For someone so singularly, well, singular, it’s amazing how many people retro impresario Charles Phoenix gets compared with. His boyish enthusiasm and tendencies toward sartorial garishness recall Pee Wee Herman while his tendencies toward singular purpose in the kitchen—he was a judge on “Cake Wars”—recall Martha Stewart. There is his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Southern California, which connects him to DJ Waldie and his all-encompassing embrace of all that is kitsch begets John Waters.
None of them really capture the man, the self-proclaimed “Ambassador of Americana.” After all, no one he is compared to has created the glorious affront that is his “Cherpumple,” a three-layer cake/pie hybrid with cherry, apple and pumpkin pie baked into layers of differently flavored of cake that has been hailed/accused by food writers of being “awesome and absolutely offensive” right before they asked for a second slice.
No, Charles Phoenix is absolutely best at being Charles Phoenix and, Saturday, January 12, he will be doing that which first brought him to notice: the retro slide show/one-man comedic performances that have informed and entertained audiences for more than 20 years.
Saturday’s show at the Petroleum Club will be an encore performance of “Long Beachland.” His shows are painstakingly constructed with Phoenix going through about 3,000 Kodachrome slides from the 50s and 60s to get one usable frame, a process he calls “gold panning.” The hard work, though, is never seen in his performance which appears effortless and, in a way, is.
“I’ve really been doing this my whole life,” he said. “This is just a me, doing me kinda thing.”
As is usually the case with his performances, the Long Beach show sold out quickly. (If you’d like to catch him live, he has shows coming up in Whittier and Palm Springs in February, click here for more information.) Of course, you can also catch Phoenix on TV or on a walking tour or through one of his books, he’ll be signing copies of his latest Addicted to Americana after Saturday’s performance.
We caught up with him while he was driving. How very Southern California …
So where are you headed?
Laurel Canyon to work on a book about Christmas. I love tradition, I think we all do and for the last 100 years, Christmas traditions have pretty much remained the same; we’ve kind of stuck to it. I mean, when you think of it, there really is no new Christmas traditions besides the ugly Christmas sweater.
See, that’s kind of a history book and you’re able to get people to come out and listen to you talk about history and make it entertaining and …
Oh, I never say the “H” word. No, no, no, no. Never. Not when you’re in the business of it. History, and art, in this country they don’t have a lot of value; they are archaic words. But if you say “retro” or “old school” or “old-timey,” suddenly people are receptive, especially younger people. They become mad for the stuff, it’s amazing. I see so many people suddenly get into mid-century modern, you know, but you don’t say art you say “design” and “style.”
What kind of “retro” will people be seeing and hearing about Saturday?
It will be a combination of images from the 40s, 50s and 60s from my collection of Kodachrome, a massive archive of vintage slides. I love doing the Long Beach shows because, when it comes to retro, really, Long Beach is unequaled; it’s absolutely world class. What other city has a “Retro Row”?
What’s your own history with the city?
My dad grew up in Long Beach and lived there until he was 14. My grandparents lived there from 1938 to 1952 and had a couple of businesses, and they were always talking about Long Beach. ‘Long Beach this,’ and ‘Long Beach that,’ and always about The Pike, it would always end up at The Pike.
Man, my Dad used to go to The Pike when he was in Navy and then he took me there when I was a kid in the ’60s. I thought we were going to Disneyland but when we got there, it wasn’t Disneyland. It was kinda scary.
Oh yeah, it was creepy for years. It wasn’t built as a family place. No, The Pike is legendary. And that’s what I love about Long Beach, it has that kind of background, such a such a wide variety of things, I love to see the evolution of that city, it’s very different from the ‘90s. It’s really been zhuzhed, hasn’t it? Cleaned up, a lot of the stores and houses have been restored, it’s one gorgeous neighborhood after the other.
I know, and yet Long Beach kind of has an inferiority complex, don’t you think? Or, maybe it’s better to say the feeling that it’s being overlooked?
I love Long Beach, but a lot of people don’t know about it or understand it. One thing Long Beach needs is a PR department. What New Jersey is to New York,’ that’s what Long Beach is to L.A.: overlooked, dismissed, and unfairly so. It’s true, and that’s because a lot of people from L.A. are snobs and they don’t know what they’re missing. Long Beach is just loaded with heart and soul.
When you said the city had been zhuzhed, you were saying that makes you sad?
Oh, the reality is there is no turning around the freight train, we move forward, Long Beach has a very diverse population, it’s very international, the culture and the cuisine prove that. That’s not what I’m focusing on in this show, my material, we go a lot of places that have vintage stuff, strong pop culture connections.
And, well, for the first time I’ll be covering the Autoette! They were made in Long Beach and I’m obsessed with them, I look for them everywhere. They’re like wild animals and I’m tracking them down.