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Bubble Gum Paradise

Southern California's '50s Heritage

November 18, 2001|GINNY CHIEN

Call him the King of Retro, ruling over a bygone era of Googie-style coffee shops, ranch-style tract homes and classic Caddies. Having written several books on mid-century pop culture, Charles Phoenix knows a thing or two about vintage relics. His latest work, "Southern California in the '50s: Sun, Fun and Fantasy," mines the landscape from Santa Barbara to San Diego for all things nostalgic. The coffee table tome, issued this fall by Angel City Press, ambles down a memory lane of dairy farm billboards and drive-in theaters in the decade when Disneyland opened for business and the region's sprawling freeway network took shape.

"Southern California experienced a tremendous growth spurt during the '50s, unlike anything the country had ever seen," says the author. "Hollywood was in its heyday. Suburban houses replaced acres of orange groves. The driving culture really took off. New ways of life were coming to a head that have come to define the Southern California lifestyle."

Prior Phoenix works include books on Hawaii and Las Vegas in the '50s and a volume on Southern California's Pomona Valley. "Everything I find fascinating boils down to that period," says Phoenix, 38, who grew up in the '60s. But he finds the '50s "more colorful and less restrained, almost sugarcoated." Indeed, images from the new book burst with bubble gum appeal, including a rare 1954 photo of a McDonald's stand in Alhambra crowned by the now-abandoned golden arches, and an Alpha Beta matchbook cover featuring "Alphy," the supermarket mascot.

Phoenix traces his nostalgic bent to his boyhood admiration for the swank old automobiles at his dad's used-car lots. "SUVs don't have those great big fins, they don't come in fun Easter egg colors," he says. A classic car dealer for a time, the Ontario, Calif., native segued into vintage car ads and got immersed in literature from historical societies.

Phoenix isn't optimistic that contemporary times will inspire the kind of nostalgia accorded the postwar decades. He recalls a song from Disneyland's now-defunct Carousel of Progress (which debuted during the 1960s): "It's a bright, big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day, and tomorrow is just a dream away." "That verse sums up the prevailing sentiment of the '50s, and it's just not that way anymore," he says. "We're a little spooked by what may happen tomorrow."

Program information for Charles Phoenix's "God Bless Americana retro slide show tour of Southern California" is available at (866) slide show or

Fun Facts From "Southern California in the '50s"

The Miss Universe Pageant started in Long Beach in 1952 as a promotion for Catalina Swimwear.

Donald Nixon, brother of the future president, opened a drive-in in 1952 featuring a double-decker Nixon Burger with cheese.

Houses in Lakewood, said to

be the world's largest tract home development, cost $7,500 to $9,500 during the '50s.

Catalina Airlines offered DC-3 service to the island throughout the decade, and Avalon Air Transport operated amphibious planes that landed in the bay. Trips lasted about 20 minutes.

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