Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Charles Phoenix's "Southern Californialand: Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome": Book Review

Like many of the previous reviewers (on Amazon US, where this appeared May 19), I grew up east of L.A. during the period of (at least the later decades!) of these Kodachrome slides. We shopped at the same White Front where he met the Brady Bunch. I can attest to Phoenix's knowledge of what he lovingly documents. His often witty, reverent, and informative captions show his scrutiny. For instance, as a native of the Pomona Valley, he knows that a mile-long monorail ride with no windows or air-conditioning at the County Fair would, indeed, be agonizing in Labor Day temperatures for the region!

My favorite factoid: an Arcadia supermarket's interior cornucopia is dated within the week it was shot. How? There's a dimly visible magazine rack in the center of a panoramic composition. Phoenix must have researched the "Time" cover, which he identifies as June 20, 1960. Stephen T. McCarthy in his review (I agree with his China remarks; but I checked this out from the library!) has already admired the Desert Hot Springs pool comments, which I found the cleverest in the book, but I also must nod to the "Perfect Suburban Couple" lounging on a dangerously white-grey loveseat with surrounded by three ashtrays. The city looks-- as it must have been-- far emptier and thanks to the film stock much more colorful and less dusty. Ike and Mamie materialize in Palm Springs, 1962, and as Phoenix marvels, there's a distinct lack of Secret Service around their arrival. A middle-aged crowd of cavorting couples at an Ike-era pool 'n' patio party does look, from the looks on their faces and the empty martini glasses on the table, to be progressingly quite well!

You learn of the fate of the Farmer John muralist in Vernon, how the Cabazon dinosaurs arose, and how sturdy the demolition team found the ironically named House of the Future at Disneyland. The vanished kiddy parks, the ones that Disneyland helped make obsolete even as they inspired Disney's idea of a theme attraction wonderland, find a place here-- I'm curious how many there were in the Southland alone. Similarly, the demo derby race tracks and drag strips, but not nearly enough of the drive-ins (only Compton's Viking-themed one, which may astonish contemporary fans of that suburb) are shown. I suppose the author must work with what he has from chance finds taken by ordinary folks, but I expected more coverage of iconic edifices such as these.

There's a great snap of the parting of the Red Sea on the set of "The Ten Commandments," which I am not sure was taken by an amateur tourist or was an official souvenir. I'd have liked to have known that, among the considerable amount of fascinating detail that Phoenix provides in his two paragraphs of comments. For non-natives, it'd might have been useful to have a simple map of the region, perhaps a period one, with "pins" stuck where the photos were taken.

This anthology may appeal to those readers, as with me, from the same region as the author, and in the same decades, so my enthusiasm may be tinged by nostalgia. I wish that one of the final photos, that of a location that captivated me, Rialto's Wigwam Village, had a caption-- it's relegated silently to the last page's credits. Still, reliving my boyhood amazement in Tomorrowland's Carousel of Progress at Disneyland, laughing at the author's careful observation of his hometown's Hot Dog Stand's iconography, or pondering how southeast L.A.'s suburbs look so much fresher and innocent then than now in the tracthome postwar boom era does make for a valuable collection that probably could have been three times the length and remained entertaining. I guess that's why he has published his other popular culture image collections.


No comments: