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The Kodachrome Time Machine: Visiting the Past with Charles Phoenix's Retro Slide Shows

The Kodachrome Time Machine: Visiting the Past with Charles Phoenix's Retro Slide Shows

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What would you say if I were to invite you to see a slide show?

I'll wait a moment for some of you to stop screaming.

Now, I realize when most of you folks hear the words "slide show", memories of your dear (?) old Uncle Fred and his seemingly endless supply of out-of-focus vacation slides from his visit to The World's Third Biggest Ball of Twine come to mind. It was bad enough when Mom and Dad forced you to watch Uncle Fred's slides for free when you were eight. You certainly have no intention of paying good money to see someone's slides now.

Well, don't be too hasty. This isn't any ordinary slide show, and I think you're going to find the images and commentary in these shows a lot more interesting and a lot more fun than those pictures of Uncle Fred in front of The World's Largest Peanut. But before I tell you more about this show, I've got to tell you a little about the man who just might change the way you think about watching vacation slides.

Our story begins with a young man from Ontario, California by the name of Charles Phoenix. Charles grew up with an appreciation for the past and a passion for shopping in thrift shops and flea markets. One time when he was looking for things to buy, he came across a box "orphaned" family and vacation slides from someone's road trip across the USA. Charles was fascinated by these slides and rescued them from the thrift shop, then started looking for more. In time, he managed to build up quite a collection; he now has more than 200,000 slides from the 40's, 50's, 60's and 70's. Eventually he started showing off slides from his collection to friends, and they were as fascinated by these Kodachrome glimpses of the past as he was. Eventually he figured that perhaps the general public might be fascinated, too.

In 1998, Charles first publicly presented slides from his collection at the California Map and Travel Center in Los Angeles. The slides from that presentation became the basis for his first performance piece, "God Bless Americana: The Retro Vacation Slide Show of the USA." The performance piece was a great success, leading to two more shows (one featuring images of Southern California in the 50's and 60's and another featuring vintage slides from the holidays) as well as several best selling books about southern California, Las Vegas, Hawaii and Pomona (!) featuring slides and postcards from his collection. Who says nobody's interested in old family slides?

About a year and a half ago, I came across a copy of Charles Phoenix's book "Southern California in the 50's", and as soon as I opened the cover I was hooked. I was absolutely captivated by the images of a Los Angeles that has long since vanished. As I thumbed through Charles' book again and again and admired the photographs of life in Southern California at mid-century, from pictures of famous nightspots to slices of suburbia at a time when people weren't embarrassed to say they lived in a tract home, I just knew I had to find out more about this guy and see what else he had to offer. I visited Charles' website and read about his performance pieces, and decided that the whole thing sounded just bizarre enough to be kinda fun, and I bought tickets to see one of Charles' performances at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

I never thought I could have so much fun watching a slide show! The images in Charles Phoenix's performance pieces were a joy to see, both for the nostalgia value and for the glimpse they provided into life in the not-so-distant past and the little idiosyncrasies of some of the people who lived back then. Charles was the audience's witty and observant tour guide on this trip through time, telling the audience about the people and the moments that they happened upon and pointing out some of their odd behavior and even odder choices in furnishings, clothing and decoration. Charles never came across as condescending, sarcastic, or demeaning as he told about the audience about the people on the screen; it was clear from his presentation that he was as fascinated and amused by these people and places as the audience was. Besides, you've gotta love any person who closes his show by quoting the lyrics of "There's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow"!

So what kind of things do you get to see in one of Charles' Phoenix's slide shows? Well, let's start with glimpses of vintage theme parks. Some of the theme parks and amusement parks that are featured you've probably seen before, but never like this; you've never seen the original Tomorrowland at Disneyland or the Calico Ghost Town at Knott's Berry Farm until you've seen them in Kodachrome and projected onto a big screen! You'll also get a glimpse at some famous but long-vanished Southern California amusement parks such as the late, great Pacific Ocean Park and Marineland of the Pacific, as well as pictures from little mom-and-pop amusement parks with little pony rides and dilapidated swing sets that would disappear from the scene soon after the opening of Walt's Magic Kingdom. Maybe you've seen vintage photos of Hollywood in its glory days, but how would you like to see photographs from the set of "The Ten Commandments"? Charles Phoenix's Southern California show featured candid shots taken on the set by Cecil B. DeMille's personal assistant. Charles' shows are a chance to acquaint yourself with lost and legendary places like Trader Vic's, the Brown Derby, and the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel. Does nobody ever believe you when you talk about the days when Jack in the Box restaurants were actually shaped like a box? Charles Phoenix has the slides to prove it. Did you ever see or ride one of the Pacific Electric "Red Cars"? Now you can.

Charles' shows aren't all about long-lost landmarks, though. Many of the slides in a Charles Phoenix presentation feature scenes of everyday life in the 50's and 60's that are intriguing... and maybe more than a little odd. For example, imagine a New Year's Eve party held in someone's basement that featured a skeleton for party guests to dance with. Not odd enough? How about a tumbleweed Christmas tree mounted on a float and placed in the middle of a Palm Springs pool? Did your family's slide shows ever feature a picture of one of the family's kids pulling a toy gun on his little sister, or one of your relatives pulling a real gun on the photographer? You'll see images such as these in one of Charles Phoenix's shows. Watch your preconceived notions of the supposedly proper and straight-laced people of the 50's as you see a woman showing off her revealing new nightgown (as Charles comments on the lovely shower curtains hanging behind her). From the first Miss Universe riding in her celebratory motorcade through the streets of Long Beach to some of the strangest looking Rose Parade floats you've ever seen, you never know what you might see next when you're watching one of Charles Phoenix's performances, but you'll have a fun time waiting to find out.

I'd love to tell you more about Charles Phoenix and his "God Bless Americana" slide shows, but I could never do these images or Charles' presentation justice with mere words. You're just going to have to get tickets for one of Charles' performances or pick up a copy of one of his books and see for yourself. If you'll be in Southern California any time this fall, make plans to spend a Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon watching a slide show with Charles Phoenix. You'll have such a good time that you might even be tempted to ask Uncle Fred and his slide projector to pay a visit afterward.

Charles Phoenix's latest performance piece, the Retro Slide Show Tour of Southern California, will be playing on September 25-26, October 23-24 and 30-31,and November 6-7 at the Egyptian Theatre/American Cinematheque in Hollywood. Charles' latest book, Southern Californialand: Mid Century Culture in Kodachrome is now available through amazon.com. For more information on the Charles Phoenix and his books and Retro Slide Shows, call (888) 866-SLIDE SHOW or visit http://www.godblessamericana.com.

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