If you see a bespectacled man, gray at the temples but dressed in exuberantly colored retro threads, inhaling a classic wiener at Superdawg, shoring up his mini-golf game at the outlandish Par-King in Lincolnshire or enjoying five flavors at Original Rainbow Cone in Beverly, chances are you’ve bumped into Charles Phoenix. The self-described pop-culture humorist, author, entertainer and food crafter plans to hit our city’s kitschiest spots en route to his Big Retro Slide Show Thursday 20 at Columbia’s Film Row Cinema, where he’ll present a Kodachrome slideshow presentation on pop-culture Chicago, then and now. “I tend to make humor out of history,” Phoenix says.
Classic Americana runs deep through Phoenix’s veins. He was born in Ontario, California, a suburb connected to SoCal’s vast and sprawling Inland Empire. When he was growing up, his father owned a used car lot. “Most of the cars on the lot had big, giant tail fins and looked like rocket ships,” says Phoenix, who started hanging out at the lot at age four and absorbed everything about the style and make of each vehicle. Meanwhile, his mother started dragging him to antique malls, and while searching for a cowboy shirt at a thrift store, Phoenix had an epiphany. “I discovered thrift shops to be museums of merchandise, schools of style and the perfect place to study the underbelly of our mass consumerism culture,” he says. “I basically saw thrift stores as a place to learn.” Not surprisingly, Disneyland was another source of fascination.
But it was a box of old Kodachrome slides marked “trip across the United States 1957” that Phoenix discovered in 1992 that inspired a career switch. “I opened up the box and started holding a few of the slides up to the light and said, this is a real treasure,” says the former car salesman and fashion designer. “Each of these slides is like a window back in time.” Phoenix started collecting vintage Kodachrome slides by the thousands and when he finally put a show together for an audience, it was laughing just three frames into it. Phoenix hasn’t looked back since.
In Chicago, Phoenix will arrive several days ahead of his presentation and hit up as many classic and kitschy local joints as he can. It’s not just retro that inspires Phoenix, but all things steeped in Americana. “I kind of have these theme-park Kodachrome glasses that I look through when I’m looking for this stuff,” Phoenix says. “I’m looking for places with deep roots, places where when you walk through the door you have to ask yourself, what decade are we in here?”
Phoenix will then retreat to his hotel room for an intense eight or nine hours where he’ll sift through vintage slides of our city (he says his Chicago collection is extensive) and couple them with shots from recent days on the town to create a show. “It’s kind of like a stand-up comic routine really. [It’s] whatever’s on my mind that day.”
Phoenix has appeared on both Martha Stewart and Conan to showcase his food-crafting hobby (his multilayered cherpumple is apparently quite the delicious hit), authored numerous books including Americana the Beautiful: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome and Southern California in the ’50s: Sun, Fun and Fantasy and leads niche field trips like the upcoming “Carpenters: Yesterday Once More, a Field Trip” in Downey, California. But for all his nostalgia for Americana during its midcentury heyday, Phoenix prefers the present. “I think I would be horrified,” he says. “One thing we don’t see in the photos or if we do see it we don’t want to acknowledge it is what a repressed and conformist society it was. I’m happy to be alive today.”
Charles Phoenix presents his Big Retro Slide Show Thursday 20 at Columbia’s Film Row Center.