The Sultan of Swap

He's a hillbilly boor, a promotional genius, a political trickster, a lovable rogue, and a control freak. Preston Henn is also the owner of one of the biggest flea markets in the world.

Markham, the Broward County tax assessor, says he thinks Henn is more a prankster than a cynic and is often misunderstood. But there's a shadow of doubt. In 1968 Markham launched his first campaign. One day he ran into Henn. "I said, 'Man, I'm running for tax assessor, and, if there's anything you can do for me, that would be great,'" Markham remembers. "I gave him a couple of campaign brochures.

"A couple weeks later, I was walking down the street and some people stopped me. They said, 'Do you know what Preston Henn is doing to you?'" Henn, it turned out, had turned the brochures into giant campaign ads, which he flashed on his drive-in screens during intermission at X-rated movies.

It's still unclear whether the tactic almost ruined Markham's political career or saved it. He won by 39 votes. What's surely true is that 30 years later he remains in power. And he counts Preston Henn among his closest friends.

At the height of the Great Depression, two years after Preston Henn was born, the first drive-in movie theater opened for business in Camden, New Jersey. The year was 1933. America's first drive-in experience cost 25 cents and involved a justly forgotten film entitled Wife Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou.

It wasn't until the end of World War II that the drive-in craze took hold. Between 1945 and 1953, 2976 drive-ins were built, including one with airstrips allowing for airborne customers. Meanwhile Henn had graduated from the prestigious McCauley School in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and from Nashville's Vanderbilt University, with a degree in chemical engineering.

Within a month he was bored with chemical engineering. He went home to the mountains of Murphy, North Carolina, to help out in his father's hometown theater business, with misgivings.

"I had enough ego that I didn't want to depend on my father, who -- for Murphy, North Carolina -- was considered a wealthy man," Henn says.

In a pride-salving compromise, Henn the younger leased his own drive-in at nearby Franklin and began a five-year march toward his first million. In retrospect it's easy to see where the bubble broke: By 1958 Henn owned approximately 40 drive-ins throughout the Bible Belt. There were 4063 of them in the United States, but there would never be more. According to the latest economic census figures, only 534 exist today, 25 operating in Florida.

"Television just crucified the small-town theater," Henn recalls. "I went broke."

Like many a debt-encumbered failure before him, Henn followed the sun to South Florida. On the day of John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, he opened the Thunderbird Drive-In west of Fort Lauderdale. The original screen, now number nine, stands near the center of the Swap Shop today.

Before he took over, the drive-in had catered to black moviegoers for 15 years. "At that particular time, you couldn't get anyone else to set foot in what they thought of as a black theater," Henn says. He added an entrance on Sunrise Boulevard, launched an ad campaign, brought in X-rated movies, and jacked up the prices. The race barrier was broken.

Meanwhile he bought up a dozen other drive-ins in Broward and ran the remaining competitors out of business through publicity stunts and advertising blitzes. At one mosquito-infested theater near Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, he installed experimental air-conditioning tubes that could be attached to car windows along with the standard movie sound-speakers.

Except for the single-screen Trail Drive-In in Lake Worth, there are no more drive-in theaters in South Florida -- just Henn's Swap Shop multiplex, which has long since dropped the skin flicks for first-run movies. In the vast scheme of the Swap Shop, revenues from the drive-in are "very minor," Henn notes. The real money comes from a much older idea. Henn first saw the idea in action in San Jose, California -- in what is still the biggest flea market in the land -- and promptly stole it.

"Five or six years ago, I got a call from the people in San Jose," Henn says. "They wanted to fly out and look at my operation. They did. We wined 'em and dined 'em, and they finally got around to asking what everyone always asks: 'How'd ya get the idea in the first place?' I said, 'Ironically, from you.'"

The flea market idea was invented by King Henry II in 12th-century London as a way to get peddlers off crowded streets. It spread through Central Europe, where unsanitary conditions led to the name. Beginning in 1966 Henn set about reinventing the concept, adding country music concerts, stunt weddings, elephants -- anything that would draw the masses. Drawing a crowd, generating a huge volume of bargain shoppers, is the secret to why vendors are willing to pay for space. Keeping the space less costly than a city storefront is what allows merchants to save money on overhead and presumably pass on the savings to customers.

Despite the recent advent of nearby Sawgrass Mills, the world's largest outlet mall, Henn figures he has the low-end retail market cornered.

"We've got a niche that no one will ever touch, because no one's got the outdoor garage sale, and they're not likely to come along and have 80 acres of property and start doing it," he crows.

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