Charles Phoenix — the so-called Ambassador of Americana — has turned nostalgia in a successful cottage industry. Still, the SoCal native clarifies, “I don't want to live back in time — I just want to kind of be able to touch it. And by doing what I do, I can.”
After discovering a box of old Kodachrome slides — labeled “Trip Across the United States, 1957” — at a local thrift store, Phoenix, a graduate of fashion school, began amassing a collection of thousands of slides at thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales. In the late '90s, he hosted his first Retro Slideshow, and has continued to host them ever since (he says they're the “bread and butter” of being Ambassador of Americana).
Part of what's led to the popularity of Phoenix's slideshows is the presentation. In filmmaker Matthew Kaundart's short documentary, Phoenix explains, “I do consider myself a performer and it is a performance — it happens to come from the heart, it's all real, it's all true, but I have a responsibility to make everything larger than life. Not lying about it but kind of making it bigger than it is. In doing so, I become bigger.” But there are also the slides themselves, each one a window into a specific place at a specific time as captured by an unknown person — they're basically strangers' memories, preserved and projected on a wall for our amusement.
Besides the slideshows, Phoenix's nostalgia biz has expanded to include books, a walking tour of downtown L.A. and a bus tour of midcentury modern architecture in Palm Springs (sorry, folks — all three days are sold out for this weekend's Modernism Week preview). But there's plenty more nostalgia where that came from. —Gwynedd Stuart