Book Review: ADDICTED TO AMERICANA (Charles Phoenix / Prospect Park Books)

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by Tony Frankel on October 25, 2017

in Extras


With trademark enthusiasm, quick wit, and keen eye for oddball detail, Charles Phoenix has become one of the American Treasures he often discusses. I often wonder that centuries from now, people will speak of him—perhaps from a picture they found of him in a fez and red-and-white striped suit—with the fascination that he brings to his live retro-slide shows and field trips, recipes, videos, and coffee table books, exploring America’s classic and kitschy pop-cultural past, which wasn’t all that long ago.

Yet with our sped-up world spinning at record speed technologically, the American Life & Style that he celebrates in his newest book, Addicted to Americana, already seems centuries behind us. As a way to keep both memories and relics alive, his latest book takes us on the road, excavating the U.S.A. for fossilized treasures, from a roadside turtle statue in Joshua Tree to a clown-themed coffee shop in Sacramento. It’s part travelogue, part autobiography, and pure fun. As excessive, grandiose and environmentally incorrect as that era may have been, it sure was swell.

His lectures and books, which include Americana the Beautiful: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome, and Southern California in the ‘50s: Sun, Fun and Fantasy, pull from his vast collection of “found” vintage slides (culled from visits to thrift stores, for one) to tell the amazing back-stories and glories of mid-century America. Of course, he can only offer surmised speculations on most of the figures in his slides, but he talks as if he knows them well. That’s because Mr. (“I knooooooow”) Phoenix is a child of this technicolor explosion that splat across the U.S. after WWII. He lived it. Growing up in Southern California, raised on Disneyland and his dad’s used car lot, Phoenix always loved the color-saturated, neon-drenched, texture-tattered, plastic-proliferating consumerist culture of the mid-twentieth century, an era that was basically a design renaissance for furniture, interiors and architecture.

In Addicted to Americana, Charles celebrates the best thing about Charles: Charles. It’s far more autobiographical in nature than previous ventures, as we join him on his remarkable road trips, sometimes meeting the people behind the Americana he celebrates. He gloriously balances the scale of reverence and merrymaking as he mixes his old slide photos with new ones, starring that wacky emcee himself, usually surrounded by mint-condition cars and foodstuff like donuts and pancakes with faces.

Designed with Kathy Kikkert, Phoenix’s trademark adjective-soaked, descriptive and alliterative humor shines through: “The Pyramid Room at Covina Bowl was a sensational symphony of coral, turquoise, and black, accessorized with matching mod-patterned carpet, table lamps, and chairs that look like they came straight out of your grandma’s kitchen.”

Collectors can take heart that so many curios still exist, Boomer babies will get a sense of bittersweet nostalgia, and newbies raised on mass-produced sameness should be amazed at the extent of style and how it once had a part in America’s everyday culture.

Addicted to Americana
Charles Phoenix (designed with Kathy Kikkert)
Hardcover | 176 pages | $29.95 retail
Prospect Park Books
distributed by Consortium
released October 3, 2017
available at Amazon

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