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  • Best of Phoenix 2013: Vintage Phoenix

Vintage Phoenix Collection: Heidi Abrahamson's Native American Jewelry

Heidi Abrahamson taps on her couch, retro turntable spinning in the background, and invites her Siamese cat to jump up beside her. She produces a stylish cat collar, made of silver Native American beads strung along a bright red band, from behind her back and ties it around the impatient feline's neck. Her cat may be a grudging model, but its stunning collar is one of many ways that Native American silver and turquoise jewelry has worked its way into Abrahamson's home.

A Phoenix resident for 18 years, Abrahamson began collecting Native American jewelry as a high schooler in the early '70s, long before she moved to Arizona. She's largely influenced by her mother and remembers acquiring the first pieces of her collection at flea markets and old pawn shops in Friendship, Indiana. From there, Abrahamson has added to her menagerie of turquoise in Seattle, Miami, and many places in between. Colorful and diverse, her collection represents jewelry from Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni tribes.

Watch a video of Heidi Abrahamson explaining her love of Native American jewelry here.

It's obvious that Abrahamson has an attachment to each piece in her collection, and for a variety of reasons. Her oldest piece — of which she's particularly fond — is a pair of turquoise earrings from the late '40s. A few pieces, including a "scrimshaw," belonged to her parents. Among her more conventional jewelry items, Abrahamson also shows off belts, a comb, and giant bangles.

Abrahamson remains fascinated by the handiwork that goes into creating the jewelry, and her awe is visible as she describes the tedious bead-making processes that are an integral in its making. A turquoise and squash-blossom silver necklace is particularly impressive when you know that each of its elaborate beads is handcrafted. Abrahamson is quite skilled at making jewelry of her own — which you can see (and boy) at heidiabrahamson.com — but for the most part, she refrains from using turquoise. It's her respect for the cultural significance of turquoise Native American jewelry making that keeps her from trying to create anything like it.

MacAlpine's Soda Fountain and Espresso Bar

MacAlpine's is it: the last of the vintage soda shops. First opened in 1928, the former Birch's Pharmacy became MacAlpine's Rexall Drugs 10 years later — a popular pharmacy with a lunch counter and soda fountain. In 1991, Monica Heizenrader bought it and has been running it, with her two daughters and son-in-law, as a diner and antiques shop ever since. Monica stopped slinging vintage hash one recent weekday, just long enough to talk about ghosts, and victory rolls, and the chewing gum of Wayne Newton.

Robrt Pela: Way back when, lots of famous people hung out at MacAlpine's.

Monica Heizenrader: Oh, yes. Back in the old days, it was a real Who's Who of customers around here. Frank Lloyd Wright used to drive downtown just to eat here. Barry Goldwater was here for lunch a lot. And Wayne Newton.

RP: Not Wayne Newton.

MH: Yes. I heard he was discovered here. I've been told he used to sit at the counter and sing along to the jukebox with his brother. We think his DNA is in the bubblegum stuck under the counter.

RP: Is that why you bought the place? Are you planning to clone Wayne Newton? Because one Wayne Newton appears to be enough.

MH: No! I knew the man who owned MacAlpine's, and I knew it was struggling. Before I had children, I had owned and operated restaurants and really enjoyed that. I came down here and fell in love with the place. I knew they were going to close it, and the plan was they were going to auction off the entire contents on eBay. I couldn't let that happen.

RP: So you bought MacAlpine's to save it. But who eats here now? I mean, do local celebrities still come in for a Chili Size?

MH: No. We do have a lot of attorneys, I suppose because we're downtown and this is where they work. When we first reopened, there would be days where literally every table was seated with lawyers. Now we've got a more diverse customer base — lots of people from the neighborhood and from all over.

RP: All over where?

MH: Europe! We've had people come in from however many miles away Europe is — maybe 8,000? — because one of their friends told them they just had to eat here, or because they saw us on the Internet and made this a stop on their trip to America. Sometimes, people are shopping at our antique store next door and they wander in and discover our diner that way.

RP: Speaking of your antique shops, I have never seen so many outdoor furniture sets in one place in my life.

MH: It's true. We have a ton of them. The older stuff is so well made, it never falls apart. And it looks better than the new garden furniture from Walmart. We buy entire estates, and there seems to always be an old garden furniture set.

RP: What's left at MacAlpine's from the old days? I mean, besides Wayne Newton's gum.

MH: The shelves that line the walls are from the original pharmacy. The soda fountain is original. The booths were brought in from a restaurant back east. They're very old, and they look original to MacAlpine's, but they're not. We put them in where the cough syrup and the shampoo and the comic books used to be, back in the '30s.

We finally had to replace the original flooring. It was all different levels, and I kept tripping. We went with a period-correct look. We did Jadeite green. Very '20s.

RP: But everyone seems to think of MacAlpine's as a '50s diner.

MH: That's probably because people associate soda fountains with the '50s, thanks to, you know, Happy Days and the fact that so many rock 'n' roll movies have scenes set in diners where someone is playing a jukebox and someone is sitting at the counter, drinking a malted. But pharmacy diners and soda fountains go way back. You know, it was a pharmacist who invented Coca-Cola, which was originally something to settle your stomach, back in the '20s.

RP: Well, just about everyone knows that.

MH: Our décor is from the '20s through the '50s, but the '50s is the decade people are entranced with. They find it more interesting than the '20s. Greasers and rock 'n' roll are more iconic than big band music from the '40s, I guess. When my daughter Holly waitressed here, she wore her hair in a victory roll, from World War II.

RP: I always thought a victory roll was a kind of a biscuit.

MH: It's a hairdo. It's in the shape of a V, for victory.

RP: I'll have to try that some time. So, is there such a thing as vintage menu items?

MH: Well, our most popular thing here is our Sloppy Joe.

RP: Is that a food from the '30s? Or just something that no other restaurant around here serves?

MH: It's more of a comfort food thing — people like to eat things from their childhood. It's the same with chocolate malteds, and phosphates and egg creams. Do you know what those are?

RP: Sort of. They're like malts, but made with cream and eggs. Right?

MH: Well, there are no eggs in an egg cream. And no cream.

RP: Of course not.

MH: But they're delicious. We have 99 flavors of syrup to put into our shakes and malts and egg creams. My favorite is one called Wedding Cake Ice Cream. It tastes just like wedding cake.

RP: I should hope so. So, is MacAlpine's haunted?

MH: I think it is. By quite a few ghosts — but good ones, not bad ones. A man who worked here from 1946 to 1991 heard ghosts walking around in the attic. One night my daughter and I were here late, baking, and we went to sit on the couch, and it felt like someone came and sat down next to us. And one of our customers sees a man sitting at the back table, and then he vanishes. The same customer sees another ghost, sitting at the counter and watching me very closely.

RP: Maybe he's afraid you're going to steal someone's tips.

MH: I like to think he's watching over me. And MacAlpine's.

It happened again the other day. I met someone at a cocktail party — a museum docent who used to live downtown — and we got to talking about the older neighborhoods in Phoenix and which historic districts we preferred. When I mentioned the corner our home is located on, she squealed, "Oh, my God! You live in the Monkey House!"

Apparently. Everyone in our neighborhood, it seems, as well as dozens of people we've met over the past 12 years, knows our home as the Monkey House — because the guys who lived there in the '80s and '90s kept pet monkeys there. Also snakes.

Listen to Robrt Pela's podcast "Monkey House Shines" here.

When we first moved onto the block, our very nice neighbors were quick to fill us in. "They kept the chimpanzees upstairs," Susan from across the street told us. "The monkeys were in the back bedroom, and they howled at night."

"In cages?" my husband asked. But Susan just laughed. Apparently the monkey guys were free spirits who didn't believe in caging their pets, no matter how wild.

"The animals had the run of this place," our former gardener, who'd attended parties at the Monkey House, told me one day. "I don't remember a lot of monkey shit or terrible smells, but those chimps were mean. One of the little fuckers bit me once when I tried to grab a water bong it was holding."

"I think the cobras were in the basement," Kathy next door said. "Or maybe they were pythons. Either way, I'm sure they took all the reptiles with them when they moved."

I don't have anything against snakes, but that comment provided fodder for a recurring dream in which I come home to discover a yellow anaconda in the breakfast room, quietly digesting a lump that used to be one of our housecats.

We wonder why our house didn't become known as the Fireman Brother House, in honor of the pair of firefighter siblings who did such a nice job turning it from an indoor petting zoo back into a livable three-bedroom. Or Oddly Patriotic Couple House, after the husband and wife we bought it from, who named their children Liberty and Justice (and who later, I like to imagine, had another child they named For All).

Monkey House is a better name, I guess. And it's hard to trump an indoor wildlife zoo. While it's not a terrible thing to live in a notorious building, I do wish people would stop bringing us monkeys as gifts. Ceramic planter chimpanzees and Pez dispenser Rhesus monkeys and, perhaps most memorably, a toaster cozy shaped like an orangutan — we've got them all. Lamps with tails and bookends clutching bananas and a tamarin doorstop. If only our house had a reputation as a good place to drop off big bags of cash instead of tchotchkes with baby gibbons glued to them.

I suppose I'm afraid that, after a certain number of people have visited us and seen all the monkey paraphernalia, our house will become known as Grouchy Guys with Bad Taste House.

Vintage Phoenix Artifact: Leona Caldwell's Patio Wear

Leona Caldwell liked birds.

The late designer, revered in fashion circles by in-the-know locals, screen-printed her garments with roadrunners and owls. She designed ceramic jewelry studded with her drawings of quail, as well as purses and hats printed with cactus and cactus wrens.

Caldwell, who died in 2003, drew inspiration from the desert, where she lived her entire life. Born on a farm near Peoria in 1912, Caldwell married and raised her family there, and returned to school at Arizona State Teacher's College in Tempe to study art, later opening a private ceramics studio. After her husband died in 1954, she opened Leona Caldwell Originals in the Kiva Craft Center on Scottsdale's tony Fifth Avenue in Scottsdale, selling her work alongside local artisans like Charles Loloma and Paolo Soleri.

Today, Caldwell's simple, colorful, and playful designs — inspired by Hohokam artifacts, as well as by Sonoran plants and animals — are highly collectible and instantly recognizable to desert fashionistas. A fringed yellow workshirt and printed with prickly pear, a magenta shirtdress studded with quail, a sleeveless shift emblazoned with a century plant in full bloom — all are enjoying renewed attention, thanks to websites like Etsy and fashion peddlers like Robert Black, who carries Caldwell's work in his Scottsdale boutique, www.fashionbyrobertblack.com.

"Leona Caldwell represents what was great about the past in the downtown Scottsdale fashion scene," Black says. "Her screen-printed dresses and ceramic jewelry adorned the locals as well as the visitors who traveled from all over the world."

Leona made Arizona look cool, comfortable, and fashionable.

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.

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