If you spend even a cursory amount of time poking around Southern California’s mid-century treasures, you will no doubt come across Charles Phoenix and his work. His name and exuberant style have become synonymous with the equally exuberant Googie and kitsch roadside icons he’s spent a career venerating.
Among the crowds at events like Palm Springs’ increasingly prestigious Modernism Week, he is a full-fledged celebrity, selling out the week’s most popular lectures and tours. He is a totem for a resplendent atomic age, seemingly teleported to our time straight from a 1960s sitcom: smartly tailored suit, perfectly coiffed hair, and Rolodex of nifty catchphrases completely intact.
I first met Phoenix at the Los Angeles Breakfast Club (yet another delightful relic seemingly dropped whole into the present from another era) during a presentation by the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) about their advocacy work for the future of Route 66. The room was thrilled with his presence, which many took as a signal that the NRHP’s work was being taken seriously among those who drive the cultural discourse surrounding preservation and the road.
He has written several books, the most recent being Addicted to Americana, a lighthearted “celebration of classic American kitschy life and style.” He’s also just wrapped a new one, which will be released this fall. Holiday Jubilee is a “celebration of the history of holidays as pop culture icons” as told through a vast collection of found vintage slide transparencies.
His books, as well as the delightful lectures about roadside icons he gives in cities around the country, are heavily informed by his go-to research method: the road trip.
“When I go to a city, I want to see and experience what I can’t in my town,” Phoenix says. “I go to see what’s unique about a place, not what’s similar. I’m not going to visit their Starbucks. I’m going there to find out what is there that I can’t find anywhere else. What is the style here? What’s the local food? What’s the heart and soul of this town? I’m looking for integrity, I’m looking for memories, I’m looking for greatness! And then I like to put it all up on a pedestal and, hopefully, enhance people’s interest in participating.”
Two-hundred classic cars
Phoenix is always on the lookout for what he calls a “time warp”—one of those rare places that exude some quality, craftsmanship, or materiality that you just can’t find in contemporary spaces. “It’s when you walk into a place where you can just tell time has stood still,” he explains. “Now, I’m not saying yesterday was better than today—every time in history had horrible things and wonderful things and I certainly don’t mean to say, ‘Oh, the mid-century United States was the best time ever!’ No no no, I’m only gold mining and that time just so happens to be where I find these giant gold nuggets that are sparkly and shiny and have amazing stories and also show very well. And as pure history, it’s all very accessible because we’re not that far removed from it.”
He grew up in an opportune time and place for cultivating a lifelong reverence for the American road, its forms, and its culture. Born in the ‘60s to a used car salesman father and a mother who was (and still is) “a happy homemaker type who made everything from scratch,” he spent his childhood in Ontario, one of the many Southern California cities that boomed in the postwar years and whose lifeblood continues to be the car. He saw the zenith of the age of the shopping mall and later made a hobby of combing through thrift stores for the glorious domestic detritus of postwar California.
“As pure history, it’s all very accessible because we’re not that far removed from it.”
Phoenix’s first car was a lime gold (it looks exactly like it sounds) ‘68 Mustang, which was once stolen from downtown Los Angeles and then recovered a few days later on the Sunset Strip. “The weird thing about it,” he says, “is that I had gone to a psychic and she told me, ‘Your car is going to be stolen tomorrow.’ And then it was stolen the next day.”
Clearly undaunted by this minor cosmic misfortune, Phoenix has gone on to own well over 200 classic cars—buying, selling, and sometimes holding on to a gem or three for a few years. Though he’s owned most classic American makes, it would seem that he has a particular soft spot for Mopar (Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge) rides from the ‘50s and ‘60s. In a rare concession to 2019, he now drives a screaming orange Dodge Charger—just about as throwback a new car as you can find these days—but always keeps an actual classic in the garage for the weekend.
A rigorous sense of style
Phoenix trained at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in the 1980s and then worked as a designer during the heady days of downtown LA fashion. That was before moving on to a proto version of his current life as chief “Ambassador of Americana.” Still, his grounding in style remains evident in the suits he has custom made in glamorous fabrics by a local tailor. Each one is cut from the same pattern: one button, notch collar with one watch pocket and two flat pockets, all three on the bias.
As far as Phoenix is concerned, it is precisely this rigorous sense of style that has always made mid-century artifacts so beautiful in the first place. And he lives that style through and through—from his suits to his books to the series of pop paintings he made in the 1990s of landmark mid-century eateries around Los Angeles. Most have gone to private collectors, but he keeps an acrylic in his living room of Pann’s, LA’s most iconic Googie diner still in operation.
“We were built and born for the open road—road trips are here to stay.”
When it comes to technology, Phoenix is an old-school guy. “Technology trips over itself all the time. That’s why I have no hope for self-driving cars,” he says. Still, he’s rosy about the future of the American road trip, come what may of technology.
“We were built and born for the open road—road trips are here to stay. What we do have to worry about is the corporatization of the spaces and goods and services along the way. We have to be protective of the mom-and-pop shops that make roadtripping an adventure extravaganza extraordinaire,” he warns. “Please don’t stop at the Starbucks between hither and yon. Stop at the mom-and-pop! And for god’s sake, if they have some little souvenir items for sale, buy them because that’s a great way to help ensure they’ll still be there in the future.”