Searching For The Soul Of L.A. Through Kitsch

Charles Phoenix i i

Charles Phoenix says he grew up a "child of Disneyland" and that he views the world through that lens. Courtesy Charles Phoenix hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Charles Phoenix
Charles Phoenix

Charles Phoenix says he grew up a "child of Disneyland" and that he views the world through that lens.

Courtesy Charles Phoenix

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California is a place that looms large — not only in the national economy, but also in our collective imagination. As part of a summer series, NPR is talking to people who embody an aspect of California and have a unique insight on what the Golden State is all about.

Charles Phoenix loves to imagine what Los Angeles used to be. He makes his living sharing Southern California's past through slideshows and walking tours to places even the locals often overlook — places full of the kitschy history he has spent his life documenting.

Phoenix, author of books such as Americana the Beautiful: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome, considers himself a historian, though not in the classical sense. He traces his interest in kitsch to when he was a kid and his dad was a used-car dealer in Ontario, Calif.

The automobiles held so much fascination that "I kind of attached myself to what else came from the period and these vintage cars that I liked so much," Phoenix tells Madeleine Brand. "I was thrift shopping one day and I came across a box of old slides dated 1957, and so I started looking at these old slides and realizing, 'Wow, old slides are a treasure trove of visual information.' ... And then I decided I wanted to go out into the world and I wanted to see what was left of this old stuff."

Phoenix started in Los Angeles, a place he calls tough to typify. People usually think of cliched images — Disneyland, Universal Pictures, the Hollywood sign — when they envision Los Angeles, he says, but the authentic city, which began as a Mexican pueblo, has a lot of charm that is "kind of swept under the rug these days."

"[Tourists] don't know to come to Olvera Street and have a taco or a taquito on the patio," Phoenix says. "Or they don't know to go to Clifton's Cafeteria and see old school L.A. It's one of the last surviving large-scale cafeterias in the entire country. It's done in a themed environment ... it's incredible. There's a waterfall in this restaurant from the 1930s."

But themes and manufactured environments are an inseparable part of the authentic city. Phoenix, who says he grew up a "child of Disneyland," views the world through that lens and often relates different places to parts of Disneyland: Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland.

"I grew up in the '60s and '70s. And so the reality for me is wherever I travel in the world, I kind of accidentally sometimes go, 'Wow, that reminds me of Disneyland,'" he says. "I was in Paris going down the Seine River on one of their riverboat tours and everything was all lit so beautifully. I said to my French friend, 'This boat ride down the Seine River reminds me of Disneyland.'"

Whether a particular culture is kitschy and themed or classic, Phoenix says he doesn't discriminate. "I like to study both and I like to pair them, because one kind of complements the other, one kind of relieves the other," he says. "They blend like salt and pepper."

Phoenix, who has performed his slideshows at such places as the Walt Disney Concert Hall's Redcat Theater, the Getty Museum and Pepperdine University, says he's constantly searching for undiscovered beauty.

"And when I find something great enough that I think people will be interested in," he says, "I want tell them about it, I want to drag them to see it."

Phoenix came upon one gem while driving down Whittier Boulevard, which cuts through Los Angeles, and saw a building from the 1920s shaped like a tamale. He says it's an income tax office.

"I want to encourage people to be tourists in their own towns," Phoenix says. "But you've got a take a chance and go somewhere that you may not have been before or thought, 'I'm not interested in that.' Get interested in it."

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