How an ordinary green SLC day care became a source of curiosity

Fun Time Kidz Kare in Salt Lake City has entered the world of urban legend, a folklorist says.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fun Time Kidz Kare in Salt Lake City is photographed Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

Neon green, purple, yellow. It’s a color scheme that, in Salt Lake City, conjures up one particular place: Fun Time Kidz Kare, a day care business with a second identity as an urban legend.

The purported mystery — as described in online chatter — is that no one sees children go into the distinctively painted building on the corner of 1300 South and 300 East, or play on its small playground. The curious drive by, trying to see as much as they can, or walk past, trying to peek around tattered paper that covers up its many tiny windows. They make TikToks about it, immortalize its facade in artwork (here, too), and even make Halloween costumes that pay homage to it.

But that fascination worries Utahns who say they have joyful memories of attending the center in the 1960s and ‘70s, and feel protective of the children there now. Jonathan Jemming, who said he volunteered there in the 1990s and later bought a house nearby, traces the online theories to the area’s gentrification and changing demographics.

”It has been frustrating to watch people criticize that place, when really, what it could use is more community support,” said Jemming, who said the center in the ‘90s cared for children from low-income families — primarily infants, who were too young to play outdoors.

This summer, Fun Time Kidz Kare’s weather-worn exterior got a fresh coat of paint, and its faded sign — so old that the phone number on it didn’t include the area code — was removed. That sparked speculation on social media that it might be closing or changing in some way.

But in the end, the same color scheme returned, just a bit brighter. Jose Solano, the owner according to multiple records, didn’t return messages requesting comment. State officials say the center was last inspected in July, has a clean record and hasn’t indicated any plans to close.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fun Time Kidz Kare in Salt Lake City is photographed Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

‘Really a little festive place’

Kathy Chambers said she attended the day care as a child in the 1970s, from her “earliest memory” until she was about 7. There’s one defining characteristic that’s no longer there, she said — a clown that used to be on top.

The building was “light colored,” with “huge” windows, and it was “just really cheerful-looking,” she said.

As for the light color, an undated photo on the Salt Lake County assessor’s website shows the building’s exterior painted gray, with white trim around the windows and a white door.

But 63-year-old Kirk Talbot remembers the building being yellow. “It’s changed so many colors so many times over the years,” he said.

Talbot attended Fun Time Kidz Kare from 1963 to 1965, he said, from ages 3 to 5. Going to the day care is also his earliest memory, he said.

What sticks out for him is a jungle gym that was shaped like a rocket ship, which used to be located on the north side of the building. He said at the time, it seemed like it was as tall as the day care itself, and had two or three different levels in it. “That was the coolest thing,” he said.

David Elsmore, who’s now 58, attended the day care from 1967 to 1970, he said, from ages 2 to 5. He remembers the rocket ship jungle gym, too.

“That day care was my most favorite day care I ever went to,” he said.

Elsmore said he remembers the exterior of Fun Time Kidz Kare having little castles or towers on it. “It was really a little festive place to go as a young child. There were activities in the backyard.”

He also said he remembers everything being new. “It was all vibrant,” he said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fun Time Kidz Kare in Salt Lake City is photographed Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

The ‘weight of gentrification’

Jemming, who’s 48 now, said he volunteered at Fun Time Kidz Kare when he was a teenager in the 1990s, back when it was called Fun Time Day Care.

He said he finds speculation from strangers — “this cult belief that there’s something else going on there” — “angering” and “annoying.” Jemming said that stories about the day care started popping up as early as 2001, when he bought a house not a block away from Fun Time Kidz Kare.

“It was like, ‘No, really, you don’t see kids there because they’re inside and their moms come early in the morning, usually, so you don’t see the traffic,’” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on there now, but it was always frustrating about that back in the day.”

The former owner, he said, was a woman who was “really committed” to caring for the children, and the day care she ran “served a really vital function.”

She held onto the place long enough, Jemming said, that the neighborhood around it started to become gentrified. He said you could see the “weight of gentrification” on the day care, “because it’s serving a population that is no longer represented in that community.”

Some neighbors spread stories because they didn’t understand what was going on there, he believes.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fun Time Kidz Kare in Salt Lake City is photographed Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

Facts and legends

The Fun Time Kidz Kare building is owned by an LLC called Chunga International, and currently, the combined building and land is worth $313,600, according to Salt Lake County assessor records.

But the Salt Lake County Archives didn’t turn up anything related to Fun Time Kidz Kare, and neither did the Utah Historical Society nor the state Division of Archives & Records Service. And the business has remained silent about its niche fame.

Stories about Fun Time Kidz Kare have been retold so many times that they could be considered “contemporary legends,” or what nonfolklorists would call urban legends, said Lynne McNeill, an associate professor of folklore in the English Department at Utah State University.

Both types of legends are “interconnected forms of folklore,” along with conspiracy theories, she said, which is a “big construct of belief made up of rumors and legends, and sometimes reality and facts as well.”

What gives such stories the ability to stick, McNeill continued, “is that there’s enough pieces of them that seem to be verifiable, that it makes the unverifiable pieces of them seem more believable.”

Fun Time Kidz Kare’s out-of-the-ordinary appearance could be one reason why the day care entered the realm of urban legend, McNeill said.

“There’s just things that visually in our communities and in our landscape are asking for explanation by standing out,” she said. “And when we don’t have a quick and immediate answer, then that’s when legends, rumors, conspiracy theories start filling in that void.”

The danger of blurring the line between curiosity and conspiracy, McNeill said, is when someone takes rumors to be reality. She cited as an example 2016′s “Pizzagate,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center called an online disinformation campaign against a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fun Time Kidz Kare in Salt Lake City is photographed Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.

Artistic inspiration

Artist Matt Crane — who goes by @mattcrank on Instagram — has depicted Fun Time Kidz Kare in some of his artwork, including a sticker and a couple of T-shirts. He said the purple, yellow and green building is his “favorite” in Salt Lake City.

His original illustrated map of Salt Lake City includes the day care in the lower right corner, along with such other local landmarks as Gilgal Sculpture Garden, the International Peace Gardens and Fisher Brewing Company.

“When I posted it online, everyone commented on the day care,” Crane said via email.

So Crane made a stand-alone illustration of the day care, and it went viral, he said. Crane made stickers of the illustration and eventually T-shirts, and he said he’s sold “a bunch” not just in Utah but throughout the country.

“It has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts,” Crane said. “From people who grew up in the neighborhood, current residents who live there, to adults who went there as children. I realized how iconic it was.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.