From old-school traditional to kooky and quirky, everyone's got a preferred style to celebrate the holidays. If you're seeking out unusual food or vintage family fun ideas this season, Charles Phoenix may be able to help: the LA-based historian, humorist, food crafter, tour guide, and author of "Americana the Beautiful" has become the go-to guy for all things retro.
What are his favorite local holiday traditions?
"I'm completely obsessed with Logan's Candy Store in my hometown of Ontario, California, where they've been making handmade candy canes to perfection since 1933," Phoenix says. "Also, I love to drive down Christmas Tree Lane, in Alta Dena, which is the oldest holiday light show in the country. Also in Alta Dena, the Balian Ice Cream House, is really incredible."
Phoenix's 30-year fascination with eras past began as a kid in his dad's used car lots, and grew into a teenage interest in theme park design and thrift shopping. For 20 years, he's collected vintage Kodachrome slides he finds in thrift shops, cherry-picking the best for his holiday slide shows. Still, the self-admitted "retro geek" says classic Christmas traditions are his favorites.
"Just this morning I came upon a lot that sold flocked Christmas trees in burgundy, pink, yellow, mint green, powder blue, charcoal, black, and white," he says. "I stopped and asked the guy to flock me a tree in five different colors.
"I told him to make it look like rainbow sherbet," he says, laughing.
If Pee-wee Herman fathered a love child with Martha Stewart (on whose TV show Phoenix appears, occasionally, as well as on KCET-TV and "Conan"), it would be Phoenix himself, who hasn't met a color he didn't l-o-v-e and whose opinions on decor are more and more in demand - even on a topic as simple as Christmas lighting.
"For me, Christmas lights are like Christmas trees," Phoenix explains. "There's no such thing as a bad job. I don't care if you spend a fortune hiring a lighting designer to do a perfect job or if you're a total hack, to me it's all the same.
To set the mood for his Christmas crafting, Phoenix loves music, and his current holiday preference is Juan Garcia Esquivel, the mid-century Mexican bandleader. Esquivel's version of "Jingle Bells" is on high rotation on the kitsch king's playlist.
"It's space-age, dipsy-doodle-doink," laughs Phoenix. "It's hilarious. But I also love singing along with Nat King Cole, Andy Williams, The Carpenters, and all the other classic Christmas songs, year after year."
Phoenix's best-known claim to fame may be his lowbrow food crafting: his "Astro-Weenie Christmas Tree" is a two-foot-tall high hors d'oeuvre tower; his famous "Cherpumple" stacks and bakes a cherry, pumpkin, and apple pie inside a giant cake. Last year for the holidays he made a waist-high Christmas tree out of Jell-O using an ordinary traffic safety cone - a concoction that featured working electric lights inside. His latest creation is "Frosty the Cheeseball Man."
"You get three Velveeta balls, small, medium, and large," Phoenix explains. "First you frost them with cream cheese, stack them up, and decorate them with a vegetable face and little pretzel arms.
"Then put your Frosty in an electric skillet, gather all your party guests around, say 'cheers,' and plug him in. In about 25 minutes you have cheese dip for everybody."
Phoenix insists he's not making fun of culture but rather finding the humor in it. "So many people take everything so seriously," he smiles. "It's like, people! Lighten up!
For Phoenix, it's not about making things perfect; it's about just jumping in and doing it. "It's not about making the perfect Cherpumple," he says, "it's about making the Cherpumple."
If you're hungry for more imperfect seasonal inspiration, Phoenix is taking his Retro Holiday Show on the road the last week before Christmas, when he'll be presenting his eagle-eyed and quick-witted holiday observations - based around his favorite found slides - to venues in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Ventura.
Going retro, it turns out, may be the most modern Christmas touch of all.