Charles Phoenix, humorist, author, food-crafter and gleeful guide to pop culture at its kitschiest and most off-beat, will serve up his one-of-a-kind look at mid-20th century building design in “Charles Phoenix: Architecture in LA!” on Sunday at Art Center College of Design's Ahmanson Auditorium in Pasadena.
The show, presented in Phoenix's signature, “histo-tainment,” retro slide-show style, is part of an architecture-themed lecture series hosted by Friends of the Gamble House, the support organization for the 1908 Arts and Crafts-style Gamble House in Pasadena, designed by Charles and Henry Greene.
“I'm going to be spotlighting the underrated, the undiscovered, the underappreciated,” Phoenix said. “Some of the smaller scale, far less famous gems and jewels. Basically these are structures that I feel are very important in the scheme of our cultural fabric. We also want to talk about preserving these buildings because people in the future deserve to experience them.
“I mean, to varying degrees,” he said, with no detectable irony, “some of these buildings are the Taj Mahals of their day.”
The show is also about themed environments, he added. “It's our social architecture, it's our eating architecture, it's our driving architecture. I mean, I'm really pointing out what I think the ‘there there' is in Southern California that hasn't yet been pointed out as much as it deserves to be.”
One iconic structure that Phoenix will highlight is the world's oldest surviving McDonald's located in Downey, Calif. It sports looping, 30-foot “golden arches” and a 60-foot neon sign topped by the chain's original mascot, “Speedee” the chef, replaced in the 1960s by Ronald McDonald. Phoenix calls it “one of the most important buildings on earth.”
It's “world class,” he said. “You could bring the Queen of England there. In the realm of international pop culture, let alone just American pop culture, that MacDonald's is an icon of commerce and culture of the extreme highest order.”
“I take this very seriously,” Phoenix said about his unique, fact-based entertainment niche, “although it is kind of blossoming around the edges with humor at every turn. At my roots, I am studying and commentating on and serving up classic and kitschy American life and style — past, present and future.”
At least one building in the show dates back to the 1920s, but Phoenix will be concentrating primarily on “post-World War II, pop cultural Southern California style” in residential and commercial architecture, he said. That includes the region's birth of Googie-style architecture (spaceagecity.com/googie) — think Space Age, the “Jetsons,” steep slopes, jutting angles, sweeping curves — and the mid-20th-century coffee-shop designs of Armét & Davis.
“We'll look at the greatest example of their work: Pann's by LAX,” Phoenix said, “a coffee shop built in 1958. One of the reasons why it's so great, besides the fact that the original owner is still there on a regular basis and she's about to turn 97, is that it's the genuine article. This place is an absolute kind of living museum.”
While Phoenix may be “a departure” for the Gamble House's lecture series, said Merrily Gumpel, Chair of the Friends of Gamble House, “he certainly qualifies. We wanted this series to be focused on the whimsical architecture in Southern California — more specifically in the Los Angeles area — and he's the pinnacle of that idea,” she said. “We thought he would be very fun, and we wanted fun.”
(The series continues Feb. 11 with Victoria Kastner on “The Hearst Ranch: Family, Land and Legacy”; Doug Keister's “Storybook Style: Whimsy in L.A,” March 25; and Susan Morgan on “Esther McCoy: Piecing Together Los Angeles,” April 29.)
Phoenix has shared his encyclopedic knowledge of vintage Americana — and food — on the Queen Latifah show, “Late Night with Conan O'Brien,” “The Martha Stewart Show,” A&E;'s “Storage Wars” and assorted news shows. He is a frequent commentator on National Public Radio, and he'll soon guest in a cooking episode of the Internet series, “The Garage Show With Jeff Sutphen.” (thegarageshow
“I guess I've become very show-and-telly about my interests and about what I think deserves to come up to the surface and be bubbled over about,” Phoenix said. “With the food, it's the food lover and the craft lover coming out.”
Among the culinary specialities showcased in the “test kitchen” section of Phoenix's website (charlesphoenix.com): Seven Layer Soda Pop Rocks Cake, the Astro Weenie Party Tree (toothpick kebabs on a foil-wrapped foam cone), and the Cherpumple: three layers of pie (cherry, pumpkin and apple) inside a three-layer cake. For Halloween, Phoenix served up a rodent-shaped meatloaf slathered with catsup.
“I was very proud of my Halloween meatloaf rat,” Phoenix deadpanned.
Born in Ontario, Calif., “to a used car dealer dad and a housewife mother,” Phoenix worked as a fashion designer in his 20s, then segued into buying and selling cars — until a casual rummage through a thrift shop produced a stranger's discarded box of vacation slides labeled “A Trip Across the U.S. 1957.”
Hundreds of thousands of “found” slides later, Phoenix has made a career out of showing other people's slides from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. “They're not just old slides,” he said. “At a closer glance, and when curated, they are national treasures and they are cultural influences. I find them very interesting to study and thrilling to share.”
Wrapped in Phoenix's idiosyncratic brand of humorous and factual commentary, these visual presentations encompass landmarks, roadside attractions, suburban pool parties, holidays, weddings, birthdays, cars, food, interior and exterior design — and people. It was “the populated image” that intrigued him the most, Phoenix said.
For his Art Center performance, “the bulk of the imagery is the world as I see it today,” he said. “I'm mostly sharing places that the audience can go to now, that are still there. In addition to vintage slides, the show will include “new photography that I've either done myself or I've directed.”
The 12th annual “Charles Phoenix Retro Holiday Slide Show” is next up, from Dec. 1 to Dec. 22 at venues throughout Southern California. “Basically, we're blasting off all the holidays into the stratosphere, celebrating classic and kitschy American holiday life and style,” Phoenix said. “It's my take on the holidays and other people's vintage slides, it's my test kitchen, my field trip, my Christmas time experiences, it's story-telling, it's inspirational,” and, he added in deliberately sonorous pitch-man mode, “it is an absolute guarantee to get you and your family and friends in the mood to celebrate like never before.”
Phoenix may also gear up his “Disneyland Tour of Downtown Los Angeles,” once again in early 2014, he said. An off-beat bus-and-walking tour, it features historic facts, true-life trivia and parallels that Phoenix draws between settings at his favorite theme park and Union Station, Chinatown, Olvera Street, the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, the Bradbury Building, Walt Disney Concert Hall and other points of interest in the city, both well-known and obscure.
What: “Charles Phoenix: Architecture in LA!”
Where: Ahmanson Auditorium, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena.
When: 4 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $30. $25 for Friends of Gamble House. Reservations recommended.
More info: (855) 249-1157, www.gamblehouse.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.