Get retro: Holiday scenes from the 1960’s


By Davida Singer

It seems almost fitting that Charles Phoenix is talking with me from a bus, on the way to do his latest edition of “God Bless Americana”, at the Pyramid Club Theater on Avenue A. After all, his Kodachrome, brighter than bright Retro Slide Shows – one of which won him a Fringe Festival award for “unique theater experience” this year – do have the definite vintage feel a long bus trip has always allowed.

He grew up in suburban Los Angeles, where he’d done “nothing theatrical” since he was a teen. But later, Phoenix developed his slide shows by accident.

“I started finding slides – from the late 40’s to the early 70’s – in thrift stores,” he recalls, “and basically started showing slides to friends, complete with narration. I’m really into fashion, cars and architecture. Buses? Well, of course. They’ve been pretty important for a long time. I put the shows on in my living room, until someone suggested doing them at a place in West L.A., so I went over there, and got a show. People started laughing during my first presentation, and it all evolved into something laced with humor.”

What originally attracted Phoenix, now 40, to vintage slides, was the medium of Kodachrome itself, and how it “captured history in a Technicolor way.”

“This was a perfect opportunity to see the truth,” he says. “These images don’t lie, and Hollywood can’t reproduce them.”

Phoenix said he goes through millions of slides “like a detective”, in order to create his shows, and never makes up any material he uses in narrations.

“Sometimes people write stuff on the photos,” he says, “and I’m actually able to get enough information from what I look through and see on them. To work in a presentation, they’ve got to be extraordinary. The vast majority are Kodachrome, still quite beautiful, like stained glass windows of color. And when you start blending these slides, you see how similar people are, and what the culture was really like.”

After his original show at the California Map & Travel Center in 1998, Phoenix did presentations all over Los Angeles. Then there was the Retro Slide Show of Southern California, the Retro Vacation Slide Show Tour of the USA (the Fringe winner), and the Retro Holiday Slide Show, created last year, and re-vamped for his current New York run.

“Every single show I do is different,” Phoenix explains. “This one is about an hour and a half, and the emphasis is on Christmas-opening gifts, decorations, New Year’s Eve, the Rose Parade – but there’s also some stuff on Halloween, Thanksgiving, even Easter. It’s a true holiday show, and I still get excited doing it. The challenge is in creating a theatrical presentation with a beginning, middle and an end, so it becomes a real story, and to create a cultural fabric out of it. It’s abstract, but there are always things that link the show together. In this one, there are twins who reappear from time to time.”

For Phoenix, the essence of his presentations is that they strike an emotional chord, and maintain a cultural overview as well.

“Someone will say, ‘That looks like my mother’,” he notes, “or mention how much they remember about a particular time or event. Someday, I’d love to see these images blown up gigantically in a stadium. I want people to learn history from this, and that their own history is important. My favorite audience is children, because they completely get the joke of it – learning history and laughing at it at the same time.”

And what’s the joke of the Retro Holiday Slide Show?

“It boils down to the fact that I’m an entertainer, but history is my shtick,” adds Phoenix. “I wear vintage clothes that push the edges of good taste. Right now, I’m into a used car dealer look. (I grew up on a car lot.) Plaid pants, bright colored sports coats. The show itself is all refreshingly low tech. But there is some music – before and after, and during intermission – vintage Christmas music, of course.”