Charles Phoenix teaches American history.
But not in the usual sense.
With his horn-rimmed glasses, sparkly Jell-O colored suits and Kodachrome slides, the fashion school graduate and former car salesman has created a unique brand—performance artist, humorist and documentarian. Phoenix’s lesson plans are also purposefully narrow: he focuses on pop culture of the 1950s and ‘60s, spotlighting kitschy decorating, dining and entertainment. Phoenix makes these “lectures” accessible on all of the usual social media platforms, where he’s also known as The Ambassador of Americana.
Phoenix’s curriculum also gently lampoons the odd food of those decades, when veggie gelatin molds and potato-chip casseroles ruled the day.
To this end, he creates bizarre-but-tasty-dishes.
I’ve made the fried cereal mix (there’s an entire stick of butter), and thought of trying the Frosty the Cheeseball Man dip (using Velveeta and cream cheese, it’s shaped like a snowman). But Phoenix is perhaps best known for the Cherpumpel—an eye-popping three-layer cake with a different pie (cherry, pumpkin and apple) stuck between each layer. He has penned eight coffee table books as well, with titles including Addicted to Americana, Fabulous Las Vegas in the ‘50s and God Bless Americana.
However, Phoenix’s fans like him best in person.
I was lucky enough to be given a ticket to one of Phoenix’s shows earlier this month. So, alongside hundreds of other devotees (many wrapped in blinking Christmas lights), I arrived at the perfect venue, a vintage art deco movie theatre that opened in 1942.
Here, I saw what Phoenix calls “the bread and butter” of his career—a two-hour, Kodachrome slide show, this one titled Retro Holiday Jubilee. (Other shows, all with slides in the starring role, have included mid-century homages to Hawaii, Route 66 and Disneyland.)
Projecting hundreds of bright images on a huge screen, all snapped from a time when millions of Americans had big cameras and carousel slide projectors, Phoenix riffed about each slide with humor and joy. The audience saw siblings lined up in homemade Halloween costumes; living rooms adorned with cabbage wallpaper and aluminum Christmas trees, and long-gone roadside amusement parks.
Originally, Phoenix intended that the slides—his collection now numbers in the thousands and comes from every state—be presented in a straightforward and serious way. But the pictures’ inherent kitsch caused so much laughter from early audiences that he restructured the show to make it comedic, often using the catch phrase “I know!”
Phoenix never imagined that he’d make a living out of his obsession for Americana, which started when he was a teenager buying vintage clothes in the Los Angeles suburb of Ontario.
But in 1992, when Phoenix was 30 years old and selling classic cars, he walked into a Pasadena thrift store.
There, he came across a blue shoebox labeled “Trip Across the United States, 1957.” Packed with Kodachrome slides of an unidentified family’s vacation photos, Phoenix remembers opening the container, putting the first slide up to the light, and seeing what appeared to be a halo.
“I just knew, right away, that this was a whole new world for me to discover,” says Phoenix. “I put the slide back in the box, went to the cash register, and haven’t looked back since.” Soon after, he began scouring other thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales to find more of the same. “They’re everywhere,” he says. “People couldn’t delete photos back then.”
Phoenix is 55 years old now, but isn’t slowing down.
He no longer has to buy slides; he finds boxes of them at his door. Phoenix’s new book Holiday Jubilee is set for release next year, and he’s on tour through at least January. So far, the shows are only in California, but a couple of years ago, Phoenix performed in the United Kingdom and New York City.
One show I’d like to see is next month: it’s called Long Beachland, and will feature slides of Long Beach, the city where I grew up, and a stone’s throw from Ontario.
Because the event (in Long Beach, of course) will be at a smaller location than the movie house I went to, there’s an added plus: Phoenix will serve one of his signature cakes. It might be the candy cane swirl with Tiffany blue frosting; then again, it could be his whipped cream Christmas volcano cake, or even the famous Cherpumpel.
Charles Phoenix and wild homemade cake, together.
What a terrific way to start the New Year.
Who are your favorite onstage performers?