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Vintage Phoenix Artifact: Bill Johnson's Trailer

Bill Johnson's Big Apple

Just when you think you know everything there is to know about Phoenix, someone finds an old trailer, once owned by a barbecued-beef baron, that used to house a radio station and, well, you realize there's still more to learn about this crazy place.

Built by Bill Johnson of Bill Johnson's Big Apple Restaurant, the trailer — a long-bed number that Johnson hauled around with a Ford pickup truck — was used in the '60s as a mobile station for KTAR radio, host to Johnson's very own radio program, usually broadcast from a corner of his popular eatery. Later, Johnson used the trailer as a mobile office before sending it out on the road to promote his business.

"Someone would drive it around on weekend nights, back when traveling hootenannies were fashionable," explains local historian Marshall Shore. "They'd drive around, maybe over to Van Buren, and they'd park it somewhere and play records, and there'd be a dance. Back then, it took a truck to do that — you needed all this huge equipment to play music."

Once hoot nights became passé, the trailer wound up in a huge storage yard on Jefferson Street, languishing alongside old deep-fryers and used bathtubs. After Johnson died and the family divided his spoils, the trailer was headed, Shore says, for the dump — until it was donated by Johnson's granddaughter, Sherry Cameron, to the Roosevelt Row A.R.T.S. Village, a newish adaptive re-use project that's dressing up vacant lots with modified shipping containers.

"It's in the shop now," says Roosevelt Row maven Greg Esser. "But we hope to have the trailer up and running soon." Future plans include turning the vehicle into a mobile classroom — to teach kids about the old days of radio broadcasting — and possibly making it into a video editing lab.

"The graphics on the vehicle itself are amazing," says Shore, who's relieved that initial plans to repaint the trailer have been scrapped. "One fresh coat of paint, and all that history would have been lost."

The first time I ate shrimp, I was with my father. It was 1972; I was 10, and Dad's youngest brother, my Uncle John, was visiting from New Orleans. Dad wanted to take John out to dinner at someplace fancy, and so we drove all the way downtown, from the west side, where we lived, to John's Green Gables at 24th Street and Thomas.

Talk about fancy. There was a lifesize sculpture of a guy wearing a suit of armor, seated on a horse, out front. The interior was dark and cool and the menus were — at least in my memory of this auspicious occasion — bound in leather. Our waitress wore stockings with seams and her blond hair was piled way up near the ceiling.

Listen to Robrt Pela's podcast "Out to Eat" here.

Probably I remember this occasion so clearly because we never ate in restaurants, my family and me. My parents were children of the Great Depression and were therefore frugal. My mother was a talented cook who made everything — even pasta, which we called "macaroni" at my house — from scratch and was scandalized by what restaurants charged for a simple patty melt.

It was my father with whom I dined out. Whenever it was my mother's turn to host her canasta club, Dad would take me to dinner and a movie. We ate at Farrell's in Metrocenter, where Dad always ordered the au jus. He loved roast beef and, a fan of spoonerisms and all forms of wordplay, liked to joke about how au jus sounded like a good sneeze.

We went to Guggy's at Chris-Town, too. My prevailing memory of this all-day-breakfast place was that it served Hot House Eggs, a bread-and-fried-egg dish that my mother also made but called Egg-in-a-Hole, and that we always left time to ogle the suitcases and briefcases in the window next door at Leonard's (I was obsessed with luggage in the late 1960s).

Because we were usually on our way to the movies, Dad and I did a lot of diners and fast-food places — a joyously decadent experience for me, who never got junk food at home. I recall a trip to Burger Chef in Sunnyslope, where my father ordered onion rings and got French fries, and a place on Central Avenue, the name of which I can't recall, with car-hop service and really gigantic cheeseburgers.

Every time I'm watching an old movie and I see Arthur Treacher's name in the credits, I think of the time Dad took me to Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips and the guy at the counter got our orders mixed up. Mom wasn't playing cards that night; the occasion was that I was a giant pansy and — according to the grade-school principal who'd showed up unannounced at our house to say as much one day when I was 7 — I needed to spend more time with my father and less time looking at attaché cases.

So Dad took me to Arthur Treacher's. He ordered the eight-piece meal, and I ordered the four-piece, and they got switched. When I tried to get Dad to take his meal and give me mine, he wouldn't do it. The poor guy. He was probably terrified that he'd screw me up even more than he already had (sissies were still a relatively new idea in the late '60s, our existence usually blamed on bad parenting) by taking a fried fish combo away from me.

Every one of these restaurants is gone now. So, very recently, is my father. I'm happy that his last meal was a roast I prepared in beef broth, and I want to think that, while he and my mother sat eating, he was thinking up quippy things to say about sneezes.

Trapped behind chain-link and beneath the flight pattern of nearby Sky Harbor International Airport, Sacred Heart Church is all that remains of the once-glorious Golden Gate Barrio, the Mexican-American neighborhood demolished in the '70s to make room for the ever-expanding airport.

The church, erected in 1956, is a red brick stunner. Its arched entryway is capped by a circular portal, its rounded steeple topped with patinaed copper and steel. It's an important, historically listed building, and therefore can't be torn down — yet the city appears to have no immediate plans for it.

Barrio residents were evicted from the area in the '80s, thanks to eminent domain laws that allow the city to acquire private land for public use, and which can give property owners the boot in return for cash. Original plans to bulldoze Sagrado Corazón were scrapped when concerned citizens squeaked the church onto the National Historic Property Register in 2007.

There's since been talk of building a cultural center around the existing church, and rumors of a historical museum on the site. But thus far, none of the proposed plans for the abandoned building have been approved by the city.

Although a new, adobe-style Sagrado Corazón has been erected just south of the original, its parishioners celebrate Christmas mass each year at the old church, where they gather to remember the long-gone barrio and, perhaps, to pray that the city will spare this last remaining artifact of their collective past.

Vintage Phoenix Collection: Gary Gauthier's Phoenix Suns Memorabilia

Hanging sports collectibles on the wall was a big step, but painting those walls purple and orange marked another level of dedication, says Gary Gauthier, Valley resident and massive Phoenix Suns fan. Gauthier moved to Phoenix with his family in 1968, which coincidentally was the very year that the Phoenix Suns franchise joined the NBA. He takes pride in the fact that he has been a Phoenix Suns fan since literally day one.

Take a video tour of Gary Gauthier's home here.

Gauthier began acquiring Suns gear right away, and his collection spans all the way through the latest seasons. In fact, with another recent change in the design of the Suns logo, he admits that he'll have to add some new merchandise to his collection. Gauthier, a certified public accountant, and his wife, Susanne, have been Suns season ticket holders since the early '80s and have shared their love of the team with their two daughters. "We like the idea of being part of the action, and it's an opportunity to feel like you're participating and really supporting the team," he says about collecting.

The oldest piece of Gauthier's collection, and one that he considers to be "irreplaceable," is a latch-hook rug made for him by his grandfather in the 1970s. The rug, sporting the original Suns sunburst logo, is surrounded by an assortment of cardboard signs handed out at home games over the years.

Also on the purple, orange, and white walls are several old photographs of Suns players from the team's original days and memorable '92-'93 season, many of which are signed. The retro Suns logo pops up again on another plaque, this one made by Susanne Gauthier in the early '80s and signed by that year's Phoenix Suns roster.

Gauthier's Suns room contains several signed basketballs, but his favorite (for obvious reasons) is the one autographed by each member of the '92-'93 team, including Charles Barkley, Tom Chambers, and Kevin Johnson.

Don't be alarmed by the display of gigantic plush soldiers perched in lawn chairs outside the entrance to Guidon Books in Scottsdale, at 7109 East Second Street. They're just there to set the scene. Filled with new and out-of-print books on the Civil War, Wild West, Native American history, and more, Guidon Books is a resource for anyone, professional or not, interested in history.

And if you're really a history buff, Guidon has titles on Arizona history and early government, including books about the backgrounds of different cities and volumes of the state's legislative records.

Check out the complete slideshow of Guidon Books here.

Guidon has a multitude of local loyal customers along with tourists, but every year during spring training, owner Shelly Dudley says the store experiences an influx of baseball fans who also are Civil War and Western history collectors. The store hosts a monthly Civil War discussion group that is open to anyone and welcomes visitors from all over the country and world.

So what exactly is a guidon, you may wonder? It's a banner used by troops in the Civil War and American expansion to distinguish different military units from each other. Aaron and Ruth Cohen, both enthusiasts of books relating to Army officer George Custer and Confederate history, lived in Southern California before moving to Scottsdale to eventually open a bookstore in 1964. Dudley, their daughter and current proprietor of the store, says they would take trips across the country looking for books and browsing other collections. She developed her own love of history along the way and continues to order new titles and buy additional collections for the store.

Many tokens from the original store (a couple of blocks away in Old Town Scottsdale) still are part of the present Guidon Books, including wooden printed signs above the front door and under the shelves of new books, and a photo of the Cohens. Preserving the legacy of the original store is just as important to Guidon Books as embracing the history of the Civil War and Wild West, and they sure do a good job at both.

Vintage Phoenix Collection: Phoenix Art Museum's Philip C. Curtis Paintings

Phoenix Art Museum

From planting the seeds for an esteemed art museum in Phoenix to capturing the feel of a desert environment in a painting, the late Philip C. Curtis certainly left his creative mark on the city and the state.

Phoenix Art Museum is home to about 80 of Curtis' works. This collection ranges from some of his first paintings, done in New York in the 1930s and early 1940s, to some from the 1990s leading up to his death.

Take a video tour of Phoenix Art Museum's Philip C. Curtis collection here.

Curtis came to Phoenix in the late 1930s as part of the WPA. He was instrumental in setting up the Phoenix Art Center, then located in a vacant car dealership building on Seventh Street, which began to offer classes and bring in exhibitions.

Jim Ballinger, PAM director, Ballinger describes how the Phoenix Art Center slowly morphed into the Phoenix Art Museum because no real museum existed until then.

"Phil liked to say he was the first director of the Phoenix Art Museum," Ballinger says, "and in a way, it's true. It was the first formal space that we had, and you can see how it evolved." 

Curtis grew up in Jackson, Michigan. The Victorian architecture of his youth, combined with the isolated desert environment in which he spent the latter part of his life, certainly appear over and over again in Curtis' art.

"The inspiration is where he was and where he came from, all wrapped together," Ballinger says.

The Philip C. Curtis gallery at PAM is simple. The orange, brown, and cream-colored walls complement the paintings, and Curtis is further connected to the gallery by the inclusion of wooden chairs based on a mini version he designed. Inside the gallery, nearly all the art is by Curtis himself. Other artists' work is included as points of reference.

According to Ballinger, almost all of Curtis' work is in some way inspired by Arizona. Isolated desert environments were a sure part of his life, and the influence and presence of such landscapes is undeniable.

Tracks in Wax

It finally happened. I've stopped wanting to buy record albums.

It took nearly a half-century, and I'm not sure how I got here. Maybe I'm depressed, or tired, or maybe I've watched one too many episodes of Hoarders. Whatever the reason, I haven't spent much time lately sitting on the floor of my record closet. (People like me have record closets.) And I sort of lived in there for about 30 years.

Listen to Robrt Pela's "Final Vinyl" podcast.

I'd say that I'll miss the hunt, but the joy of finding that rare and unusual record vanished once eBay took off; today, your vinyl holy grail is pretty much always a couple of keystrokes away. And I'd say I'll miss visiting all the cool collectible record shops, but the truth is, there are not many of them to miss any more, really.

For decades, before most all of them closed up shop, I had a record store route: I'd start way out at Bookmans in Tempe, which had a music department run by a woman named Dino who gave clearance-sale pricing to her collectible vinyl. Then I'd head to Memory Lane Records, also in Tempe, a true collector's store run by a guy named Larry, where I'd stare longingly at all the mint-condition discs and, occasionally, shell out big bucks to buy something amazing. Back in Phoenix, I'd stop at the Zia on Indian School and then on to Prickly Pair on 12th Street, a massive, swamp-cooled room filled with low-priced treasures and overseen by a couple who bickered constantly, at least when I was there — thus, I suppose, the name of the shop.

I always ended my tour at Tracks in Wax on North Central Avenue. The owners, Dennis and Don Chiesa, were real record collectors. You could go in and say, "I'm looking for Shani Wallis' second album," and rather than ask "Who's Shani Wallis?" Dennis would chuckle and say, "I've only got the first one, on Kapp." These guys knew labels, and producers, and the most obscure artists you could mention.

Tracks in Wax opened in 1982, back when I was obsessing over late-'60s folk-rock records, and Dennis and I kind of bonded over John Stewart and Curt Boettcher. He was always trying to convince me to listen to more Bob Dylan and, when I read that Dennis died, two years ago, I played my well-worn copy of Highway 61 Revisited in his honor.

Dennis wasn't always the warmest person in any room, but he used to do this thing that proved he had a big heart: People would come in with a box of crap records — old, trashed Journey albums and 12-inch disco mixes and 45s with no sleeves; junk with zero resale value — and he'd give them five bucks for this useless garbage, just to be nice. After the customer had left, Dennis would put the box inside the front door with a sign reading, "Free records!"

Tracks in Wax is the only record store left from my old tour, and that may be why I'm less engaged in my old hobby. (Revolver Records over on Roosevelt is doing a good job of keeping the old collectible vinyl groove going, and Bookmans still sells LPs, but Dino must have moved on; the selection isn't quite the same these days.) It's possible that I finally have all the albums and singles I ever wanted, or maybe record collecting, a kind of a sickness, is something I've at last been cured of.

I sure hope Tracks in Wax is still there if I ever get sick again.

Tracks in Wax is at 4741 North Central Avenue. Visit www. tracksinwax.com.

Even when I haven't always loved living in Phoenix, I've always loved returning here — from any trip, long or short — so long as I get to return via Sky Harbor International Airport's Terminal 2. This smaller terminal, completed in 1962, is more navigable than the monster-size Terminals 3 and 4 and features a covered parking lot only a few yards away. Blissfully easy.

But more than the ease and comfort of this old-school terminal (which I have heard is doomed to be demolished in the near future — although every flack at Phoenix Sky Harbor has assured me the mural will be spared), I love the 16-by-75-foot mural created by artist Paul Coze, made to honor both the building and the Valley of the Sun in its prime.

Listen to Robrt Pela's podcast "From the Ashes" here.

A longtime landmark, the mixed-media mural brings together 52 different materials — mostly mosaic tiles, but also Sonoran sand, aluminum sheeting, and oil paint — applied to canvas and then attached directly to the wall.

Each of its three panels pay tribute to a different era in Arizona. The Earth is an homage to the Hohokam, the earliest prehistoric desert dwellers, as well as to current Arizona tribes, Arizona's Latino community, the LDS "Mormon Battalion," and the Southern Pacific Railroad. The mural's center panel, Water and Fire, offers the requisite blazing Phoenix bird of Greek mythology, rising from a desert date tree and surrounded by clouds raining into our very own Roosevelt Lake, the first water project of the National Reclamation Act of 1902. The third panel, The Air, is a hopeful tribute to Arizona's future that portrays outstretched hands, reaching for a sky filled with modernist symbols of ranching, mining, and agriculture.

It's a lot prettier than it sounds.

Coze, well-known in his native France, moved to the United States in the '30s and to Phoenix, as the French Consul to Arizona, in 1954. He ran an art school and became a favored public artist, commissioned to do many sculptures and murals here.

Fortunately for us, the Terminal 2 mural isn't the only one of those artworks remaining. His Western and Native Indian murals hang still in the largely passé Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and one of his giant wall paintings graces offices at the Phoenix City Council chambers. Coze's best-known piece is also his most ravaged: The 18-foot-tall bronze and glass Phoenix that graces the entry to Town and Country Shopping Center at Camelback Road and 20th Street, created in 1958, has been treated more like a pesky crow. It's still there, but it's been moved at least once, remounted to a new pedestal, and — horrors! — even painted white.

I can almost bear the damage done to the Town and Country bird, so long as I get to sometimes see Coze's Terminal 2 mural. To my eyes, the Phoenix in this assemblage promises something greater — glamour, art, history — than the city itself offers. I love this prominent artwork, but my relationship with it is bittersweet.

Mr. Lucky's

As with so many old-time local hotspots, the sign remains though the business is kaput. But the Mr. Lucky's sign is more than just a gaudy gravestone for a once-flourishing nightclub; it's the main attraction in a clutch of the coolest vintage signs in the city. Along Grand Avenue, between Roosevelt and 57th Drive, you'll find the rusted-out Smith Radiator Exchange marquee; the brightly Modernist sign for the City Center Motel; the fast-fading marker for the Crystal Motel; and the Mel's Diner sign, made famous in the film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (and the subsequent TV show, Alice).

But it's the Mr. Lucky's sign that's legendary. And what a sign. A demented court jester leers knowingly at the traffic speeding by, his three-pointed hat decked with dangly red pom-pons. The light-up "Dancing" and "Cocktails" placards have been replaced with signs promising "Musica" and "En Vivo," remnants of Mr. Lucky's last incarnation as a Mexican mariachi club. Neon aficionados far and wide remain concerned about the future of this gorgeous landmark (at 3660 Grand Avenue) — proof of its prominence and real beauty.

Once our town's hottest saloon, the former hotspot began as a smartly appointed casino in 1966. Shortly after, public gambling became verboten here, and owner Bob Sikora turned his casino into a honky-tonk, with country music headliners performing most nights upstairs and live rock bands in the club's cavernous basement.

The house band, The Rogues (fronted by J. David Sloan, a former member of Willie Nelson's touring band and now a local celeb in his own right) occasionally fronted visiting dignitaries, who included Waylon Jennings, Marty Robbins, Glen Campbell, and Charley Pride.

Today, Mr. Lucky's amateur hour contests and Friday night fish fry are mere memories; the club closed in 2004 (although it's reportedly available to rent for party events), leaving behind a big, gorgeous reminder: the towering neon sign out front, surrounded by chain link, its bulbs as dead as the club it once announced.

Vintage Phoenix Collection: Danny Zelisko's Concert Memorabilia

Danny Zelisko has so much concert memorabilia that some of it is even boxed up by artist, sometimes untouched for years.

He may not know exactly what is in there, but based on the remainder of his extensive collection of signed posters and shirts, it's bound to be impressive. Zelisko, founder of the concert-promoting business Evening Star Productions, began his work in the live-music industry in 1974 and estimates that he has since been involved in the production of between 9,000 and 10,000 concerts. He began promoting straight out of high school, starting with local smaller-venue shows, and now has put on productions for artists as huge as Paul McCartney and Billy Joel.

Take a video tour of Danny Zelisko's Concert Memorabilia collection here.

From that multitude of shows, Zelisko has kept every artist contract, backstage pass, ticket, setlist, T-shirt, and anything else that he has been able to secure afterward. His collection is spread over various locations, between his office, warehouse storage, and even Alice Cooper'sTown restaurant.

This is a guy who definitely has trouble throwing stuff away. In the back of one of his storage units are several large boxes, each filled with rolled-up oversize posters that once were on display at Comerica Theatre to promote upcoming shows. Zelisko began keeping these posters instead of allowing them to meet the sad fate of a dumpster, and he maintains the same mentality when it comes to saving other concert memorabilia, past and present. Not only does he have boxes from small local concerts spanning his entire almost-40-year career, Zelisko has stacks of framed posters from larger shows, the majority of which are signed by the artists themselves. (When Zelisko promotes a show, he always gets an autograph.)

Among the mass of Zelisko's framed posters are a few standouts, most notably several signed Bruce Springsteen posters, one of which was among the very first events ever put on at the newly inaugurated America West Arena. Many of the posters advertise shows at venues that either no longer exist or since have been renamed, showing the connections that live music can have to Phoenix history. Performances by artists from Cher to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are listed at venues such as the University Activity Center at ASU and Glendale Arena, places that modern concert-going Phoenicians don't experience any longer. It would take multiple pages to list every musician or band featured on Zelisko's posters, but it's easy to tell that he is particularly fond of vintage posters and memorabilia featuring Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and Jeff Beck, among many others.

To Zelisko, the most satisfying aspect of keeping his collection is knowing the story of each piece and sharing it with others who are interested. "Everything's got a value to somebody!" he says with a smile.

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