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Dreams Come True: From Finding Your Thing To Work That Matters (with Kodachrome!)

{This is the fifth installment of my Dreams Come True series. In my previous posts you can read about living in a tropical island paradise, zombie author Max Brooks, overnight editor Jade Walker and cruise ship artifact rescuer Peter Knego.}

In this series, I’m writing about accomplished people who forged their own unique path to a thriving career. What’s special about them is that they were able to connect their essential selves to work they love. Over the next few articles I’m going to share their stories so you can see how they got to where they are. Their stories are inspiring – if they can do it, you can do it too.

For some people, like today’s subject, their path to a career wasn’t obvious until suddenly, it was. What they demonstrate is how a path reveals itself through a combination of experience and inner knowing.

These people didn’t sit and think their way to their ultimate career, they felt it. Something unexpected just clicks for them and they have an “ah-ha” moment that THIS IS IT. And they keep going in that direction, one step at a time, even when the steps are not entirely clear.

Let me introduce you to mid-century pop culture expert Charles Phoenix, the “Ambassador of Americana”. He is known for his retro slideshows. This is how he describes himself:

“I guess that I’m a – I mean, gosh, I do a lot of things, I don’t know quite how to say what I do – I’m a vintage culture vulture, really, at the end of the day. I’m a one man show, live on stage. In it I celebrate classic and kitschy American life and style and tell stories and show pictures of me going in search of time-warps and treasures across the United States. Mostly inspired by things that I’ve seen in the vintage Kodachrome slides that I’ve been collecting for 25 years.”

He grew up in southern California and moved to Los Angeles when he was 19. He worked as a fashion designer and he sold classic cars. The moment that changed the direction of his life came when he was 30.

“I found a little blue shoe box of slides, in a thrift shop, marked “Trip across the United States 1957” and I opened the box up, I held a few up and I knew this was a treasure with my name on it and I knew immediately that I had discovered something very special. This was 1992 – found photography was not a thing, at all. I remember then finding several more collections at estate sales and flea markets in the short weeks thereafter and really knowing this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to take these slides and I’m going to sort through them and I’m going to categorize subjects and get rid of the ones that have no interest to anyone in the future, or me, ever (out of focus pictures of dirt, basically). I’m going to do something with them – I’m not sure what.”

He soon came up with an idea – a slide show for his friends in his living room. They loved it. One of his friends suggested he present his collection at the California Map and Travel Center in West LA which held a regular Monday night slide show series.

“I’d already been collecting for 5 years. So I went over there and I told the lady who books the slide shows that I’d really love to do this. She said, no one will ever be interested in looking at other people’s old slides, so I’m sorry, I’m not going to give you a Monday night. So I said, I’m going to bring you some. I went back the next day and I had a couple of sleeves full of these mid-century Kodachrome slides and I held them up to the light and I said, look, this is what I’m talking about. They immediately booked a date.”

“I did the show there and within the first few slides, I said something and the audience all roared laughing and I knew, that’s how you guys want to enjoy this. We’re not laughing at, we are laughing with. This is joy. I realized immediately about the reaction to what I do is that it is a celebration of our own lives and our parents’ lives and our grandparents’ lives and there’s something very warm and satisfying about doing that when at the same time paying tribute to our culture. ”

“That night there happened to be a woman in the audience who wrote for the LA Times Magazine and she said, I’m doing an article on this, when’s your next slide show? I said, I don’t have a next slide show. She said, book one. The piece came out in the magazine and 300 people showed up. I kept doing them little by little, here and there, at coffee places and stuff like that, and then finally someone said, people would pay for this. I said, that’s good because I could use some money. I’ve been charging ever since. It became my livelihood pretty quickly.”

In addition to his retro slideshows, Charles now leads tours of vintage landmarks in downtown LA, creates videos for his original recipes from his test kitchen (“puttin’ the kitsch in kitchen”), and has published several collections of vintage images.

“We live in a wonderland to discover. There is something interesting around almost every single corner, no matter where you go. But you’ve gotta be looking for it.

Thanks to the podcast Home: Stories from L.A. for inviting Charles Phoenix to share his story. Listen here.

Watch a short documentary about Charles Phoenix here.

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