While Angelenos were getting pummeled with rain on Friday, attendees of Palm Springs Modernism Week were enjoying sunshine and chrome at the Vintage Travel Trailer Show before heading to Charles Phoenix's Retro Vacation Slide Show Tour of the U.S.A.
Yes, it was the perfect day to mosey through Keith McCormicks's Collector Car Show or browse the Braniff Airline Exhibit, which featured vintage airline advertising and a collection of 14 vintage uniforms, most designed by Pucci and Halston.
The real fun, however, would come later in the evening, in the Riviera's swanky Grand Ballroom with Charles Phoenix's slideshow in full swing.
While ogling vintage Airstream trailers, I chatted with Phoenix about his Kodachrome collection and his loyal fans, who he describes as an “eclectic blend” of individuals between the ages of 35-55.
“When teenagers get it, that's the ultimate compliment,” Phoenix said.
Phoenix, who has been collecting Kodachrome slides for the past 18 years, employs a “slibrarian” to tend to his ever-growing collection every Wednesday.
Phoenix compares digging through hundreds of slides from the 1940s-1960s to “panning for gold… looking for information and elements of great photography”, and believes “great photography is accidental”.
Midway through our conversation, a modern-day rockabilly greaser and his wife, who was also decked out in 1950s garb– complete with vintage cat eye glasses and red lipstick–spotted Phoenix.
The couple had seen Phoenix's shows and was eager to tell him about their collection of vintage snapshots, which they also sell.
Phoenix graciously chatted with the couple, who invited him to camp on their property overlooking majestic Redwood trees. Invitations like these are not uncommon to Phoenix, whose many followers feel a personal connection with him.
To an outsider, Phoenix's slideshows would appear to be a jolly family reunion, featuring outtakes of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. So it's no surprise when fans of Phoenix approach him in order share their latest off-the-wall recipe or failed Cherpumple or Inchezonya attempt. (For those who are unfamiliar with Charles Phoenix, the chef, both are delicious edible hybrids of foods).
After the couple left, I asked Phoenix whether he has a favorite slide. Although Phoenix cannot pinpoint a favorite image, he said all of the images he uses in his slideshows are among his favorites.
“Someone once told me, 'The art of being a good collector is being a good editor,'” Phoenix said.
“I collect an era, not a subject.”
Friday night's show was a collection Phoenix described as an “alphabet soup” of slides he started collecting in 1992, and featured roadside attractions, family vacation destinations and World's Fairs, among many other moments of mid-century leisure.
Later that evening, Phoenix entered The Grand Ballroom wearing his “3-D suit”, a custom-made ensemble that is half red and half blue, topped off with one of his signature long-tailed bowties, of course.
Modernism fans ooh-ed and ahh-ed over slides featuring atomic decor and Googie architecture.
Most of the slides would be amusing without commentary but, with the right amount of attention to oddity, Phoenix knows how to take a giggle to a guffaw.
Throughout the show, Phoenix gave anonymous characters colorful names like “Mrs. Pole Hugger” and “Pokey”. Friday night's show was a bit more risqué than usual and included some adult humor.
In every show, facts on Americana landmarks are inserted between humorous banter. When a sign from a Holiday Inn in Joplin, Missouri appeared onscreen with the words “Operated by Mickey Mantle”, Phoenix shared this factoid with the audience:
When business partner Harold Youngman asked Mantle to create a slogan to advertise the chicken they served at their Holiday Inn, Mantle came up with this: “To get a better piece of chicken, you'd have to be a rooster.” The crowd roared with laughter.
Other fan favorites included a series of oddball photographs shot by a Las Vegas showgirl and her husband. First the slides seemed innocent and showed the couple painting the trim on their love nest in the middle of the desert. However, a hilarious twist of circumstance occurred during the succession of slides, and now the audience viewed the showgirl on her hands and knees, wearing a brassiere and gorilla mask. Cut to an image of hubby striking a Tarzan pose in red Speedo and the laughter grew even louder.
Phoenix's comedic talent shone brightest when drawing attention to the hidden quirkiness of the more subtle slides. With Phoenix's help, our attention was drawn to the child's rifle behind a stack of luggage during a photo opp at the airport or the five pound block of Crisco on a kitchen table littered with cigarette boxes.
When an image of an adolescent girl wearing lopsided knee socks appeared onscreen toward the end of the show, Phoenix remarked: “Couldn't two… fifteen… 75 of us start wearing them again? Please?” And he's serious. Phoenix is currently on a crusade to bring back saddle shoes.
Phoenix signed copies of his book “Americana the Beautiful: Mid-century Culture in Kodachrome” and posed for photos with fans after the show.
If you're itching for an Americana road trip of your own this spring, here are Charles Phoenix's FAVORITE FIVE kitschy destinations:
1. Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles, CA
2. Casa Bonita in Denver, CO
3. Mai-Kai Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, FL
4. Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, MO
5. Pioneer Village in Minden, NE
Safe travels, Americanans!