Los Angeles, the happiest place on Earth? With Charles Phoenix as your guide to our most fascinating characters, Frontierland-like outposts and Tomorrowland-style structures, you might just think so. Seen through his kitsch-king/historian bifocals, the similarities between the Magic Kingdom and our shopping malls, landmark buildings and off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods are astounding. Forget about the entertainment industry, Phoenix champions a less phoney, more fun kind of Fantasyland that’s all the more interesting because it isn’t make-believe.
Born in Ontario, California, the 45-year-old son of a used-car salesman really lays on the charm, and yes, a li’l cheese — he often appears in bedazzled outfits capped with a fez or mouse ears — for the crowds that flock to his popular vintage slide spectacles or daylong odysseys, including his “Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles.” But even when his audience is limited to one, conversation with Phoenix at one of his favorite Silver Lake spots — the old-time ice cream parlour/gift shop Zanzabelle on Rowena — is lively, filled with the same passion he holds for his prized Kodachrome slide collection, which he began one life-changing day after unearthing someone’s old vacation slides in a Pasadena thrift shop.
Starting with small presentations in coffeehouses, Phoenix’s slide shows have evolved into variety-show-style extravaganzas that consistently sell out venues like the Egyptian Theatre and the John Anson Ford. His witty narrations are punctuated by retro extras like Hula-Hoop dancers and “cooking” segments — he made that nectar of the ’burbs, the marshmallow-and-canned-fruit concoction known as ambrosia — during the last show we attended. His slides, which Phoenix still digs for in thrift-store bins, have even been grouped together in three big and beautiful coffee-table books.
Interestingly, this flashy fella’s love for Southern California’s pop culture isn’t fueled by mere nostalgia. He looks at places and objects with a designer’s eye (he worked in fashion when he first moved to the city), and he insists he’s not a Disney freak — he only goes to the theme park once every couple of years. So how did he come up with the idea for a Disneyfied downtown L.A.?
“When I first thought of giving a tour, I just went down there and wrote out a list of all the places I wanted to show off and share with people — Clifton’s Cafeteria, Chinatown, Olvera Street and the Bob Baker Marionette Theater — these extreme places,” he recalls. “When I was done, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is totally Disneyland.’ Clifton’s is Frontierland, and the Baker theater is Fantasyland; Olvera and Broadway are kind of like Main Streets. Carroll Avenue [populated with spectacular Victorian homes] is Main Street adjacent, like the side street we never saw. All that, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the castle. It just works.”
He’s planning tributes to his beloved Clifton’s, and maybe a new tour of South L.A. and the Crenshaw district, an area he describes as “an uncelebrated oasis of old L.A.” This weekend (May 17–18), Phoenix is hosting “Moonlight Rollerway Jubilee,” a skate party and slide show at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale.
“I love miniature golf courses, the Watts Towers, bowling alleys, vintage neon signs,” Phoenix says when asked to describe some of his favorite things about L.A. “I love the wrong side of town. I love the rich part of town and the poor part of town. I love making doughnuts and eating doughnuts, taking long, aimless drives around Los Angeles, seeing places that are lost in a time warp, day trips. . . . There’s something interesting around every corner no matter where you go. That I know for sure.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon