Arts & Culture

The genius of kitsch

Charles Phoenix believes kitsch is worthy of respect.
Charles Phoenix believes kitsch is worthy of respect. COURTESY PHOTO

Congratulations, San Luis Obispo residents. According to Los Angeles-based humorist and historian Charles Phoenix, your city is home to one of the greatest kitsch monuments ever built: the Madonna Inn.

“The craftsmanship, the creativity, the uniqueness is absolutely off the charts,” said Phoenix, praising the pink-hued hotel’s rock walls, waterfalls and over-the-top themed rooms. “It’s one of the great wonders of the world.”

On Saturday, Phoenix brings his “Retro Holiday Slide Show” to the Performing Arts Center. The show, which features vintage slides from holiday seasons past, celebrates a time when Americans embraced pop culture at its most colorful and stylized.

“Everything became colorized in the 1950s,” Phoenix explained. “We lived in a cotton candy comic book world. ... It was so action-packed and fun-filled.”

Phoenix’s retro obsession began during his boyhood, playing among the big-finned beauties at his father’s used car lot in Ontario, Calif. “At age 5 or 6, I knew the makes and models of all American cars,” he said.

Later, at age 14, he discovered thrift shopping.

“That was a great way to study the underbelly of our American consumerist culture,” recalled Phoenix, describing secondhand stores as “museums.” “It taught me a lot about mass consumerism, about planned obsolescence.”

Phoenix eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a fashion designer and classic car dealer. Then, at a thrift shop, he discovered a box of vintage Kodachrome slides marked “Trip Across the United States 1957.”

“It really blew my mind,” Phoenix said. “(When) I held the slides up to the light, each one was a window to another time and place. These images were little bridges to 1957.”

Today, Phoenix travels across the country sharing treasures from his massive slide collection. Themes include Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Florida and Las Vegas.

Phoenix’s holiday slide show features such highlights as a Christmas bondage party, politically incorrect parade floats, and an impromptu game of “Turkey Twister” that finds three formally dressed men trying to carve the Thanksgiving bird at the same time.

“Some of them are just plain entertaining, and some of them are just plain fun,” Phoenix said of his slides, which he now receives as donations from admiring fans. “We see the most outrageous Christmas trees. We see the most amazing yard décor. We find humor in the holidays.”

Plus, he added, “We’re inspired to adopt some new traditions.”

After spying a slide depicting a aluminum foil-covered cone studded with cocktail wieners and other tasty treats, Phoenix created his own Astro-Weenie Christmas Tree.

Other Charles Phoenix Test Kitchen creations include Fried Cereal, Tiki Turkey Meatloaf and Cherpumple “Monster” Pie Cake, a three-layer cake stuffed with cherry, pumpkin and apple pies.

Phoenix shares Test Kitchen demo videos via YouTube and posts pictures of fans’ versions on his website. His pop culture campaign doesn’t stop there, either.

The author of seven books, including “Americana the Beautiful: Mid- Century Culture in Kodachrome” and “Southern California in the 50s: Sun,

Fun, and Fantasy,” Phoenix regularly leads field trips to locations such as downtown Los Angeles and Downey, Calif., billed as “America’s Greatest Space Age Suburbia.” He’s appeared on “Conan” and “The Martha Stewart Show.”

According to Phoenix, mid-century Americana is “getting a lot more interest and a lot more respect” these days.

“There are a lot of quality things that came from that era,” he said.

Although some may dismiss the pop-culture ephemera of the late 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s as kitschy, Phoenix believes those people are missing the point.

“I use the word ‘kitsch’ with respect,” he said. “Kitsch does not always mean ‘tacky.’ Kitsch can rise to great levels of true genius.”

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.