Sunday vendor because it was busier on those days.
Rivera held back tears when he found out that the market would close on Sunday, ending his business there, along with around 300 vendors.
"I didn't want to believe it at first," he said. "I heard a lot of people were crying. I felt like crying too, but I wanted to be a strong person for others in that moment."
The Wednesday after Fun-Lan shut down, vendors looked toward Plant City Farm and Flea Market to find an answer to their problem.
"It was mayhem when they arrived, there were over 100 new vendors," Stephanie Allred, whose family runs Plant City Farm and Flea Market, told CL. "But we wanted to give these people a place to go."
While they couldn't make accommodations for everyone that showed up last Wednesday, the flea market is now extending hours to be open on the weekend, starting on Saturday, Dec. 11. They're offering pay-what-you-can prices to the vendors for about a month until a new sales base finds them, and they're also interested in hiring former employees of Fun-Lan, including Snell and Stanford.
I heard a lot of people were crying. I felt like crying too, but I wanted to be a strong person for others in that moment.tweet this
When CL broke the news of Fun-Lan closing earlier this week, hundreds of Facebook users shared their memories.
Many wrote about cheap movies they saw there with family, loved ones and friends. It was a place people could go who couldn't afford a regular theater. In 1979, movies there were just $2.
"When I was an extremely broke single mom with three kids who could never afford to take them to the movies, we had many a drive-in jammies night in the back of my car!!!" One commenter wrote. "The kids loved it, and so did I."
Another commenter, Clark Brooks, worked as a projectionist at Fun-Lan, playing 35mm films in 2005; his experience behind the scenes was not so ideal. Brooks knew something was off when he went to the concession stand to get something to eat and asked the person working at the stand what was best.
"She looked up at one of the many security cameras and looked back at me and just kind of quietly shook her head as it indicate that nothing there was edible," Brooks said.
After that, it was an uphill battle. He didn't know when his paychecks would come in, and at one point waited three weeks for his late pay to come in. After five months, he was done with the place. Brooks got a better opportunity to project at Tampa Theatre, which he loves.
Still, he has fond memories of working there. He remembers showing a 2005 black-comedy, "The Devil's Rejects," and how fun it was to play that for the crowd.
"Even with all of the headaches, it was really something special to work at such an iconic drive-in," Brooks said.
Fun-Lan was one of the last of its kind left in the Tampa Bay area. Classic drive-in aesthetics and rock bottom prices for flea market shoppers and vendors are a specialty in Florida, but as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the nation, many such places have fallen to the wayside.
One by one over the pandemic, flea markets like Fun-Lan's have collapsed. Big Top, Wagon Wheel, Fowler Avenue Flea market. Fun-Lan's fall means that the list of places to barter for goods in the Tampa Bay just keeps shrinking. Drive-ins aren't safe from failing either. Just this week, owners of Ruskin Family Drive-In told Bay News 9 that it is in danger of shutting down due to nearby development.
The monthly vendor prices for booths at the market can be around $400, more than triple what vendors like Rivera paid. However, the monthly booths at Oldsmar are high quality and many booths are indoors, as opposed to the open air market of Fun-Lan. For outdoor daily tables, vendors can pay $25 if they can reserve in time, but those go fast, according to Oldsmar Flea Market staff.
And so, those who made a living at Fun-Lan search for their next destination, some headed to Plant City, others eyeing Oldsmar if they can afford it, some considering leaving the Tampa Bay area to Lakeland's "Mi Pueblo" Flea Market and Webster's "Swap-O-Rama" Flea Market.
While questions still remain about who bought Fun-Lan and what will be built in its place, the former vendors and employees are mainly focused on survival. Stanford said it was a "monumental" place to work, but now her and everyone else have to scramble to figure out what's next during the holidays.
"Merry Christmas to us," she said.
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