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Interview: Charles Phoenix, King of Kitsch

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At 45 years old, Charles Phoenix has achieved a sort of legendary status in Southern California and beyond. Though he is well known for his Disneyland tours of Los Angeles, Phoenix has toured this country in search of the kitschiest cities and most vibrant offenders of class. His travels have brought him to Tulsa, Portland and Denver, which he calls the most kitschy city in the nation. But he calls Silver Lake home and has devoted extensive hours to documenting the history of Los Angeles and its environs in the most unique way one can.

On Jan 18, Phoenix is slated to host the 32nd Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena, a wacky take on the annual Tournament of Roses Parade where costumes are encouraged and tortillas are thrown to show gratitude. We started our conversation talking about the parade.

Why did you accept the invitation to lead the Doo Dah Parade?

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I figured it was a logical stepping stone to my ultimate goal in life, which is to be the Grand Marshall of the Rose Parade.

What happens after you become Grand Marshall? What's next?

That's a good question. I guess my life - I guess I can just do nothing. No, seriously, I am really, really interested in the history and tradition of the Rose Parade. I think it's so underrated. It's an incredibly detailed crafts project; each float is a floral craft's project, I just think they are amazing. I'm excited to be in the Doo Dah Parade so I can get closer to the Rose Parade.

I imagine the Doo Dah Parade and, to a greater extent the Rose Parade have to appeal to your sense of history.

Yes, definitely. The Rose Parade is both classic and kitsch; they don't know how kitschy it is I don't think and the Doo Dah Parade is obviously nothing but kitsch and a weird oddball spectacle. I didn't tell the organizers of the Doo Dah Parade this, but I've only seen it once, though I have an idea what it's like.

How did that collaboration between you and the Doo Dah organizers come about?

The organizers of the parade have known of my work for a while and Ive been in touch with them several times about things but we never did do anything together. So, finally, when I guess they needed to find somebody to be the Grand Marshall, they said, Well, let's just get him. They called me and I'm really excited to plan my rig going down the street. I'm hoping for quite a little procession.

What will that procession look like?

I immediately thought, I need a classic mid-century car pulling a classic mid-century trailer. That's the core of my rig, of my part of the parade. I called my friend who has a classic trailer and also has a classic car, which happens to be pretty interesting - a 1964 Ford station wagon that was special ordered by the fire department, so it's red with sirens on top. It' like a Fire Marshall's car. So, I'm going to be standing on top of that. We're trying to get the Dalmatian Club to walk their Dalmatian's in front of the fire house station wagon pulling a trailer and we are probably going to have a bunch of skaters from the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale. We're also hoping to have the Glendora Scott's, which is a radically themed Scottish themed marching band with bagpipes and everything. I'm not sure the status of all of these, but I know the 1964 red station wagon with the sirens on top, that is for sure.

This sounds fantastical and totally kitschy, much like your approach to tours and to a certain extent slides. But one of the things I was struck by when I met you and took your tour was your serious love of history and Los Angeles. Talk about that dichotomy.

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Thank you for bringing that up. Here's my situation: The core of all of my schtick is all from the heart and all from the passion of my interest in not only local culture but American culture. Period. And I think that if I'm going to show you slides, or take you on a tour or take you on a parade, it's gotta come from the heart. It's gotta be made with love.

The other thing is, it's gotta be entertaining, it's gotta be theatrical. My thing is truth in theater. That's my schtick. I'm telling you the truth - I'm very enthusiastic because I love what I'm sharing with you, otherwise I wouldn't be sharing it with you. Enthusiasm is my theater. It's true and honest and I genuinely revere the things I am sharing with you.

You've taken your show on the road many times. You've been to Tulsa and Denver among other places. What city or state would you say is the most “American” or kitschy?

Well, Southern California aside, since Southern California to me is it's own universe. You could compare it nothing. No place else on Earth is like Southern California. But when you get outside of Southern California? Definitely Denver is the kitsch capital of the United States. Never mind the rest of Colorado, but when you get to Denver it's one radically themed environment after another starting with Casa Bonita, that giant Mexican restaurant. It's a kitsch fest of the highest order. It's a restaurant desperately trying to be a theme park. The other part that I love about it so much is that it was built in 1974 and they have touched nothing. It is a time warp.

So shag décor and wood panels on the wall?

It's much more costumed than that. It's several themed, eight or so themed dining rooms on two floors basically in a horseshoe themed pattern overlooking the focal point of the entire restaurant, which is a cliff with waterfalls. They have cliff divers come out and girls with bikinis come out and push a guy with a gorilla suit in the water. It's just completely absurd. People in Denver are like, my God, they have the worst Mexican food and, I mean, if you don't like melted Velveeta over everything don't go there. But people don't go there for the experience.

Cliff diver at Casa Bonita, not from Charles Phoenix.

The interior, with its theme and cliffs, sort of reminds me of Clifton's Cafeteria which hasn't changed in like 70 years.

Yeah, it's very much the Clifton's of Colorado. Our Clifton's, in Downtown L.A. Is such an underrated landmark of Los Angeles, It's a cultural institution of the absolute highest order. It's from 1935, it is virtually - the essence of it is exactly as it was in 1935, I mean not exactly but it's as close as it can possibly be. It is a living museum of it's own self.


The food presentation of Clifton's is practically an art installation that happens every single day (right).

Given that your interest in Americana is so well documented, I'm wondering what you think of the Americana in Glendale?

I think it's definitely in the tradition of this kitsch cultural style we have; it's pure theater, it's pure costume, it's pure facade. It's a fantasy themed environment. I can appreciate it on that level and on the level that it's a total immersion environment. But I'm not really their customer who they're shooting for. But I did go over there the other night to see the snow.

How was that?

It was a little disappointing because there was no one there.

Well, that brings up an interesting point, I think. The Americana, like other places that thrive on consumers, has been hit by the economy. Because you rely on people to pay for the tours and pay for the roller way, have you been hit at all by the recession?

Not that I know of. I'm just going to forge ahead, celebrating classic kitsch American culture no matter how bad the economy gets. I don't really know how to do much else.

And what about the Disneyland Tours?

I've kind of tapered off on the tours because I've been doing them for four years. I am looking to expand [leading tours] in other cities. I've kind of done the L.A. thing. I'm not saying I'll never do it again but I'm not sure if I'm going to be doing the Disneyland tour of Downtown Los Angeles anymore. It just happened to be a good idea and it was very well received by the tourists.


Charles Phoenix leading a May 2008 tour at the wishing well in Chinatown. Photo by Jeremy Oberstein.

What other cities are you looking to tour?

I'm going to be doing a tour of Pasadena in the spring. Actually, it's Pasadena, Alta Dena and San Mareno. Im calling it the Dena, Dena, Reno tour. My big challenge with the Pasadena tour is that there is absolutely no giant, road house restaurant to bring 50 people to that can be served quickly.

We've spoken in the past about your love of the San Fernando Valley. What about a tour there?

Yeah, I'm a big fan of the San Fernando Valley but I don't really see a tour, per se, there. I'm just glad for the valley that the stigma of - oooh, the valley - has completely faded from our opinion landscape. Remember the '80s when everybody bad mouthed the valley? It's like 15 minutes from the big bad city. What are you complaining about?

What do you look for when selecting slides?

I look for something unusual. I look for an unusual combination of elements. I look for, you know, something that says something. It has to be unique, there has to be a reason to show a slide, to share a slide. We don't just want to see the normal person standing in front of the Grand Canyon. It has to be almost falling in or wearing something completely bizarre. It's sort of hard to put my finger on it. There just has to be something extreme, something memorable. My goal is basically an image that is memorable, that is worth talking about. A slide has to tell a story or inspire a story or inspire a question.


Charles Phoenix’s May 15, 2008, Slide of the Week: Skating Ass, Indio, CA 1960 via Losanjealous.

You mine through thrift stores to get some slides, right?

Yeah, I've tapered off a little on that. I've been doing slide shows for 10 years, so I'm trying to put my eggs in other baskets and not just be completely always the slide guy. But I still do visit slide collections and they come to me and I come to them. We're still together.

How has your approach changed with the advancement of technology, where people can just grab photos from the Internet without mining through baskets of images in stores and other physical locations?

Out of the hundred of slide shows I've done, I've only done two digitally. I'm going to have to ultimately change over to do it digitally because the slide projectors are kind of - I'm wearing my slide projector out. The real reason why is that some of he venues I play now are so big that the home slide projector just does not throw the picture that far. That's really the only reason for me to switch over. I'm into the romance of looking at the Kodachrome. To me that is special. Digital projection: not that special. What I have really found is when I've done the digital projection, the audience doesn't seem to notice a difference. They aren't going for one projection or another, they are going for a show.

If you were to compile a visual catalog of Los Angeles now, what would you include?

The visual catalog of Los Angeles is so infinite. I actually think it's more infinite than any other city in the world. I've not been everywhere, but this is the ultimate melting pot on Earth, Im pretty sure. Not just people wise, but design wise. That kind of started in th [19]20's, when fantasy-themed style really took hold here. We have the movie industry in part to thank for that. We also have the fact that people have been coming here form all over the world for so long. It would be so hard to nail this city down. It would take a lifetime to compile the ultimate guide to Los Angeles.

Have you ever been approached by any one in the state, county or city government to be a sort of steward for Southern California history. If not, would you be interested in something like that?

No, I've never been asked, but I'm not really interested in getting involved with the government. I am very independent. I am happy to do it my way. I only answer to myself and my customers. I don't really answer to the government or the mayor or the city manager or whatever.

Do you consider yourself a historian or an entertainer?

My presentation about history is theatrical. So, am I historian or am I an entertainer? I'm not really an entertainer, but I'm not really a historian either. I kind of try to blend the two because to me I'm trying to present history as entertainment and entertainment as history.

Do you run the risk, though, of people not taking you seriously and looking past the history, or the message, to focus solely on the show.

Well, at times, I feel myself being a little more entertaining. But I think basically the bottom line is, you do learn and you are enriched by the experience. It's kind of my way of preserving our culture and educating people about our culture. Or, pieces of our culture. I try to reach the people. I mean, it's all about keeping their attention and keeping them focused on what I'm talking about. If that means we have to laugh to do it, then that's what we'll do. I feel my strongest suit is engaging the people. The thing that I am most proud of is that I feel I have a way of talking with people that engages them. One of the ways I do that is by having some facts but not being too heavy with them. I have Attention Deficit Order really bad and that has served me in this. I want history to be interesting because that is the best way to learn.

So, historian or entertainer?

I would have to say entertainer. It just so happens that as an entertainer, history is my schtick.

What's an average day like for Charles Phoenix?

I have a pretty normal life. I like to go out a lot and experience all places around Southern California as much as possible. I like to keep up with what's happening, what's changing, what's evolving, what's staying the same, what's not staying the same. I like to look at neighborhoods. I am an explorer and I'm seeking new things to share that further the understanding of their own world.

What about the Holiday Jubilee? How long have you been hosting and producing the show?

This is the seventh year and every year I try to up the ante. This year is at the Moonlight Rollerway. The first act of the show is my holiday slide show which is found Kodachrome slides from the [19]50's and [19]60's and we celebrate all the holidays throughout the year. It's a lot of fun. The second act is a stage show spectacular: musical costume reviews featuring 16 champion skaters in the variety of costume acts. Each scene is celebrating one for each holiday of the year, including my personal favorite, Cinco de Mayo. So, I'm really thrilled.

What other holidays do you celebrate?

Let's see, we do: New Year's, Valentine's Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Like everything else you do, it sounds pretty spectacular. Were there any thoughts this year of cutting back?

No. I couldn't do that. Granted, this was the most excessive show and most elaborate show I have every done, but I can't cut back. If I do cut back, you wouldn't know it. It will not be obvious.

Are you still confident people will pay $35?

I don't mean to toot my own horn, but there is no extravagant holiday show around for $35. People pay all kinds of ticket prices for things these days; people go to the Music Center for $100. What you're going to get in my show for $35 is a lot of heat and soul, a real honest show. It's a lot of show for the money.

All photos by Jeremy Oberstein, except for slide and Charles Phoenix with the American flag, which was taken by Chris Haston.