A Small World After All

Photo by james BunoanFortysomething Angeleno Charles Phoenix occupies the sort of nostalgic niche that would make a cigar-store Indian weep for home. Yet since starting his God Bless Americana series of slide shows back in 1998, public displays based on shoeboxes full of vintage slides bought secondhand, Phoenix has been in a class by himself.

Either no one wants to do what he's doing, or—far more likely—no one else thought of it first, and now no one dares try.

Phoenix has moved on again, now hosting walking tours in Southern California. His current project, the Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles, compares the grungiest place on earth to the Happiest Place on Earth.

I sat down and asked the gabardine-wearing, Mercury Monterey-owning Phoenix how Orange County measures up. He was not without answers.

OC Weekly: How did this all come about? Charles Phoenix: I grew up in Southern California in the '60s and '70s, and we went to Disneyland all the time. I'd say every three months, and, um, it had a profound effect in the way I saw the world. Basically, the highest highs I had, as a child, were at Disneyland—being there. It was this natural high: you didn't quite understand it at the time, but you knew it was the best time you were going to have that month.

As an adult, I started to realize there were places out there that reminded me of Disneyland, themed-environment-type places. I've been going downtown for years and years and years, discovering these rundown, out-of-the-way places.

Like where?

We go to Olvera Street, Chinatown, Clifton's Cafeteria, the Bob Baker Marionettes theater. Chinatown reminds me of Adventureland; Clifton's Cafeteria, with its landscaping inside, is a little bit Frontierland and a little bit Country Bear Jamboree. The Bob Baker Marionettes could easily be in Fantasy Land.

As someone's pointed out, Little Tokyo is the Japanese Deer Park. You can pair real-life situations with fantasy more often than you'd think.

What was—and, maybe, what is—the appeal of Disneyland?

I guess for many people—not for everybody—it's such a comfortable environment. It's time travel, it's fantasy, it's the Nile without little killer bees, it's a ride around the rivers of America on a paddle wheeler without the humidity. They made a perfect little world.

But as an adult, how do you square the park's conservative attitude toward its employees—right down to prescribed mustache lengths—and its laissez-faire attitude toward training and accident prevention?

I don't take it all too seriously. I just divorce myself from the world of big business when I'm there. It doesn't have any effect on me as a visitor. They run a very tight ship there. I think they do a pretty good job, all things considered—all the moving parts, all the things that could go wrong every day.

When was the last time you went to Disneyland?

I only go about every two years. In fact, I'm not even interested in seeing the new attractions when I'm there. I enjoy seeing the same old attractions again and remembering what I got from them.

What's your favorite attraction at Disneyland?

God, that's so tough. I like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, It's a Small World. I love it—I've always loved it. I'll tell you, the message I get from that ride . . . I get the color palette more, the artistry. I don't so much fall for the message. Now I'm just mesmerized by the wacky, psychedelic, mod artwork of it all.

Do you have a favorite destination in downtown Los Angeles?

Olvera Street is, maybe, my favorite place in the entire city. You can go shopping, go eating, have your picture taken on a stuffed donkey there, go to museums, find merchandise. And if you blur your eyes ever so slightly, you could be in 1940. It's the oldest preserved, themed environment. And it's doing pretty well.

Charles Phoenix's Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles starts at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, (866) 754-3374; www.godblessamericana.com/fieldtrips. Sun., noon-6 p.m. $65.

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