TAMPA — If you’ve driven Dale Mabry Highway in the past 50 years, you’ve likely seen it: a flying saucer, sun glistening off its shiny silver paint, perched atop the 2001 Odyssey strip club.
What you likely did not realize is the local landmark isn’t merely some extra-terrestrial, go-go dancer gimmick. It’s more than the VIP room where a customer can spend an entire tax return.
The spaceship on the roof is a Futuro house, and one of a few remaining examples of the pre-fabricated homes that hit the American market the same year Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
Its creator did not have lap dances in mind. The Futuro was supposed to be the house of the future. One of them even did become the home of a Tampa Bay retiree and her great granddaughter.
Another of the architectural rarities, somehow, became the home of full-nude dancers. The full story of how that happened went untold for decades.
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The Futuros were designed in the 1960s by Matti Suuronen, a Finnish architect and national team volleyball player. He’d been commissioned to create a portable ski chalet that could withstand brutal weather. Cheap to produce, fiberglass saucers were soon floated as a housing solution.
Suuronen’s 12,000-pound homes were supported by steel legs and boasted 500 square feet of living space, advertised as enough to comfortably sleep eight people. Buyers could get them fully furnished, or just order the shell. The entrance was a button-operated, retractable door hatch.
Futuro enthusiast Simon Robson, 61, who painstakingly documents the history and locations of remaining Futuros on thefuturohouse.com, said they started at about $14,000 and could be carted to any destination via truck or helicopter.
Robson, a Texas-based, sci-fi fan who works in IT, said he spends most of his free time tracking down Futuros since discovering the phenomenon in 2011.
"I could probably spend my entire week doing this, which would drive my wife nuts,” Robson said. “There’s never enough time.”
No one knows how many were made, but Robson has tallied 67 surviving houses around the world.
A man in New Zealand recently bought one to convert into an Airbnb. An artist in London brings his restored Futuro around the city for pop up art installations. A graffiti-coated shell of an orange Futuro in Texas is popular with traveling Instagrammers.
At least 13 others were destroyed, Robson says. Some may have been used for target practice. Others were demolished or fell apart from old age.
In Florida, two remain. One is in Pensacola Beach. The other is the VIP room at the 2001 Odyssey.
A plastic industrial company in Finland sold the homes before subsidiaries opened in other countries. That’s where Tampa Bay comes in.
Around 1970, Jerry DeLong, an ambitious mobile home salesman who’d grown up poor on a midwestern dairy farm, founded Futuro of Florida. He plopped a display-model saucer down at 2480 SR 580 in Clearwater, now home to a Grow Financial branch.
Futuros were not a hit with homebuyers. The oil crisis of 1973, which stalled production of fiberglass and plastic, didn’t help. In 1975, the Associated Press reported the New Jersey company that made American Futuros had gone out of business, and realtors couldn’t sell the ones that remained.
But Futuro of Florida did sell a handful, and at least one in Tampa Bay.
Gwendolyn Zerby was approaching her 70s and had trouble moving around. She liked the idea of living in a home that didn’t need maintenance. She wanted to feel safe.
The Futuro’s retractable door was advertised as burglar proof, and its curved fiberglass walls could supposedly protect her from winds up to 200 mph.
The Dunedin woman put down $18,000 for a furnished aqua blue spaceship at the Futuro lot in Clearwater. She had it delivered to the southwest corner of Semmes and Juneau streets in Tampa, back when the Sulphur Springs neighborhood still had dirt roads and orange groves.
Zerby kept the included shag carpeting. She showered in the tiny bathroom, prepared snacks in the square kitchenette and stored her belongings under the cushions of the wraparound couch. The only thing she brought with her was her favorite La-Z-Boy recliner and her dog, Spud.
Bonita Flora spent hours in that spaceship watching Guiding Light with her grandmother.
“The biggest thing I remember was people stopping and taking pictures," she said. “I cannot tell you how many pictures I was in…it was definitely a Ripley’s Believe It or Not story.”
A 1971 newspaper article said traffic often slowed on the street. Some stood on top of their cars.
“I’m sure if we stood out there in little green outfits and waved at everyone we would have a line going down the road,” Flora said.
Chrissey Magee was a little girl when her great-grandmother Zerby died, but she remembers eating candy necklaces inside the Futuro. Her friends asked if her great-grandmother was an alien.
After Zerby died in 1979, a couple moved in. One of them was an Ybor City drag performer known as Candy Kiss who used the space to sew costumes and throw frequent parties. When the retractable door stopped retracting, they built a fence to keep intruders out. When they left for California, it sat empty.
Magee eventually moved into the Futuro with a boyfriend when she was 17.
“It was pretty much trashed inside,” she said. “People had been hanging out there when it was empty and partying and tearing it up.”
By the end of the 1990s, the Futuro was old and covered in graffiti. Deemed a fire hazard and public nuisance, the city demolished it.
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So how did a second of these extremely rare architectural oddities end up in Tampa, on the roof of a strip club?
The story, for years, was that Pasquale “Pat” Matassini, once the owner of Tampa bars such as The Deep South, the Pad Lounge and the Odyssey, was driving through Sebring in 1968 when he saw a Futuro on the roadside.
“I paid something like $3,000 to buy it,” Matassini told the then St. Petersburg Times in 1996. “It probably cost more to put it up there. … We wanted to get different types of people in the club, a little bit more sophisticated.”
But Futuro expert Robson said that story doesn’t line up. The first Futuro in the United States was a model displayed in the Philadelphia airport that arrived in 1969.
Matassini died in 1999, but his son, Nick Matassini, told the Tampa Bay Times his father acquired the club after the space ship was already on the roof.
So if Pat Matassini didn’t put it up there, who did?
The most likely suspect: Jerry DeLong, former manager of that Futuro of Florida dealership.
DeLong, now 79, was unable to speak to the Times due to health issues, but his son Bruce DeLong says it was his father, not Pat Matassini, who was obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And it was his father and some partners who opened the 2001 Odyssey in 1971 in a nondescript Tampa building that was formerly the Shangri La Lounge.
The Futuro that landed on the roof was the display model his father had used in Clearwater.
It took two attempts to hoist the ship onto the roof, Bruce DeLong said. When Sims Crane first lifted the saucer, gusts of wind caused the Futuro to smash into the side of the club. After repairs, they succeeded on a calmer day.
Bruce DeLong said his dad, a flashy guy who loved women and partying, was finally making big money with his spaceship club, until mobsters pressured him and his business partners to sell.
One of those partners, Bernard J. Lechner, 85, confirmed it was Jerry DeLong who was responsible for the spaceship. Asked by phone why they sold the Odyssey, Lechner said it was “the Trafficantes” who took over the club, referring to reputed mob boss Santo Trafficante Jr. before cutting the conversation short and hanging up.
Newspaper ads for a new club named 2001 first appeared in 1970, and the first ad featuring the spaceship appeared in 1971. Records show that Rod-Man Inc., Pat Mattasini’s company, bought the 2001 Odyssey property in 1974. Not long after that, he was convicted of a conspiracy to distribute nearly $1 million in counterfeit cash.
In 1992, investigators accused Pat Matassini of having ties to a “Tampa crime family” because he had once owned part of a bar called Godfather’s, that sat on land Trafficante owned. His lawyer at the time called it a “rank rumor.” He was not charged with any crime.
Jerry Delong ended up working as a used tire salesman for Goodyear. His dreams of hitting it big were gone — “rags to riches and back to rags,” as his son described it — but the spaceship he hauled himself on a truck from Pennsylvania to Tampa Bay remains.
The current owners of 2001 Odyssey declined to be interviewed for this story.
These days, the spaceship is entered via a carpeted staircase from the first floor of the club. There’s a curved bar in the center, serving soft drinks and water. Black lace curtains hang over leather booths that wrap around the mirrored walls. The ceiling is adorned with glow-in-the-dark constellations and a disco ball.
Fifteen minutes up there will cost between $175 and $200.
Nobody said the future would be cheap.
Times staff writer Christopher Spata and Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Correction: This story originally stated that Jerry DeLong is 92. He is 79.