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Mr. Phoenix's Wild Ride

Charles Phoenix, the raconteur who performs “retro slide-show tours” of the good life in sun-drenched, prosperity-bound Los Angeles of the ’50s and ’60s, has now turned his eye from interpreting a past frozen in photos to the remnants of bustling city life suspended in the bricks and mortar of downtown L.A. Along with 49 other “tourists,” I meet up with Phoenix on a Sunday morning near the sundial at the main entrance to Union Station, where we’ll board the Gold Line to start his “Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles.” (www.godblessamericana.com/downtown)

But first, the train station. Phoenix, wearing dressed khakis, white bucks and a Mickey Mouse hat with “Charles” embroidered in cursive on the back, speaks into a microphone connected to a megaphone slung over his shoulder. Moving at a clip but talking with the casual confidence of a ’50s high school geography teacher, he marches through the main waiting room, commenting on the incongruity of a giant pair of Baroque loudspeakers in the otherwise flawless Art Deco and Spanish Colonial Revival. “The style police must not have been around when they installed those,” he notes.

Then he’s off, pied piper to the likes of Joanne and Steven Brause, a 50-ish couple from Whittier revisiting their honeymoon days, or Colleen Robinson, a 1940s Hollywood High alum who has brought her daughter and granddaughter along to soak in the history of these streets — from Chungking Road on the western edge of Chinatown, to Olvera Street, down Broadway, around the horn of the garment district and onward to Carroll Avenue and Disney Hall. Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria on Broadway, with its famous theme-park décor of cascading waterfalls and redwoods, is the obvious place to stop for lunch and one of Phoenix’s patented slide shows. Up in the third-floor VIP dining room, over sliced turkey, pickled beets and lime Jell-O, we look at someone’s family photo of Disneyland: four girls in identical dresses standing next to two “street guys,” all waiting for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Says Phoenix, “Those two toughies will ensure that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride will remain Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

Phoenix, who has a knack for seizing on overlooked but telling details in old Kodachrome images and rendering sly judgments on how our parents really lived, is doing something similar downtown: By merely stopping to look, he is seeing. It almost doesn’t matter where he levels his sights or, for that matter, just what it is he sees. Warwick Stone, creative director at the Hard Rock Hotel Casino Las Vegas, saw Phoenix do his “Tiki Festival” show of 1950s Hawaiian-vacation slides, and a later show, which included “a vintage slide of a woman in a completely see-through nightie,” notes Stone ruefully. “And he did five minutes on the shower curtain!” Without Phoenix, Stone admits, he might never have traipsed through downtown. “The problem,” he says, “is people who live in L.A. stay in their neighborhoods.”

No one would say that of Phoenix, who pokes his nose into pockets of downtown no sane tour guide would dare investigate. Like the curvy Winston Street, in the center of the toy district. “Winston Street is kind of rundown, but I have a dream it’ll be turned into, well, a pedestrian mall.” He says this as the bus we’re now on chugs along the narrow street where the principal view is of bums in makeshift toy-box homes. The buildings and the arc of the street are a mere backdrop to this all too up-to-date Dickensian portrait. The diesel roar of our bus has stirred the local populace — and they cast resentful eyes on what must be the first tourist bus ever to trespass their doorsteps.

“Maybe a charming little pedestrian mall down this charming little curved street isn’t so good an idea after all,” Phoenix cheerfully remarks. Still, you have the feeling he’s right: This is a fine street of splendid 1920s storefronts aligned on an easy curve in the very heart of the city. And nobody, save the bums, has noticed for 50 years. Phoenix as well as his tourists now have. Such sidewalk discoveries are the true nucleus of revitalization.

—Greg Goldin