When I was 8, I picked out a stuffed seal from the gift shop at SeaWorld in San Diego. He was gray, firm and fuzzy, and I promptly named him Salty using all the imagination my tiny head could muster. (Seals live in the ocean. The ocean is salty. Voilà!)
I owned a sprawling menagerie of stuffed animals, including Bugs Bunny, Snoopy and this cruddy sawdust snake I won at a carnival, but Salty immediately became my favorite. When I accidentally spilt milk on him, I erupted in tears. I liked him that much.
A handsome fella with a minimalist design — nubby flippers, dark glass eyes, a few canine whiskers — Salty beat out Bugs and a hand-me-down teddy bear as my preferred plush, realigning the delicate balance of the toy hierarchy. Indeed, during my last move, I donated all of my stuffed animals except Salty, who even now sits out, visible to all. He radiates pinniped pride.
Salty had it easy. His job was to be an object of cuddle-osity and little more. I never drafted him for elaborate games or humiliating role-playing frolics. He has an almost comically serious face, and I could tell he would brook no foolishness.
I left that to my, huh-hum, KISS dolls, creatures that were all about foolishness. Infected with the KISS bug before I turned 10, I greedily got my hands on the original dolls of Gene, Ace, Paul and Peter and was thrilled. I built them a big stage trimmed with Christmas lights. I never used it.
Because what does a non-collector — the dolls’ valuable packaging went straight into the garbage — do with plastic figures of rock stars, who also happen to be comic book heroes? Well, you play dolls, naturally.
This is where I look sillier than usual. My next-door neighbor Joanie, a year older than me, owned the requisite Barbie and Ken dolls. I brought over the KISS guys and we dreamt up a scenario of Ken secretly being Gene Simmons without make-up, and then, when his superhero powers were conjured, I’d pull out the Gene doll.
And there you have the presto-chango transformation from a blonde beefcake Republican to a hairy, tongue-wagging Neanderthal who belches blood and exhales fire.
Lest you think I only played with a stoic seal and kabuki-faced clowns, my brother and I also wrung creative mileage from a caped Evel Knievel action figure (including a small motorcycle); a doll of sensible chimp Cornelius from “The Planet of the Apes”; and, of course, a kung-fu grip G.I. Joe, whose buzzcut fell out when we put him in the bathtub.
I also liked the thick rubber dude called Stretch Armstrong — he was very stretchy, pull, and that was it — who met a grisly demise when, out of pure boredom, I sliced him open and synthetic pink jelly oozed out. (I think my plastic Army men found a gnarlier fate: I lit them on fire and watched them melt into gooey puddles.)
Only Salty survives. His plush playmates are somewhere in the Salvation Army ether, hopefully finding good homes, many, like that pitiful carnival snake, probably sacrificed to the incinerator. The KISS dolls are somewhere, packed away. I think. I don’t really know. And I kind of don’t care. I don’t exactly have any friends who’d want to play dolls with me anymore.
Perched in the open like a noble sphinx, Salty is none the worse for wear (the milk didn’t stain him; my tears might have). His whiskers are slightly bent out of joint, and he could maybe use a dusting.
Otherwise, that stuffed stalwart hasn’t aged a bit. In so many ways, neither have I.
In the stinky-rotten TV movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” a mad scientist — lab coat, underground lair, sinister cackle, the works — sets out to destroy the world using the rock band Kiss as his unwitting agents.
That’s odd. I thought Kiss was doing a fairly good job of that all by themselves. Apparently the scientist hasn’t heard Gene Simmons’ solo album or seen Ace Frehley without makeup.
Kiss rules. Kiss reeks. You’re either on this side or that side. Being on the fence means you’ve checked out. It means you listen to Enya.
After 44 years festooned in grease paint, chains, platform boots and yards of what might very well be aluminum foil, Kiss remains a great pop-culture polarizer, an easy critical bull’s-eye and delicious guilty pleasure, the worst rock band ever and the greatest rock band ever. The Michael Bay and P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll showmanship — kabloom, suckers — Kiss is just a typo for kitsch. Kiss-up. Kiss-off.
A pair of shows spans this good/bad divide that Kiss has gleefully carved. The good is “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a droll and gimmicky reality show that aired in 2005 on VH1. The bad (wretched, ghastly, kill me) is “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” The professional hecklers of the comedic Sinus Show present the movie in Austin, Texas, lambasting it until it cries. Expect nothing less than a massacre.
“Gene Simmons’ Rock School” is more proof Kiss will not die. Simmons — Kiss bassist, blood-spitter, boffo music mogul — crashes a classical music class of 13-year-olds at an English boarding school. Blustering and snarling with practiced disdain, a makeup-free Simmons arrives to tutor the rather stuffy kids in the ways of heavy-metal stardom. “To create little rock gods,” he says.
Simmons roars, folds his arms and appraises the children through affixed sunglasses. His scowly grimace suggests he has taken a whiff of the famous codpiece he dons on stage. “I wear more makeup and higher heels than your mommy does,” he taunts the crisply composed class.
The pupils at first recoil. “I think he’s really scary, because he’s really in your face and stuff,” says a girl. (Some of the children’s accents are so thick that subtitles appear.) Declares another: “I don’t like him at all.”
But of course they soon will. As in the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock” and the documentary “Rock School,” the show is about coming together for a collective purpose — in this case to open for Mötorhead — while learning how to cut loose and be yourself. Simmons even lets the kids in on a little secret: You can be a lousy musician and still rock hard and get preposterously rich.
He should know. Except for lead guitarist Frehley, a bona fide whiz, Kiss are flaccid musicians, lazy tunesmiths and appalling lyricists. Some Kiss poetry: “If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar/ Man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far.” Sounds like a pop quiz out of Gene’s “Rock School.”
With “Kiss Meets the Phantom,” Kiss nearly courted the Kiss of death. Premiering on NBC in October 1978, the band’s first and last movie casts its members — Simmons, Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — as rock stars with murky supernatural powers. The bandmates are sort of like superheroes, but the movie is so badly conceived you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. You have to be acquainted with the special edition Marvel comic books that star Kiss to make any sense of it.
In the comics and the movie, bandmates are literal incarnations of their stage personas, going by the snickerable names Star Child (Stanley, who has a star over one eye), Demon (Simmons: lizard tongue, bat wings), Cat Man (Criss: painted whiskers) and Space Ace (Frehley: more silver sequins than a Bette Midler show).
The evil scientist (Anthony Zerbe, who was in “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Matrix Reloaded” and probably wishes this article would go away) kidnaps Kiss, builds robot replicas of the band and sends the imposters on stage to change the chorus of the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell” to “Rip, rip/Rip and destroy,” which is supposed to incite fans to riot and ruin everything. That could be the lamest scheme ever in the annals of mad scientists.
So disastrous is “Kiss Meets the Phantom” that even the bandmates, who are not known to criticize their splendiferous empire, disowned the movie. Fans reconsidered their allegiance. Critics drove in on bulldozers. And a camp masterwork was born.
When the movie aired, Kiss was at the peak of their popularity, knocking out hit records like “Destroyer,” “Love Gun” and “Alive II” and peddling mountains of Kiss paraphernalia, from trading cards and dolls to belt buckles and bed sheets. (Today you can even get yourself the $5,000-plus Kiss Kasket. Right. A coffin.)
The band has always targeted young boys, exploiting their fascination with science fiction and horror movies, comic books and fire. Forget childhood sports. Some of us were mesmerized by books and movies, the wide-open realm of the imagination, which happily accommodated the dual fantasy force of Kiss and “Star Wars.” It’s a few paces from a fire-breathing Demon to a growling Wookiee.
In 1978, my best friend brought “Kiss Alive II” to a sleepover. I knew Kiss only from “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” an utterly weird exhibition that aired on ABC in 1976. I liked their kabuki makeup, spandex meets armor costumes and the clouds of smoke. But the loud music and exciting photos of “Alive II” — “Calling Dr. Love,” Simmons drenched in stage blood — hooked me. I dressed up as Simmons and Stanley, collected the trading cards, smothered my walls with Kiss posters, bought every issue of 16 Magazinefeaturing Kiss gossip, owned the dolls and ordered all of the group’s vinyl albums from the Columbia House Record Club. I was 9.
And then came “Kiss Meets the Phantom.” This was huge. My excitement was uncontained. Finally, my friends and I would see our favorite band in the whole world actually move and speak. We were too young for Kiss concerts, and this was way before MTV, so bad TV had to do.
Produced by kiddie-show kings Hanna-Barbera, the movie plays like a discarded “Scooby-Doo” episode. Robot werewolves kung fu fight the Kiss guys, who strike back with animated laser beams that shoot from Stanley’s eye and cartoon fire that buzzes from Simmons’ mouth. Stuntmen who look nothing like Kiss stand in for the band during the “action” sequences. There is mild genius behind this kind of ineptitude.
While the movie was a ratings hit for NBC, it was a calamity for Kiss. The group’s “street credibility, which had taken four years of nonstop work to develop, was undone frame by frame in just under 100 minutes,” writes Kiss connoisseur Ron Albanese.
This budding Kiss freak didn’t care. Still, I think I knew the movie had failed us, that it was merely grotesque advertisements for the group and Magic Mountain, the California amusement park where it was filmed.
Today, the music of Kiss is hardly more than a cheap nostalgia trip for an older, wiser me. It sounds tinny and slapped together. And the band has changed. Frehley and Criss have been booted from Kiss (again), while Simmons’ voracious greed metastasizes unchecked. (His latest reality show, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” is nothing if not a showcase for his slavering cupidity.)
Yet something appealing remains. With an atavistic charge, Kiss blew me away live in 2000 and 2009. Kiss photos and concert footage pump my blood. My brain can’t shake ancient Kiss trivia. I still have my Kiss dolls.
Straddling the great Kiss chasm, I fend off mockery with the shield of original-fan pride. My arrogance wears a wink, my devotion is full of holes. I am not torn, but at peace with the contradictions. And if you ask me if Kiss rules or reeks, the answer is easy: both.