When Charles Phoenix first started prowling through old slides at estate sales, people looked at the tall, gentle fellow as if he were a bit squirrelly. After all--images of Aunt Adele and her new Chevrolet? Uncle Fred's trip to the Alligator Farm?--they didn't draw much of a crowd in 1950. In 1998, however, Phoenix's vintage slide shows can fill a small bookstore.
"I was most interested in the era when slides were in their heyday, from the '40s through the '60s," he says. An artist and collectible car trader, Phoenix's first bout of voyeurism occurred a few years ago, when he stumbled upon "Britannica Cruise Around the World, 1950," 24 reels of 8-millimeter home movies for sale at a Pasadena thrift store. He was transfixed by the anonymous family's vacation. As much as he enjoyed film, however, he found slides "easier to work with. With film, you have to edit, but with slides you can whip right through the bad photography."
After each successful buying trip, he would host a slide show for friends in his small apartment. As he turned down the lights and illuminated the slides, the pictures glowed like stained-glass windows. As his collection grew--which now numbers, he believes, at least 20,000--he knew he had to plan grander viewings. Using vintage maps and travel guides, the 35-year-old plotted a course across the country illustrated with his slides.
His show, "God Bless Americana," starts with the image of a rearview mirror. "We're backing out of our driveway," Phoenix begins in dramatically lowered tones. Soon we're traveling down an L.A. freeway, then to Vegas circa 1957, a New Orleans record store, a Florida water-ski extravaganza . . . by the third slide carousel, a lei stand in Honolulu. On the road, we meet his cast of recurring characters, including Madeline, an elegant older woman who never cracks a smile, not even when she's on the boat to Hawaii, and Aunt Betty, who strikes poses in chunky chartreuse jewelry.
Though observations are of his own making, they are based on information gleaned from each slide. If one is marked "Aunt Betty," so she must be. "At first, I was careful not to enrich the stories," admits Phoenix. "Then I realized that people were laughing, so I started embellishing. But I feel very protective of them."
"God Bless Americana" will be shown free at Distant Lands bookstore, 56 S. Raymond St., Pasadena, this Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.