Charles Phoenix didn’t hit your typical tourist spots, San Xavier, the Desert Museum, Gates Pass, on his last visit to Tucson.
The king of kitsch and self-proclaimed “histotainer,” in town for one of his retro slide shows during Modernism Week 2012, opted for more midcentury pursuits.
He hunted down the larger-than-life characters that were scattered across the city after the closing of Magic Carpet Golf on East Speedway.
“I found the monkey, the tiki head, an alligator, some giant flowers and a bull,” Phoenix said by phone from his Los Angeles home.
He hit Pat’s Drive-in in Barrio Hollywood, Lucky Wishbone, chatted with the owner of the Tucson Inn and toured the Valley of the Moon fantasyland park.
“It was such a strange, folk art environment,” he said. “I love folk art. It was a trip.”
His absolute favorite spot was the New Empire Food Market on East Ninth Street, just west of The Buffet.
“It is like a time warp inside,” Phoenix said. “There is this blow-up mold of a plastic hamburger hanging in the middle of the store. It looks like it is 50 years old, and it is absolutely beautiful.”
It wasn’t exactly a Frommer’s vacation, but a typical trip for Phoenix, who has spent years tracking down relics of one of his favorite eras of American history.
“You’d be surprised at how many unique, extraordinary places and things are not really logged in at any one place when it comes to midcentury artifacts,” Phoenix said. “I treat every city like a theme park. I give myself license to decide what the attractions are.”
Phoenix will recap some of his Tucson adventures when he presents his holiday slide show at The Loft Friday.
The humorist has built a career around promoting the bygone people, places and things of the 1950s and ’60s.
Phoenix was born in Southern California. His dad was a used car salesman, which is where his early interest in the time period began.
“I grew up on a car lot,” he said. “I knew all the old cars. I was totally obsessed with them from the time I was born.”
As an adult, Phoenix was a regular patron at local estate, yard and garage sales. His favorite purchases were Kodachrome slides. He picked them up wherever he went.
His obsession with the imagery of the time eventually led to a new career path. Phoenix has thousands of slides in his California home, which he uses for retro presentations across the country.
Phoenix has appeared on radio, television and in print, often times for his “food crafting” efforts — emulating the recipes and design of culinary dishes from back-in-the-day, mostly based on the cuisine found in slides.
“Collecting other people’s old slide shows changed my life,” he said.
The holiday slide show has become a regular part of his rotation.
For Phoenix, Christmas was, and still is, such a colorful, fun and festive time.
“There were color wheels, aluminum Christmas trees and Jell-O was everywhere” Phoenix said. “Boys and men were almost always dressed in black pants, white dress shirts with ties and red vests. It was a recurring theme.”
It’s a time of year that fits well into the period overall.
“It is a colorful era to look back at, be amused and inspired by,” Phoenix said. “I am all about celebrating that classic and kitschy time in America, no matter where I am.”