Finding Humor in Retro Culture

As Mid-Century Modern becomes desired, preserved and collected, many cities — Cincinnati included — have started Modernism tradeshows where period design objects are sold and advice is given on home restorations.

 NOV 5, 2014 


The recent growth in popularity of all things Mid-Century Modern — from flowing, stone-and-glass showcase homes like Eero Saarinen’s Miller House in Columbus, Ind., to the “Googie”-style neon-bedecked coffee shops and drive-ins of the 1950s — has been good for pop culture humorist Charles Phoenix.

As Mid-Century Modern becomes desired, preserved and collected, many cities — Cincinnati included — have started Modernism tradeshows where period design objects are sold and advice is given on home restorations.

But those shows and related events need a little entertainment, too. And they often turn to Phoenix, a Southern California native and Los Angeles resident who has developed quite a career as a “retro daddy” humorist/archivist for all things Americana. Especially all things Mid-Century Modern.

He has never been to Cincinnati (though he wants to visit), but he is appearing Thursday night at the Dayton Art Institute with his Big Retro Slide Show, a “roast and toast” of found and sourced American kitsch Kodachrome photo slides. (Tickets are available for $30 and $26 for seniors at

Speaking by phone, Phoenix says this rise in interest in Modernism reflects a cultural shift as the generation of adults that prospered and started families in the 1950s is moving on. They wanted to show their wealth by constantly embracing newness — new subdivisions, new homes, new cars, new appliances.

To them, once something was even 10 years old, it had no value. It was passé, disposable, forgotten. Now, in a more preservation-oriented time, Mid-Century Modern is old enough to be historic.

“The people who were taught to hate something because it was 10 years old or even five years old are not around anymore,” Phoenix says. “It’s a whole new group of people now who are appreciating this stuff that has survived. They didn’t know we were once programmed to hate that stuff, like that Modernist building that’s out of style now because it was ‘so 10 years ago’.”

And this has been great for him because he has always loved “retro” stuff — not just Mid-Century buildings but also classic food brands, 1950s cars, Polynesian-style tiki culture, old burger stands … you name it. And he now has a sizeable audience that shares his love and gets his jokes.

“My style guide is what I was raised in,” Phoenix says. “I’m a child of Southern California, of Disneyland. My dad had a used car lot when I was a child. I started from that springboard and then looking around. When I was a teenager, I discovered vintage clothes and thrift stores. From there, I started looking at architecture and unique stuff. When I started looking around, a lot of things happened to be Mid-Century stuff. But that’s not just my world. I’m about all kinds of classic and kitschy American life and style.”

Phoenix’s career as a “retro humorist” really started in 1992, when he found a box of slides titled, “A Trip Across the United States 1957.” It was someone’s discarded souvenirs of a family vacation. In 1998, he held his first public slide-show event. As each slide is presented, he comments on its small details — the clothing, the hairstyles, the furniture and decorations, the food choices, the awkward poses, the relationship between family members — that cumulatively evoke how life was lived in the recent past. His is an exercise in how to “read” a photograph.

“By the middle of 1999, I was charging for my slide shows and within a couple of years that was my sole job,” he says. “Before that, I had started my professional life as a fashion designer in my 20s in the 1980s, and during my 30s in the 1990s I bought and sold classic cars.”

As interest in “found footage” has increased, Phoenix no longer can count on finding vintage slide collections at flea markets and home sales. His shows today mix old slides with new photos he takes (digitally) of retro objects and places he sees during his travels.

One example — which may or may not be in the Dayton slide show — would be 79-year-old K’s Hamburger Shop in Troy, Ohio, which he discovered on a Dayton visit two years ago. He figures he’ll go through more than 150 images in his Dayton presentation.

“I don’t consider myself a historian but an entertainer; Americana is my shtick,” Phoenix says. “It’s my curatorial take on this stuff that we’re selling, rather than the stuff itself. I’m just trying to educate people with humor to open their eyes and see that we live in a wonderland and there’s interesting stuff everywhere.”

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