Meet the Ultimate ‘Retro Daddy’

Americana expert Charles Phoenix relives road trips to Palm Springs, forays into thrift stores and date farms, and calls for the comeback of the chuckwagon.

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DRESSED IN A CUSTOM-TAILORED SUIT and trademark rhinestone Colonel Sanders bow tie, Charles Phoenix flips through hilarious and sometimes bizarre slides of strangers and their homes and cars and families, taking a standing-room-only audience at Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenberg Theater through a rip-roaring Technicolor look at yesteryear.

Twenty years ago, this self-proclaimed “retro daddy” found a shoebox full of vintage Kodachrome slides in a thrift shop marked “Trip Across the United States 1957,” and his obsession with midcentury Americana was born. Today, he lives by this mantra: “Get in touch with your inner Americana, embrace it, have a sense of humor about it, and proudly share it with the whole wide world.”

Phoenix — author of seven books, including Southern Californialand: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome (Angel City Press, 2004) — travels the country with his retro slideshow. Palm Springs Life caught up with him during Modernism Week.

How do you define “retro”?
Retro is what you want it to be. It’s a fantasy of some part or piece of the past that you can kind of re-create if you try. We romanticize the past. In my mind, I’d say it takes about 15 years for something to become retro. I now see college kids, especially girls, wearing ’80s clothes. And they look really cute. But my sensibility has been hardwired to midcentury retro.

Of the “retro” places you’ve been to, what makes Palm Springs stand out?
I want to see through the layers of time; and in Palm Springs, I do. Palm Springs is a stomping ground for people who love nostalgia. A lot has been saved here. The quality of individual homes being restored is so smart and so good. It’s exciting. Palm Springs is like a big, beautiful village. It’s like a theme park. It’s a playground for the rich and famous, and it always has been. As far as a physical place on Earth, it’s a spectacular place of great beauty, and people sense that immediately when they get there. The sun is very sharp and gives you license to do things you wouldn’t normally do. It’s an adult playground.

When did you discover Palm Springs?
When I was a kid growing up in Ontario, we took a lot of Sunday road trips, sometimes to Palm Springs. We’d stay the night at the Travelodge. I can remember as a child entering the city limits of Palm Springs. Even then, I could feel it was a distinct and special place. All of the sudden you became more sophisticated than you really were. At least that’s the way I felt.

How did growing up in Ontario in the 1960s and ’70s inform what you do now?
I was born into retro Americana. My dad had a used car lot when I was growing up. So I like used things. All the cars had big fins, which I found totally fascinating. By the time I was 5 or 6, I knew all makes and models of the different kinds of cars and what year they were. That has stuck with me; I still know all the cars and what years they are. I’m a little Rain Man that way.

The house where I grew up was a custom-built, 1955 ranch home — a total California classic. It had a big weather vein on top of it, and that fake birdhouse, and shutters and diamond-paned windows. It is a really nice house. My mother still lives there.

Disneyland was also a huge influence on me. It’s the central nervous system of how my brain works. Everything, everywhere you go, is themed. The whole world to me looks like Disneyland. Everything has a “land.” Like Palm Springs-land: swimming pools, palm trees, midcentury modern architecture, and cocktail parties and it’s a complete and total blast. It’s a celebration of life.

How did you become an expert and aficionado of retro Americana?
It all clicked in for me when I was 14 and went to a thrift store. I had never been in one, and it was like I had found a path into an inner world, into the inner sanctum of Americana. It was a time tunnel. Thrift stores were museums of merchandise and schools of style to me. I ultimately became a fashion designer, studying at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles. My first job was picking up pins off the floor at a fashion house that made appliqué-embroidered women’s clothing. Back then, retro wasn’t as in as it is now.

You’re known for your hilarious yet amazingly informative slideshows of strangers’ photos from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. When did you begin collecting slides?
I started collecting other people’s slide 20 years ago. And 14 years ago, I had my first public slideshow. The slides all come from people giving them to me. I just knew instinctively that if I was going to show slides, I would have to put them together with a beginning, a middle, and an end — and try to make it as entertaining as possible. I have a huge collection, an archive. It’s called the “slibrary.” I take it very seriously and work on it all the time. I even have an assistant, a “slibrarian” I call her. The slideshow is my bread and butter now.

Amid the recent hard times in the country, do you think there’s a greater hunger for nostalgia?
I think people do nostalgia whether times are good or bad, happy or sad. It’s an emotion; it’s a feeling. It’s normal to be nostalgic. People just act out their nostalgia in different ways. We’ve always looked back. In the ’50s, they were going to Western towns and having Victorian and 1920s theme parties. What we’re doing isn’t abnormal. It’s festive, it’s fun, and it’s civilized.

What retro thing in the desert would you like to see make a comeback?
No one is doing anything Western-themed. There used to be a lot of Western hotels with cowboy costumes, horse rides, and barbecues — and chuckwagons. Chuckwagons need to make a comeback!  

Charles’ Retro Picks

This is my favorite movie star-related place in the desert. That’s the one to preserve. It was started by Bing Crosby and Jack Benny in the 1950s and was the first planned “luxury” mobile home park in the Coachella Valley. The streets are named after some of the first buyers here, like Groucho Marx, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Danny Kaye, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck. All the trailers were over the top and themed, and some that are there now are the originals from the ’50s. There’s even a small miniature golf course, which is incredible.

Every time I go to Palm Springs, I always drive down Highway 111 and go to Shield’s Date Garden, without fail. It’s one of Southern California’s great roadside attractions. Where else do you ever get to go to a date garden and overdose on dates? It’s been there since 1924, and they tell you the whole story of the place in their little romance theater, and you can get date shakes and sample all different varieties of dates. It’s fabulous.

I only recently discovered this place. It’s off the chart in terms of heart and soul. It’s a gem in Palm Springs. It was established in 1938 by Slim and Patricia Moorten, who designed and installed landscapes for Frank Sinatra and were friends of Walt Disney. The gardens now have about 3,000 cacti and desert plants, all grouped by geographic regions. It’s one of the best places to experience old Palm Springs, before midcentury. I love the Spanish architecture of the home. 

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