Charles Phoenix is one of Los Angeles’ civic treasures. He is a lifelong Southern California resident, and has a major ongoing love affair with the L.A. area. And while he does host a wonderful tour of present-day downtown, most of his work has focused on the Kodachrome era: Southern California during the years when Kodachrome slides were used to capture and show the wonders of this region to the folks who couldn’t see it for themselves. The word I seem to have picked up is “histo-tainer”.
Kodachrome slides are the inspiration behind the two slideshows that Charles Phoenix has put together, which are full-fledged performance art as presented and narrated by him. He collects slides, at thrift stores, garage and estate sales, anywhere they turn up. I learned this for the first time last year, at his Retro Slideshow of Southern California, a two hour production at the Ford Ampitheater. And I saw his second show ten days ago, when I went to the Retro Disneyland slideshow, a show of Disneyland slides from 1955 to 1967. We all like Disneyland, some of us more than others – but I think few people love being there like Charles Phoenix does.
The Retro Disneyland Slideshow was, appropriately, at REDCAT downtown. Which was, to quote Mr Phoenix, “in the belly of the Disney Center”, which, itself, is the “Magic Castle” of downtown L.A. The show started with a ten minute video, a condensed film version of the Downtown L.A. Disneyland Tour, correlating features in downtown Los Angeles with their Disneyland counterparts (“this burger place is a perfect LOG CABIN, right out of Frontierland!”) And the video was laced throughout with spontaneous comments related to chance sightings of people in outfits that could be satirized. (“And there goes the Abominable Snowman!”, he remarks, as a woman in an oversized white fake fur coat goes by.)
But the slideshow itself was what we REALLY came for. And this is where Charles Phoenix excels. He related his own personal experiences in the park, and as the audience nodded and laughed in appreciation, his anecdotes of Disneyland in the 1960s became representative of the Southern California collective memory. This was Disneyland in its first dozen years, in vivid Kodachrome, but it was also the Disneyland that many people in the audience remembered.
The best part of these slideshows is, of course, the commentary. Charles Phoenix is a genius at spotting the details of people in a scene, in a slide, and remarking on them. “And look at THIS lady! She’s wearing curlers in her hair at Disneyland!” Or he’ll comment on the effect of the decor. (“I don’t know who was channeling the 70s for the House of Tomorrow in 1955, but didn’t they do a marvellous job?”) But many of the details he remarks on are funny because they’re from an everyday life that’s long gone. It’s duck tail hairdos and white gloves; it’s the Chicken of the Sea Tuna ship and the old character outfits. It’s things that have disappeared, that we would never see in 2006, that were ordinary enough at the time to be in regular vacation slides.
After the slideshow, the Encino-native friend I went with and I immediately got on our cell phones to call our L.A.-native parental units. Because her dad, and my mom, had both been at Disneyland in the years soon after it opened, and we had to call them, to tell them that we’d seen the park as they would have seen it. And it’s amazing, how last minute, low-budget and barely held together the park was when it opened, in contrast to the slick, corporate entity that it is today. But because I love Disneyland, I think it still holds some of the same idealism and optimism, that desire to create wonder and imagination in its vistors. And Charles Phoenix brings out that side of the park in his slideshow, the Magic Kingdom when it was still such a novelty as to be magical.
If you get a chance to see a Charles Phoenix slideshow, I say go. Do not wait. Buy tickets. Go now. First of all, you will laugh, at the fashion and decor commentary if nothing else. Second, you will get to see a piece of SoCal, or Disneyland, or L.A., as it was at a very different, very optimistic time in its history. I like that.
More info is at the Official Charles Phoenix Web Event: God Bless Americana on upcoming events. Trust me. Anything you see with this man will be fabulous.
(Photo credit goes to my adopted cousin Anton, for the wonderful shot taken on the Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles)