Charles Phoenix spreads the gospel of mid­cen­tury kitsch.

The slide-show maven also leads bus tours of U.S. cities

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY DIANE DANIEL travel@wash­ Daniel is a writer based in the Nether­lands. Her web­site is by­di­

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.

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