Though Charles Phoenix “finds the funny” in ’50s and ’60s Americana, you’ll never find him making fun of it.
The Los Angeles-based humorist appreciates the cheesy kitsch of many relics of yesteryear, but there’s also a lot to be learned from them, he said.
He’ll share some of those lessons on Thursday, Dec. 6, when he brings his “Retro Holiday Slide Show” to the Dayton Art Institute on Thursday, Dec. 6, along with some slides taken during a “whirlwind tour” of the Gem City and nearby communities the day before.
“We’re excited to wrap up the first season of our new Arts Night Out series with the holiday cheer of Charles Phoenix,” DAI Executive Director Michael Roediger said. “His nostalgic slideshows are something that audiences of all ages can relate to — whether you actually grew up in the ’50s and ’60s or simply wish that you did!”
Art museum staff will be taking Phoenix to such sites as Wympee’s downtown, Hasty Tasty Pancake House in East Dayton, and Foy’s Halloween Store in Fairborn, to snap photos that will give his slideshow a local flavor, something he does as often as possible in cities where he’s performing.
“One great thing about Charles Phoenix is that he likes to bring local flavor into his shows by featuring people and places from communities he visits,” Roediger said.
A recent outing in Chicago yielded one of his most hysterically twisted shots: An old Italian sausage market with a vintage neon sign featuring pigs jumping into a meat grinder.
“We live in a wonderland to discover,” Phoenix said. “There’s something interesting around every corner, no matter where you go.”
What began as a love for vintage cars as a kid expanded to a passion for thrift-store finds, including a boxful of Kodachrome slides marked “Trip Across the United States 1957.”
“I knew it was something really special,” Phoenix said. “Kodachrome has such rich colors and it documents a very special era of American history — the days of Mom and Pop amateur photography, when everything was so honest and real. It just appealed to me as something I could learn from.”
After a few years of collecting, Phoenix realized he had enough images in his “slibrary” to share them with an audience. But what he thought was going to be a serious presentation snowballed into something altogether different.
“The audience thought a lot of the stuff I said was funny, so I realized it was about finding the heart and humor in these pictures,” he said. “It’s my way of honoring our culture and our history, being inspired by it and learning from it.”
Phoenix’s lightning-quick running commentary is laced with double-entendres, but is otherwise clean and suitable for tweens and teens. He emphasized that all jokes aside, his show is a tribute rather than a lampoon of nostalgia. “My shtick is based in reverence; I’m having fun with it, but I’m not making fun of it.
“It’s basically a celebration of classic and kitschy American life and style and I try to give it the dignity it deserves. Jell-o and Velveeta don’t really get any respect, but they really ARE pieces of our culture!”
Phoenix also is known for quirky culinary creations like the Oscar Weenie Christmas Tree and Frosty the Cheeseball Man, which he has shared on TV with Conan O’Brien and Martha Stewart. He also can be heard regularly on National Public Radio. To enjoy his TV and radio appearances, and view some slides, check out his website, www.charlesphoenix.com.
In conjunction with Phoenix’s show, DAI’s Museum Store will host a book launch from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the General Motors Entrance Rotunda, for local author Molly D. Campbell’s new book, “Characters in Search of a Novel.” Campbell and local illustrator and Cox Media Group designer Randy Palmer will be on hand for a book signing, and there will be readings and raffles.
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