Kitsch and Tell

Photo by James BunoanIt takes about 10 minutes for Charles Phoenix to call us "baby." One more for him to apologize. Another to explain that he was overwhelmed, and then one more to bounce right back to his typical ebullient self. If you had no idea the guy travels the country doing slide-show projections, you'd have figured it out by now: click-click-click goes the conversation, and every sentence gets you something you never thought of before.

So meet Charles Phoenix, a man who has found his calling—found it in a blue shoebox, actually, tucked somewhere inconvenient in a SoCal thrift store and labeled, "TRIP ACROSS THE U.S.—1957." From such finds grow history—lost doo-wop 45s picked out of yard sales, lost Renaissance masterpaintings rolled up in attics, lost early versions of the Declaration of Independence with all the Masonic dictums still penciled in—and in that shoe box, sandwiched between a haphazard collection of two-by-two Kodachrome slides, Phoenix recovered the first of what's grown into a monstrously comprehensive private collection of America: The Way It Was, straight from the cameras of the citizens who took their vacations there. By day, he's an author of several beautiful photo-heavy documents of America during the '50s; by night, he's a time machine.

"This is the people's version of history," Phoenix says. "I'm just a guy—a regular guy. But I've done my research. And this is my passion. It's the joy of teaching everyday history—just our culture."

Phoenix's "God Bless Americana" slideshows, agonizingly assembled from the best of what he calls "billions" of slides, resolve into a fantastically detailed portrait of '50s and '60s America usually blurred into I Love Lucy reruns. The show he'll present this weekend in Brea is subtitled "The Retro Slideshow Tour of Southern California," an obviously dear-to-his-heart period tour through OC and LA counties (he grew up in Southern California, the son of a used-car dealer, and spent, he says, wayyyytoo much time in thrift stores). We start, he explains, by flying into LAX, hitting a few parties, poking around old Hollywood, examining a suburbia where the shine had yet to wear off, visiting all the theme parks—the works, all via some family's lost and forgotten vacation snaps. And OC, we ask? Home of Disneyland, Knott's, the highest concentration of Googie architecture in the world at one time and Lion Country Safari?

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"The OC portion, baby?" says Phoenix. "OC is the finale!"

It's probably the first non-boring display most of these salvaged slides have ever seen. Charisma counts for Phoenix: if your meticulously scavenged collection of creepy World War II battle trash greets the future from a dusty pile on the living room floor, he says, no one's gonna care. But dust it off and shine up a little personality, and the world will beat a path to your display case—or your slide projector. "Presentation," he says, "is everything!"

And, baby, what presentation. The first public Americana slideshow—at the wacky ol' California Map and Travel Center in January 1998—was supposed to be serious. Important history stuff, displayed to reflect the hundreds of serious hours that went into finding it and to bring out the details of the time that sitcoms forgot. But then people started giggling: at the clothes, the kitsch, the simple frank dorkiness—at themselves, basically. Phoenix remembers being shocked by the crowds he got: grandparents who'd lived it, parents who'd grown up with it, little kids who could go their whole lives without ever seeing a chromed bumper or a tail fin. A light bulb went on—probably looked just like the ones from the classic Warner cartoons: "'Oooooh,'" remembers Phoenix. "You guys wanna laugh!"

It sounds kitschy and cute, and it is—but that's not all it is. Phoenix's selection of slides—and more correctly, Phoenix's passion—pushes the show into something at once funny, informative and even a little forlorn. Everything he picks is highly stylized—those fins! That hair! Those colors!—he says, but it's also all completely real. Maybe not everybody went to New Year's parties with a human skeleton, but somebody once did—and took a photo, even! The comparison is a little glib, but that's just because someone in New York came up with it: Phoenix's slides are the ultimate reality show.

"One reaction I get quite often is 'I'm never going to look at that style of lampshade the same way,' or 'I'll never look at an old car the same way,'" Phoenix says. "I wasn't realizing how much joy it'd be to share these images, to share enthusiasm."

Charles Phoenix's "God Bless Americana: A Retro Slideshow Tour Of Southern California" at the Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea, (714) 990-7722. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $20; Seniors, $17; kids, $15.

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