Photo courtesy of Charles PhoenixIt is well-known that there is nothing upon this planet so ass-numbingly tedious as being subjected to somebody else's travel slideshow. Hour after hour of Aunt Gladys and Cousin Chip at Mount Rushmore, Cousin Chip and Uncle Leroy at the Orange Julius stand at Mount Rushmore, Cousin Chip throwing up his Orange Julius onto Aunt Gladys at Mount Rushmore. . . . We've all endured evenings like this—or at least all of us have who are old enough to remember when everybody still used slides; in the digital age, our friends and relatives bore us to death with their vacation videos instead.
In his new live show, God Bless Americana, Part 2: The Retro Slide Show Tour of Southern California, author/artist/performer/major camp hound Charles Phoenix somehow manages to defy overwhelming odds and make people's vacation slides not just compelling but also fun with a big, fat capital F. Of course, we're not talking about just any holiday snaps here; Phoenix has assembled dozens upon dozens of photos taken by anonymous mid-20th-century American tourists who probably never realized, as they snapped their sons and daughters and dogs frolicking at various monuments and theme parks, that they were also accidentally documenting a moment of history.
Through these slides, Phoenix takes us on a freewheeling, often hilarious tour of things that aren't here anymore, as well as things that are still here but have changed so much they may as well be a different place. We watch as the Queen Mary chugs into port one last time and as Howard Hughes flies the Spruce Gooseon its one and only voyage across Long Beach's harbor. We get reacquainted with such departed friends as Marineland and Santa's Village and witness the touchingly awkward early days of Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland. For a dash of Hollywood glamour, there's even a visit to the set of The Ten Commandments. Through it all, Phoenix, a thirtysomething lad with the buzzed haircut and square specs of a lawn-mowing dad in a '50s root-beer ad, offers up free-associative commentary simultaneously ironic and affectionate. There's no denying how dorky Southern California looked back then, but there's also no denying the goofy zest and cockeyed optimism that oozes from these pictures. Phoenix comes not to bury the Space Age, but to praise it.
The show had its origins in a shoebox full of vintage vacation pics Phoenix discovered in a California thrift shop. The find sparked his interest in collecting more. Soon he was putting on slide shows for his pals in his living room, and eventually, he was touring the nation with a full-blown theatrical extravaganza, performing live at film festivals, museums, galleries—any place that would have him. That show, the original God Bless Americana, had a broader focus, looking at all of yesterday's America, from sea to shining sea. The sequel looks in our own back yard, offering up an LA and Orange County that are as alien as they are familiar. They're downright eerie at times because while this is our home we're seeing, it isn't quite our world. At times, it's almost like seeing a Southern California from some cheesy alternate universe.
"The years start coming, and they don't stop coming," Smash Mouth tells us on the radio every few minutes, but the sad truth is that eventually, and all too soon, the years do indeed stop coming. We are only granted so many seasons upon this earth, and then we're plucked off it without so much as a how do you do. A few years ago, I moved away from my lifelong home of Long Beach, and now every time I drive through it, another place I imagined would outlast me has been bulldozed. With every visit, the place is less the Long Beach I knew, and I know that someday I, too, will survive only in photos, as just another weirdly dressed schmuck from a long-vanished past. Phoenix's show reminds us that before we got here, this place belonged to somebody else, generations of somebody elses. And we have to wonder what they would have thought of what we've done with our inheritance.
God Bless Americana is presented at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 466-FILM; www.godblessamericana.com. Part 1: The Retro Vacation Slide Show Tour of the USA, Sat., 8 p.m. Part 2: The Retro Slide Show Tour of Southern California, Sun., 2 p.m. (no performances June 16 & 30). Through July 14. $19-$20.