Charles Phoenix’s America — not the one he and the rest of us live in now, but the one he’s made a career of remembering and celebrating — is a funny, sunny place.
It’s an era of glistening kitchens with all the modern conveniences, of pineapple-upside-down cake and Jiffy Pop, of family road trips in finned cars with a host of wonderfully kitchy roadside attractions all along the way. It’s a bright, shiny world of beehive hairdos and hula hoops, of diners and drive-ins, of stylish fashion and even more stylish furniture.
It’s the middle-class America of the 1950s and ’60s, captured in hundreds of thousands of colorful Kodachrome slides in Phoenix’s “slibrary,” as he calls it — supplemented lately by his own digital yet resolutely nostalgic photography — that he’s used for years in “Addicted to Americana,” his series of comic Retro Slide Shows around the country.
Although not in Kentucky. Not until this weekend.
That’s when Phoenix, the self-styled “Ambassador of Americana” who’s best known to many as the author of several books on mid-century American culture and a judge on the Food Network’s “Cake Wars,” makes a pair of appearances in Lexington.
In the first, on Saturday, he’ll be the guest of honor at a house party thrown by the Mid-Century Society of Lexington (formed a few years ago as part of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save the People’s Bank building on South Broadway from demolition) benefitting the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, known for preserving 19th and early 20th century buildings. “We’re trying to save our mid-century modern structres as well,” says the BGT’s Jackson Osborne, “so it’s good to have someone like Charles Phoenix who appreciates that period.” (For tickets, which are $66-$86, visit bluegrasstrust.org.)
In the second, on Sunday, he’ll give one of his fondly madcap slide shows featuring mid-century style from across America — with a smattering of images from the Bluegrass State thrown in for good measure — at the Kentucky Theatre.
“I like to keep it local when I can,” Phoenix says in a phone interview this week, adding that he’ll be including photos of the Wigwam Village in Cave City and the original Kentucky Fried Chicken in Corbin. “Col. (Harland) Sanders is one of my favorite celebrities from mid-century America,” he says. “He’s one of the few Americans born before 1900 who’s still really famous today.” (Sanders was born in 1890.)
Now his mid-50s, Phoenix grew up in southern California, the son of a used car salesman. His out-there outfits, which evoke the flashiest elements of mid-century sartorial style, are often said to evoke his father’s profession.
About two decades ago, Phoenix acquired a collection of Kodachrome slides from the period and began showing them to friends. Soon he was showing them to audiences in auditoriums and theaters around the country, and adding humor.
“We’re always laughing with the people in the slides, not at them,” he says. “I’m celebrating mid-century American culture, not criticizing it. It was a time of optimism and prosperity for a lot of Americans, who were experiencing space-age, often high-quality products, fashion and style for the first time. That’s worth looking back at, having fun with.”
Of course, there’s much about the period — the Cold War, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the struggles of the working class, the oppression of women and of ethnic and sexual minorities — that Phoenix’s slide shows leave unexplored. He acknowledges this and is comfortable with it.
“This is not that history class,” he says, “and I’m not that professor.”
Charles Phoenix: “Addicted to Americana”
Where: The Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St.
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22 in advance, $25 day of show