Charles Phoenix spreads the gospel of midcentury kitsch.
The slide-show maven also leads bus tours of U.S. cities
Charles Phoenix, the self-proclaimed “Ambassador of Americana,” is known for his “Retro Slide Shows,” comically narrated Kodachrome presentations celebrating travel, entertaining and lifestyles in the mid-20th century using personal slides he’s found or had donated. Based in Los Angeles, Phoenix occasionally leads retro tours of his hometown — taking guests to vintage downtown spots such as Union Station, Olvera Street and Clifton’s Cafeteria — as well as others such as Palm Springs, Calif., Las Vegas and Nashville.
Over the years, Phoenix has written several coffee table books, including “Americana the Beautiful,” about midcentury travel destinations, and runs the Charles Phoenix Test Kitchen, where he demonstrates how to make fanciful original recipes such as his “cherpumple,” a campy combination of cherry, pumpkin and apple pies banked in layers of cake.
Phoenix started his career as a fashion designer and later bought and sold classic cars, at one time owning some 200 midcentury automobiles before he took his slide shows to the stage. “First and foremost,” he says, “I’m an entertainer, and my shtick is pop culture American history.”
Q. What inspired your interest in retro? A. I grew up in the ’60s in Ontario, Calif. My dad was a used-car dealer and I was totally into cars — this was the era of the space-age designs. When I was 14, I tried out for “Oklahoma” at school and was told “you’ve got a part if you have a cowboy shirt.” I didn’t, so they sent me across the street to a thrift store to find one. I threw open the double doors and saw a part of the world I’d never seen before. It was honest and unpretentious, a treasure trove of layers of times. After that, I’d go to thrift shops and look at every item in the store. I was obsessed.
Q. How did that morph into a career in slide shows? A. When I was 29, at a thrift shop I found a shoe box marked “Trip Across the United States 1957.” It was full of Kodachrome slides. I was captivated. I held them up to the light and my life just changed. Kodachrome is the ultimate luxurious medium. I immediately begin going to estate sales and flea markets, and collecting old slides. My first real slide show was in 1998, where I created a trip across America with different slides and little stories. I could feel a sense of joy from the audience, some from my enthusiasm and this gold mine of documentation, but also the fact that we were celebrating American culture. At the time, I was buying and selling classic cars, but now the slide shows are my main stock and trade.
Q. How many slides do you have? A. Hundreds of thousands. I’ve had a “slibrarian” for 12 years. She comes every Wednesday and keeps the collection in order.
Q. What are you looking for in an image or a show? A. Things that can tell a story about people, travel, customs, food. I have a lot of different topics. I also do custom shows across the country, where I observe a town and put it on a pedestal. I look for mom-andpop businesses, local landmarks, unique architecture, unusual traditions of that town, whatever makes a city unique. With those shows, I co-mingle contemporary images with those from my archives.
Q. You’re giving bus tours during Modernism Week in Palm Springs, along with presenting a slide show of midcentury automobiles. What do you like about that area? A. It’s a fascinating place, both for what it was and what it has become. It was Hollywood’s backyard playground, where the elite mixed and mingled with titans of industry. It has these amazing mid-century-style buildings. We started going there when I was a little kid, and I saw it go from a vibrant, chic community to kind of run down. Little by little, a few pioneers realized it was a treasure trove of something very special to be put up on a pedestal and preserved. Now it’s been transformed, with people buying and restoring homes. People fly in from all over the world to attend Modernism Week.
Q. Do you also see pieces of Americana vanishing? A. Oh yeah, artifacts are destroyed every day. I just went to Oklahoma City, where they had the Charcoal Oven, a beautiful, picturesque hamburger stand with a giant neon chef — an absolute pure and simple Americana classic. Now it’s going to be a Discount Tire store. I arranged a “Last Supper” event there. One of the stops on my L.A. tour, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater, a historic monument, is about to close to make way for condos.
Q. Is preservation one of your goals? A. Partly, without saying so. I’m paying tribute to our culture and showing people what is uniquely American, and in doing so, I’m hoping to inspire them to cherish things they have and to preserve them for future generations. That said, it’s not that I want to live in the past — I don’t want to go back. I think we’re able to look at the vintage images with a level of sophistication we didn’t have back then. But of course I don’t say all that. This is a theatrical presentation, after all.
Q. Do you have favorite regions for retro, or do your slides skew to certain places? A. The three most photographed states are California, Hawaii and Florida. I actually haven’t performed in Florida, but I did a show on it in Las Vegas. I’m a child of Disneyland, and I think in some ways all cities have elements of theme parks. In the case of Florida, it has manufactured themes overlaid on nature’s wonderland. Some of its vintage tourist attractions endure, like Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee. But the most extraordinary places to me are the ones that have continued in a family for several generations, like Dutch Girl Donuts in Detroit and the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Those are the places I cherish the most.
TOP: Charles Phoenix rolls up on the Charcoal Oven, an Oklahoma City hamburger stand, on its last day of business. ABOVE: Phoenix raises a mug at Brownie’s Hamburgers in Tulsa.