You can spot fans of Charles Phoenix from 100 yards away: the man wearing a leopard Santa hat paired with a bolo tie; the trio of women wearing homemade holiday hats atop victory curls; the rockabilly couple who traveled more than 60 miles to attend Phoenix's holiday slideshow. These were some of the characters who packed the Art Theatre in Long Beach on Saturday to indulge in more than two hours of comedy and vintage photos.
Those who personally know Phoenix will tell you his onstage persona is only a slightly more exaggerated version of himself. His enthusiasm for kitschy discoveries and the boisterous expressions that emerge from his mouth are as authentic as his inexhaustible collection of Kodachrome slides . . . "I KNOW!"
The most entertaining thing you can do is bring along someone who knows nothing about Phoenix (if that is at all possible since he has become a reoccurring guest on shows such as The Martha Stewart Show, Conan and The Queen Latifah Show) and let your guest think he or she is merely about to watch a humdrum holiday-themed slideshow. If your guest isn't bursting into fits of laughter or contemplating how to insert Christmas lights inside a giant Jell-O mold by the end of the show, consider finding a new friend.
Phoenix begins each show by presenting a handful of self-deprecating personal slides from his youth. It's easy to see where his passions lie: Kodachrome slides, vintage cars and playing with food.
Saturday's audience was taken on a vintage photo tour of Long Beach, which included rare glimpses of the long-defunct Pike Amusement Park. Some audience members were surprised to learn the U.S.'s oldest tattoo parlor (Outer Limits, formally Bert Grimm's tattoo studio) is located in Long Beach.
Phoenix delved into images from his Test Kitchen, where he creates unforgettable food sculptures including the Easter Meatloaf Lamb covered in mashed potatoes and his signature Astro-Weenie Christmas tree made of mini hot dog franks, which he decided to shoot into space this year. His latest brain-child, Frosty the Coleslaw Man, made a personal appearance during intermission. We've never seen so many people shoot iPhone photos of coleslaw. Ever.
After intermission, Phoenix returned onstage wearing his custom, diagonal-candy-cane-striped suit to conduct a brief Q&A before diving into the feature presentation: a showcase of borderline-embarrassing vintage slides of strangers celebrating the holidays, including a series of a lesbian couple whose poses were equally as disturbing as their pajamas.
The audience followed Phoenix down Retro Row into Inretrospect, where an after-party was held with finger foods, cocktails and a book signing. Not many attendees left empty-handed; we purchased a vintage terrycloth Christmas apron.
Phoenix's mission to make daily living more lively was achieved. This includes turning a traffic cone into a Jell-O mold, inserting a strand of Christmas lights inside the Jell-O, despite the risk of electrocution, to create a "Christmas tree," which he stored in his refrigerator for months until it blackened with mold, and then plugged it back in to see if it still worked.
The scary part is that we left feeling inspired. Phoenix's infectious creative ingeniousness had us brainstorming ways to construct animal figures out of potato salad on the way home from the show.
We only wish we could have attended Phoenix's first Wigwam Hotel Christmas lighting/doughnut exchange the following day off Route 66. One thing is certain: The holidays are much for colorful when Charles Phoenix is in town.
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If you missed Saturday's show, here are more opportunities to catch Phoenix's Holiday Slideshow: Dec 13 - San Francisco Dec 15 - Brea Dec 20 - Palm Springs Dec 22 - Los Angeles Dec 28 - Tucson, Arizona Tickets are available on his website.