Arts / Culture / History

MelloCharles Phoenix "Ambassador of Americana" To Make His Long Beach Debut

by Joe Mello, Community Correspondent


(September 30, 2012) -- The nationally famous author, humorist and self described "food crafter" Charles Phoenix is bringing two of his live trademark events to Long Beach and Downey in October. Next week will be the Long Beach debut of Phoenix's Big Retro Slide Show that features classic mid-century Americana style, imagery and kitsch.

The Saturday October 6th show at the Long Beach Art Theater on 4th Street's Retro Row will feature the addition of a Best of Long Beach guide to the cityís local landmarks and legends. The show will be followed by a party across the street at the popular 4th Street destination Inretrospect as part of that storeís anniversary celebration. Two weeks later, on October 21st, Charles Phoenix will become a tour guide in Downey celebrating the life and landmarks of Downeyís famous local singing duo, Karen and Richard Carpenter in his live Yesterday Once More guided tour.

In an interview with about his upcoming Long Beach show, I asked Phoenix about his many labels (Ambassador of Americana, King of Retro, author, humorist) and with which one he most identifies. He summed up his numerous roles by enthusiastically telling LBReport, "I see myself more as an Americana Enthusiast who is really interested in getting the word out, you know where ever I can, that we live in a wonderland and there is something interesting around every corner no matter where you go."

Growing up in Los Angeles suburbia has given Phoenix, an Ontario, California native, a uniquely Southern California view of life, much of which Long Beach also shares. "We live in a theme park world," he told, "I grew up in a theme park environment, I grew up in Southern California and you know, it just like wherever you go, everyone is trying to be a little bit theme park."

He added that his Big Retro Slide Show honors that over the top theme park mentality by totally celebrating the "classic and kitschy American life and style with humor and information and it's a lot of fun. And there is going to be a lot of Long Beach in it too that incredible vintage Long Beach from the 40's and the 50's its unbelievable."

Vintage Long Beach isnít all that Phoenix is interested in. He told that he'll be traveling around Long Beach this week to include that classic and kitschy Americana that can still be found here. "Some of the land marks from in and around Long Beach now, Iím also going to feature in the show. Iím going around with a photographer and take pictures of some of my favorite, you know, leftovers from the day."

Phoenix described his outing in Long Beach this week as a field trip. "Iím going on my own little field trip tour in Long Beach and the surrounding areas. I am going to go to Naples. I'm going to Bixby Knolls, and in Bixby Knolls, of course Iím going to go to that Looffís Lite-a Line [ed. note: it's a bit south of Bixby Knolls at 2500 Long Beach Blvd.], Iíve never been there, and then to the Pike."

He told that the Long Beach landmark that he is most looking forward to going to is Georgeís 50ís Diner in Bixby Knolls, designed by the famous Googie architect Wayne McAllister. "The number one place, the first place Iím going to go is Georgeís 50ís Diner." Phoenix added, "That building is absolutely one of the pop car culture architectural gems of Long Beach. That was done by Wayne McAllister who also did the Bobís Big Boy in Toluca Lake. It is sort of the baby version of that. That building is a modern masterpiece. We always chuckle and giggle over Georgeís 50ís Diner, and frankly I've been by there a thousand times, but Iíve never been in there and Iím going to go there and eat Iím going to tell them to make me a pancake stack with a face on it to look like an animal and see what I get."

Also on the Phoenix Long Beach field trip agenda is the vintage 1963 Ray Vines Chrysler former dealership location at Lakewood Blvd. and Willow St., built by architect J. W. Greig and featuring a soaring double winged roofline. [Previous coverage of this and other examples of "googie" architecture, here.] When I informed Phoenix that the building has been saved and is currently under construction for its re-purpose, Phoenix replied: "Iím so happy, there is not another building like it, it is one-of-a-kind, absolutely one-of-a kind."

Another topic we discussed was his "food crafting" and the unusual food recipes he concocts from basic Americana foods (i.e. Velveeta cheese). "Food crafting is fun for me. Its like the food isnít the craft, it is using food as a medium, it just happens at the end you can just eat it." Phoenix revealed one of his newest food projects is for Halloween. "Iím currently feverishly preparing three different new ideas for Halloween. Halloween food party crafts."

When I asked him if his new project was similar to his 2011 series of Christmas "food crafts," the conversation quickly turned to his famous lighted Jell-o Christmas tree that he created using an orange traffic cone for a mold (VIDEO, click here), Phoenix said "I will have to admit that was pretty shocking," adding "Iíve had about 500 requests from people for me to bring a light up Jell-o Christmas tree with me when I come over to visit them."

About his "food crafting," Phoenix revealed "I donít perfect the recipe, I let you do that at home yourself. Iím a hack in kitchen I really am. I donít really know. I just know that I like craft and I like food." He then volunteered: "If you really want me to be brutally honest. I mean like Velveeta is my favorite food. It is the thing that I bite into and go - 'this is more delicious than anything.'"

When asked about a possible Long Beach landmark being an inspiration for one of his food craft creations he zeroed in on the iconic 34 story Long Beach International Towers at Ocean Blvd. and Alamitos St.. "That would have to be a dessert. I would like to make an International Tower Cake." Phoenix explained, "It would have to be like, you know, a 14 layer cake."

Charles Phoenixís career in Americana famously started in a thrift shop where he found a box of old Kodachrome slides simply marked "Trip Across the United States 1957." That started 20 years of collecting and cataloging vintage slides. Proud of his efforts at collecting and saving his Kodachrome slide collection he added, "I frequently have institutions calling me to include my images in their exhibitions."

Does he still go thrift store shopping? "Only barely when Iím out of town and I see a thrift store." He went on to explain, "My modus operandi now is not so much physical acquisition of stuff, as it is experiences. Actually going to the real places. I went on a shopping spree in thrift shops that lasted from the age of 14 to 30. I was thrift shopping you know, like a maniac."

Phoenix also shared how that period of thrift shopping was instrumental in his education in style. "I found thrift shops to be an incredible learning tool. They are schools of style in terms of merchandise and a perfect place to study and develop my interest in design and culture. I am a big fan of thrift shopping, I think it is a great education for any person who wants to be in the world of style and design. You know to see all this stuff. When I went thrift shopping I would look at just abut everything, and at the speed of light." He explains, "You're always looking for things that you havenít seen before. You're always looking for the gems."

Replying to a question about what he wishes was still around from growing up in Southern California, Phoenix answers "More than cry over spilt milk, I celebrate whatís left, that is really my main focus. You know there is still so much, so many incredible places to experience that are still left."

Phoenix should know. He has spent a career traveling the country highlighting the Americana still left. He has appeared on numerous national radio and television broadcasts featuring his unique Americana niche understanding. "Iím privileged to be able to travel around the country doing my show and experience incredible places around the country where mom and pop businesses that have been around for decades -- and I love time warps, especially when they're themed. My show and my shtick is all about really style, you know themed style."

Summing up making a career based on images of vintage Americana, Phoenix relates, "Itís been fun, itís a lifestyle."

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