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The LAist Interview: Charles Phoenix

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"Histo-tainer" Charles Phoenix dazzles audiences with images and stories that would otherwise be lost to the landfill and the winds of time. An avid collector of slides, photographs, and other historic memorabilia, Charles generously showcases his archived treasures of Americana with the public. The side-splittingly hilarious narrated slide shows provide fascinating insights into our regional experience. They also serve as the best visual vehicle for learning the histories of those two hallowed Southern California institutions: the Rose Parade and Disneyland. While Charles's collection is heavily based on the lives and (mis)adventures of Californians, his Retro Vacation Slide Show Tour of the USA covers the rest of the nation.

His performances and slide selections improve with time, a fact to which Charles's fans who attend multiple performances every year can attest. Charles's sense of humor is one-in-million. Yet his ability to treat the subjects of his slides with the utmost dignity and respect earns him props.

And who else but Charles has the incredible power to transform Downtown Los Angeles into Disneyland?

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He’s also the author of numerous books, including the recent Southern Californialand: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome (Angel City Press, 2004) and Southern California in the 50s: Sun, Fun, and Fantasy (Angel City Press, 2001).

If you haven't seen a Charles Phoenix show yet, LAist advises you run, don’t walk. Be prepared to laugh your ass off (pardon the crude phrase, but it's something we all need to do) when you go see the Retro Slide Show of Southern California at the Egyptian Theater this weekend. If you're already booked, you can catch up with Charles during his Retro Holiday show stint starting later this month.

1. Age and Occupation:

41, author and showman

2. Where are you from?

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Ontario, California

3. How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and what neighborhood do you live in?

I moved to LA 22 years when I was 19. I’ve lived in the same apartment in Silver Lake 17 years.

4. After years of collecting other people’s slides, how did you finally get your Retro Slide Shows started?

One almost seven years ago one night while I was having a slide show in my living room a friend suggested that I do a show at the California Map and Travel Center in West Los Angeles. When I went over there and talked to the owners about showing other people’s old slides they insisted that no one would ever be interested in looking at other peoples old slides. I’ve been doing retro slide shows ever since.

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5. You profess a devotion to all things vintage. Is there anything new or something that's been updated that you like better than vintage?

Well, I like the convenience of cell phones.

6. Which other cities have you brought your show on the road to? Is there any sort of discernable difference between Los Angeles audiences and those in other cities?

I've performed in many cities around the country; New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and Scottsdale to name a few. No matter where I go, audiences seem to really enjoy my retro slide shows. Perhaps they have mass appeal.

7. Do you encourage people to take slide photos instead of digital so that you'll have future material?

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Slide photography is quickly fading away. After 68 years Kodak is discontinuing Kodachrome slide film this year.

8. What's your preferred mode of transportation?

Any American car, 1957-61.

9. How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?

To me a ride on Los Angeles Metro is like a ride at Disneyland. A trip on the Goldline from Union Station to Chinatown was part of my "Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles" earlier this year. It's like riding the Monorail.

10. What's your favorite movie or TV show that's based in L.A.?

Without question: "Dragnet" and "Adam-12."

11. What's the best place to walk in L.A.?

There are so many...the hills of Silver Lake, Venice Canals, Naples in Long Beach, Huntington Gardens in San Marino, Descanso Gardens in La Canada, anywhere downtown. You can see so much more by foot.

12. It's 9:30 AM on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where
are you going?

I've just come from having Huevos Rancheros at Maria's Café at the Midtown Bowl on San Vicente. It's an amazing late 50s Coffee Shop. Then on my way to pick up slides from some estate sale. Then to Farmer's Market for a lunch meeting over Mexican, French, Korean, Brazilian food. Or, when the mood strikes me a good 'ol pastrami sandwich at Magee's. Then on the way out I stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables.

13. If you could live in L.A. during any era, when would it be?

It would have to be anytime between the late 20s thru the early 60s.

14. What's your beach of choice?

I'm not much of a beachgoer - burn really fast! When I was a little kid we went to Alamitos Bay in Long Beach and Huntington Beach.

15. What is the "center" of L.A. to you?

The freeway four-stack downtown - which was the first highway high-rise in the world. It was built in 1953.

16. If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which
would you choose?

I prefer Los Angeles County, but I guess it would have to be San Bernardino. It's the closest.

17. If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?

My favorite house in LA is on Silver Ridge in Silverlake. It's a 1958 three story glass box trimmed in turquoise Venetian tile and perched on the side of a hill. The view of the Golden State and Glendale Freeway interchange is spectacular.

Or, a sprawling ranch house in Van Nuys -- which by the way is the new Sherman Oaks.

18. What is the city's greatest secret?

Bob Baker's Marionette Puppet Theater at the corner of First and Glendale in Downtown Los Angeles. The puppet shows are intoxicating and have been going on there since 1961.

19. Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?

I don't drink much, I can't stand hangovers. When I do get a little tipsy I just wait 'til it passes and then I drive home.

20. Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and/or long winters?

I've lived in SoCal my whole life so I'm familiar with earthquakes. Hurricanes seem much scarier.

21. Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

In a plane.