ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And now from contemporary fashion to retro. Here's a blast from the past: photographic slides. Remember those? Family and friends gathered around the projector, reliving summer vacations over an agonizingly long slide show.
Mr. CHARLES PHOENIX (Slide Projector Collector): All righty, here we go.
(Soundbite of slide projector)
CHADWICK: Except for pro photographers, hardly anyone takes slides anymore. They were big back in the '50s and '60s, but there are still thousands of them left lying around in back drawers and boxes. Charles Phoenix collects them and has revived the family slide show, turning it into performance art. The Los Angeles `histotainer,' as he's sometimes called, spoke with DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand about his Kodachrome window into American culture.
MADELEINE BRAND reporting:
Charles Phoenix is one of those rare people who sees the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Mr. PHOENIX: I wept when I found this slide. I mean, people back then were not taking pictures of where they had dinner. You can see all the neon on all the gas stations going down the street and there's a corner sign for another, I guess, restaurant or club you can't see. It's called the Hawaiian Garden. It says `Entertainment' and then, in neon, it says `Chicken, Steak and Squab.' Squab in neon? I challenge you to go out today and find `squab' written on a sign in neon.
BRAND: Charles shows us another slide of a family posing around the dinner table, the Virginia ham nestled against a molded Jell-O salad the color of antifreeze. Another one, a little boy in his bedroom showing off his jet-fighter wallpaper and new globe as if he's ready to conquer the world. And one of Charles' favorites, a 1950s shopping center that has the Seven Wonders of the World reproduced in miniature in the parking lot.
Mr. PHOENIX: You know, I mean, come on, the Taj Mahal, and it's 6 feet tall. I love it.
BRAND: The pictures have been blown up and now cover his walls so he can choose which ones will make it into his next book. He studies them from the couch, which is covered by a colorful old crocheted afghan. On the windowsill behind him are several misshapen clumps of clay that he found at a garage sale.
Mr. PHOENIX: And I think they're beautiful. They're just little like bad balls of clay that are glazed in all these old colors.
BRAND: Most people would look at these lumps of clay and think, `Ooh, not worth anything. Ugly. Thrown them away.' But you find art in that?
Mr. PHOENIX: I like, you know, things that are not self-conscious and those are not. I mean, no one's like making those thing--and these--`This is a masterpiece in the making.' They are completely clumsy. Aren't they?
BRAND: And that's what he finds fascinating in the slides people took in the '40s, '50s and '60s.
Mr. PHOENIX: I like the era. It's kind of the golden era of the USA, and the productivity and design was just fever pitch, and it was kind of like a big, giant mom-and-pop shop working right alongside the, you know, big corporations. So there was kind of this balance. There was some clumsiness going on designwise.
The other thing that I love about it is the way that it's actually preserved on Kodachrome film, because it's--the colors are so rich. It's like Technicolor.
BRAND: I wonder how you tease apart the artifice from the reality. Or does it not matter to you?
Mr. PHOENIX: Well, I'm all about the reality of it. I only want the truth of it, and that's one of the reasons I love other people's old slides so much, because this is amateur photography. There's a truth in it that you can't really find in, you know, anything produced in Hollywood or whatever. I mean, it's not self-conscious. It's not really planned. I mean, if it's a really great shot, it's accidental. I'll look through collections and they'll be a bunch of out-of-focus pictures of dirt and then one incredible shot.
BRAND: Charles used to haunt garage sales, flea markets and secondhand stores every weekend. Now people call him and leave boxes of slides on his doorstep.
Mr. PHOENIX: This kind of gives you a little idea. I've taken over a whole room in my apartment. It's the other bedroom and it's just stacked full of shelves with a million different boxes full of a zillion different slides. And some of the categories are New York World's Fair, Dalmatians. Kids with guns and toys is another one. Nudes and cheesecake. Oh, that's the box everyone wants to see.
BRAND: Charles' obsession started a long time ago when he was 14 and his mom signed him up to be in the local musical, "Oklahoma," so he'd have something to do on Saturdays. Told to get a cowboy shirt, Charles entered a thrift store for the first time.
Mr. PHOENIX: So I found the cowboy shirt and everything and I found an entire new wardrobe. I totally did. And I began a thrift-shopping spree that lasted until I was 30 when one day I was in the thrift store and I thought to myself, `Oh, my God, what am I doing thrift-shopping still at the age of 30?' I'm like `It's sick and wrong.' I said, `OK, five more minutes and I never will thrift-shop again.' In that five minutes I found this little blue shoe box that said Trip Across the United States, 1957, and it was a really cool shoe box. So I opened up the box and it's all these slides of someone's trip across the United States, these Kodachrome slides. And there was like old cars and old motels and stuff and I'm like `Oh, my God, this looks really good. I'm going to get these.' And I projected them on the living room wall all night long, right here, until the bulb burned out.
BRAND: He started having slide shows for friends. His hobby, his obsession, has now become a full-time job. He puts on regular theater shows now where hundreds of people show up. Charles says he wants his audience to come away from his shows with a new appreciation for American culture.
Mr. PHOENIX: I want people to stop saying `Oh, that was so tacky or that was so ugly or whatever.' You know, it wasn't all tacky and ugly. It was amazing.
(Soundbite of slide projector)
Mr. PHOENIX: Here's the Wieniemobile. The Oscar Mayer Wieniemobile, which, of course, turned out to be a timeless classic. Who knew?
Now here's something that's no longer there. This is the Trailblazer Monorail at the Texas State Fair, 1956. It could have been sponsored by Oscar Mayer and called the Oscar Mayer `Wieniemonorail' because it looks exactly like a big hotdog.
BRAND: Histotainer Charles Phoenix. He has several books of his slides out. The latest, "Americana the Beautiful," will be published in January.
Mr. PHOENIX: It's like the Wieniemobile only hanging from a monorail track. It's--isn't...
BRAND: Madeleine Brand, NPR News, Los Angeles.
Mr. PHOENIX: ...Wieniemobile and the...
CHADWICK: Hey, don't you wish you could see some of those slides? You can. Go to our Web site, npr.org.
I'm Alex Chadwick, and DAY TO DAY continues just ahead.
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