Our favorite mid-century modern, Charles Phoenix, to emcee Claremont Heritage Gala

Pop culture humorist, historian, author, and chef Charles Phoenix is the guest emcee for Claremont Heritage’s May 17 annual awards gala at the Padua Theatre. More info is at claremontheritage.org/gala.html. Photo/by Fabian Fioto

By Lisa Butterworth | Special to the Courier

Charles Phoenix’s enthusiasm is contagious. Whether the mid-century pop culture expert is extolling the virtues of a 1959 Buick Invicta (“a world-class national treasure”), his late mother’s Tupperware collection, or our own quaint little town, it’s hard not to assimilate his appreciation.

“Claremont is a pillar of civilization. It’s really SoCal’s best kept secret,” he said by phone from his home in Silver Lake. It’s this ardor, often delivered with hilarious but genuine hyperbole in his signature droll demeanor, that makes Phoenix the ideal emcee and auctioneer for Claremont Heritage’s Preservation Celebration Annual Awards Gala at the Padua Hills Theatre on Friday, May 17.

“[Claremont is] quaint, it’s charming. It has a depth of character, of style, of soul and spirit that is not that easy to come by when going from city to city around this old United States of ours. It’s a very special place,” he continued. “The residential architecture, the college architecture. The acknowledgment of its own history and rich past is present. It’s very traditional and all in a good way. Claremont has its own personality, and it really is intact — I’ve been watching it for decades.”

Charles Phoenix at the Claremont Depot in 2022. Photo/courtesy of Claremont Heritage

The 61-year-old Phoenix was born in Upland and raised in Ontario, where his “obsession” with the study and celebration of mid-century American style and design took root. Phoenix’s father was a car salesman, and he grew up on a used car lot. “I was around those cars of the Space Age,” he said, an interest that truly imprinted on him. Shopping centers were another big influence. “I really paid attention to shopping malls starting at a very young age — the trends of clothing and shoes and furniture and home décor,” he said. “When I was a little kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s, from one season to the next, it seemed like an evolution.”

This is part of what led him to become a fashion designer in the 1980s after attending the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles. But in 1992 he returned to his first love, and began buying and selling classic cars. (His daily driver is a new Dodge Challenger, which boasts a heritage design, but his garage houses a ‘58 DeSoto Fireflite and a ‘59 Plymouth Sport Fury.) It was around this time that a thrift store find would change the trajectory of his career. “I stumbled upon someone’s old slides; the box was marked ‘Trip across the United States, 1957,’” he said. “When I saw these Kodachrome images of all of these roadside attractions and motels and just the cars that they were driving and the clothes they were wearing, it’s like, I got it. I thought, I could talk about this.”

He began collecting slides and then choosing his favorites, weaving them together for his retro slideshows — performances that had him sharing expertly timed commentary that both educated and delighted. “I could tell you what year every car was. I could tell you exactly the style of architecture or wherever they were, or I could tell you what kind of fashions they were wearing, and I don’t know why,” he said. “I just learned that stuff growing up.”

Phoenix has created slide shows focused on Disneyland, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Southern California, Knott’s Berry Farm, and “supermarket superstars” to name a few. His performances have been resonating with audiences for nearly 30 years, and not simply because of the nostalgia factor. “When I first started doing them, this woman said, ‘We love seeing the old slides, we do. But what we really love is you loving them,’” Phoenix said.

He reflects on the past with a keen eye and an even keener sense of humor, but never at the expense of the people or places he features. “It’s my ability to explain in an entertaining and amusing and informative way, and a respectful way, what we’re looking at,” he said. “We’re celebrating our lives, our parents’ lives, our grandparents’ lives. So it’s an acknowledgment of, ‘Wow, this is wonderful. Ain’t life grand?’”

Like the Huell Howser of kitsch, Phoenix has traveled across the U.S., often incorporating his own images into his performances, and penning a number of books as well, like “Addicted to Americana: Celebrating Classic & Kitschy American Life & Style,” and “Leis, Luaus, and Alohas: The Lure of Hawaii in the Fifties.”

Charles Phoenix (left) and Claremont Heritage Executive Director David Shearer at the 2022 opening for Karl Benjamin, “Stripes 1976-1980,” at the Ginger Elliott Center. Photo/courtesy of Claremont Heritage

“When I go to a town, I’m always looking through the layers of time,” he said. “I look for the oldest hamburger stand, the oldest donut shop, the bowling alley, the old candy store, vintage neon signs — anything time-honored. I am never going to go to Starbucks, I mean, unless it’s an emergency. I always want to seek the mom-and-pop, the old diner.”

For Phoenix, there are lots of spots deserving of such a visit in our neck of the woods. “One place that I find very precious is the last Googie bowling alley still standing in Southern California: Bowlium in Montclair,” he said, noting its grand Space Age entrance. He’s also a fan of Vince’s Spaghetti in Rancho Cucamonga, owned and operated by the Cuccia family since 1945, and Logan’s Candies in downtown Ontario, where they’ve been making ribbon candy in front of their customers for 92 years. In Claremont, Phoenix says the Folk Music Center is a must. “It’s so special and so unique,” he said. “I mean, that mural on the front of the building and everything.”

The bygone eras Phoenix honors are further in the past than ever before, but, he assured, they are far from being forgotten. “I meet young people every day who are interested in studying and understanding and covering all aspects of mid-century American pop culture,” he said. “This woman just two days ago said, ‘[Me and] my 11-year-old daughter, we watch all your online slideshows, and we have all your books. She just loves it.’ Well, that’s the best compliment. That means I’ve really done my job because I have reached the next generation.”

Along with his appearance at Claremont Heritage’s Preservation Celebration Annual Awards Gala at the Padua Hills Theatre on Friday, May 17, Phoenix brings “Southern Californialand Live” to the Historic Corona Civic Theatre at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 16 at 3 p.m. at. Tickets and more info are at charlesphoenix.com.


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