Charles Phoenix: The Ambassador Of Americana

Charles Phoenix

“I don’t want to live back in time, I just want to be able to touch it.”

– Charles Phoenix

I couldn’t agree more! I don’t know if living back in the ’50s and ’60s would be any “better” than living in the present, but damn, did it look great!

I’ve always felt that Kodachrome pictures are the closest thing you can get to a time machine. The colors are so rich and the pictures have so much depth that they make you feel like you were the one behind the camera taking them. Charles Phoenix collects Kodachrome slides and puts on presentations showing off his collection. Words can’t describe how fun and entertaining Charles’s slideshow is. You just have to go see for yourself!

I had a chance to chat with Charles while he was driving his car around sunny California. Here is his story…

Ray: How and when did your love of Mid-Century begin?

Charles: I think really it began in my infancy. My dad was a used car dealer and by the time I was a used…I almost said I was a used car! No, I was never a used car; I’m a human being, I could be a used car, though! I’m kind of a used car of a human being. But anyway, I was hooked on the cars. I was born in late, late, very late 1962, so my earliest childhood memories are of cars driving by. My dad had a used car lot, so I knew all the kinds of cars and everything about them by the time I was 4 years old. So Mid-Century cars, when they were not too terribly old, spoke to me. That’s what got me started.

Charles Phoenix

Ray: Can you give a little history of how your slideshow started and what it has become?

Charles: I’ve been thrift shopping since I was 14 years old. When I was 30 years old, 29 actually, I was in the thrift store and I found a shoebox marked “Trips Across the United States—1957.” I opened it up and it was full of old slides. I held a few up to the light and I knew immediately that this was a treasure with my name on it. I bought them and shortly thereafter started going to estate sales and more thrift shops just looking for old slides.

Pretty soon I had enough to put together a little slideshow. I had friends over in my living room and we had a little show and I was wondering, “Am I the only one that’s going to be interested in these old slides, or are other people going to like them?” Needless to say, my friends were as hypnotized as I was! One of my friends said, “You should do a slide show at the California Map and Travel Center in West L.A.” This was 1998. I had already been collecting for 5 years. I went over to the California Map and Travel Center and I told them what I wanted to do and they said, “No. No one would ever want to see other people’s vacation slides.” I said, “Yes, they would.” So I weaseled my way into getting a slideshow and it just so happened that a reporter for the L.A. Times was there and did a big article about it. Then I got another show scheduled at another map store in Pasadena. A hundred people showed up! So I kept doing the slideshows for free. A few months later, I was in a coffee house doing a slideshow and someone said, “People would pay for this.” And I said, “Good!” From that moment on, I was in show business.

Charles Phoenix at Tiki Kon 2017

Ray: What is the connection between Mid-Century and Tiki for you?

Charles: The Tiki craze really came of age just when everything was becoming really simplified and along comes this side culture to compliment Mid-Century culture in general. Our culture is kind of like Disneyland. There’s Main Street and then there’s all these little side lands. It makes sense to me. I see the world like a big theme park because the world is like a big theme park!

Ray: For a lot of people that I’ve talked to, Disneyland is their gateway to Tiki.

Charles: Yeah it was! Not only that, but during the ’60s and ’70s, there were a lot of Polynesian restaurants around. Most of them served Chinese food and they were done in kind of a South Seas theme. In those days, nobody said “Tiki restaurant” or “Tiki party.” That wasn’t the go-to word. It was more like “South Seas,” “Hawaiian,” or “Island style. We didn’t really pick out that one word “Tiki” back then. The Tiki gods existed, they were there, but we didn’t name the style that.

Charles Phoenix at Tiki Kon 2017

Ray: Can you talk about your book, Leis, Luaus, and Alohas?

Charles: Leis, Luaus, and Alohas is a book that I co-wrote around 1999. Basically, I provided all the imagery in the sections of the book and then a writer friend of mine wrote it. It’s a book that I’m very proud of and I haven’t even seen a copy for a while. I don’t even own a copy. It’s a really cool book and I’m really proud of it. I have a brand new book coming out.

Ray: Oh, really? What’s it going to be called?

Charles: Its called Addicted to Americana: Celebrating Classic & Kitschy American Life & Style.

Ray: Beautiful!

Charles: I’m very excited about it. The book is like Americana overload. It’s out of control. It is a colorful kaleidoscope of retro-pop culture, then and now. It’s an extravaganza!

Charles Phoenix

Ray: You have your own Tiki mug! Can you talk about that?

Charles: I’ve actually had two Tiki mugs! The first one is the Tiki Turkey Meatloaf Mug. I only made a hundred of those. That was with MP Ceramics. He’s a mug maker based in Santa Cruz. The second mug I did with Tiki Farm. That was called the Pudcano. That was a pineapple upside down cake-shaped volcano erupting maraschino cherries based on the cake that was created by the same name that was cut and performed for us. It erupted at my “Alohaland” slideshow that I did at Don the Beachcomber.

Charles Phoenix

Ray: Speaking of drinks, what is your favorite Tiki drink?

Charles: I really don’t drink many Tiki drinks anymore. I actually stopped drinking alcohol. I don’t know how many years it was—maybe close to 5. It was as a result of too many Tiki drinks that I consumed at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, FL. I was sitting there drinking and drinking and having a great time. All of a sudden, I spilled my Tiki drink, like the big coconut shell!

Ray: Oh no!

Charles: I tipped over and the drink went everywhere. At that moment I said, ” I’m done.” The “I’m done” lasted for 4 or 5 years. Then I came back to it. But to tell you the truth, I’m a little bit of a sugar-phobe, so I don’t really do that many Tiki drinks. I’ll take sips, but I don’t really do a lot of them. I like to see other people enjoying them. I’m a big fan of all the Tiki bars, but I fear Tiki drinks because they wreck me.

Ray: I have this series call “Straightedge Tiki” for my blog. I’ve been going to bars and having them make me non-alcoholic Tiki drinks. There are some really good drinks out there that you can get. For example, there’s the Hale Pele down in Portland, OR. I went there and just drank non-alcoholic drinks. They were amazing. They were great drinks.

Charles: Yeah, I love all those flavors. My favorite beverage will be until forever will always be Hawaiian Punch! That is my favorite flavor. I actually made a Tiki drink of one called the “Faux Tiki.” It was Hawaiian Punch mixed with coconut and pina colada mix. It was equal parts of all 3 and you know that’s good!

Ray: That sounds amazing!

Charles: Just last night I was out to dinner with some friends of mine who are getting married soon. They’re like 30 and the first thing they asked me was, “You’ve got to tell us everything about Tiki culture because we just discovered it and we have to know everything.” I was so proud because he was telling me that he is totally obsessed with the authentic recipes. Beachbum Berry is his kingpin, along with Smuggler’s Cove. They’re really into the recipes. I was so thrilled for a 30-year old to say, “I’m completely obsessed.” We have to kind of push this culture forward.

Ray: Absolutely!

Charles: I don’t know how old you are, but I passed 30 a while ago.

Ray: I’m 46.

Charles: 46? Oh my god! You’re older than me!

Ray: Ha!

Charles: No, I’m kidding! Anyway, so I love the Tiki culture. I love the Tiki motif. You can live it in several different ways. At its core, it’s all based on drinking rum-based drinks. The sun of the universe of Tiki culture is drinking. But there are all these planets that go around that. I love the Tikis themselves in any form. Then we’ve got the Hawaiian clothing. All summer long, from spring until fall, I wear vintage Hawaiian shirts. I’m wearing one right now! I love all the Tiki crafts that people make. There’s just so much!

Jeff Ballard - Tiki Trail

Ray: The main thing I really like is the full environment of a Tiki bar.

Charles: Tiki bars are amazing! It’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven. I love everything in a Tiki bar. I go to as many as possible and people are blowing my mind with Tiki bars they’re making at home. They’re spellbinding.

Ray: I have a love for Mid-Century like you do. I’ve always felt like the closest thing you can get to time machine is Kodachrome pictures, like the pictures you collect. The colors are just so vibrant and you don’t have a lot of fade. If you go to an old-timey Tiki bar, like the Mai-Kai, you can literally fell like this is what this place looked like in 1957.

Charles: I agree! I had a little time travel experience there. It transported me to that time. I love that place. I love the Bali Hai. I love Tonga Room. They are my favorites because they’re the ones that are left. The other place I’d like to mention is Oceanic Arts in Whittier, CA. It is the world’s greatest Polynesian Pop Tiki supermarket and has been since 1956. Oceanic Arts is the place. It’s the heart and soul of Tiki.

Charles Phoenix's Tiki Mug and Charles with Bob and Leroy of Oceanic Arts
Charles Phoenix’s Tiki Mug and Charles with Bob and Leroy of Oceanic Arts

Ray: What does the future hold for you?

Charles: Gosh, I wish I knew! If I had a crystal ball I could tell you. I’m ramping up for the new book, so that’ll transform into a new slideshow called “Addicted to Americana.” I’m working on a web series. I may be back on the Food Network. They want me for a show. We’ll see..

I’m just having a good time finding the beauty in the world and really basking in the glow of the power that it gives me. I love finding the beauty in the everyday world and treasure hunting for the gems, time warps, and treasures. I love time warps and I love treasures. They are out there. You just have to know what you’re looking for and know when you find them.

Charles Phoenix

Here is Charles Phoenix’s website…

and Facebook Page.