Kenny Gaines has a Kiss collection that takes up his entire 1,400-square-foot basement. His collection, which he has worked on for seven years, includes five Kiss guitars, a pinball machine, T-shirts, dolls and posters. He has several display cases of memorabilia from the ’70s and ’80s, and one wall of the basement displays an 8-foot hand-painted logo, a Gaines original; it was a labor of love for Kenny and his wife, Julie. “It’s something to see,” Gaines says. “People don’t understand the intensity until they see it.”
Kiss has the intensity, all right. The crazy makeup and stage shows featuring pyrotechnics, blood spitting and fire breathing definitely make Gene Simmons, Peter Criss, Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley members of a memorable band. The Kiss empire includes items such as glassware, bobble heads and action figures, and that’s only the beginning.
“The merchandising end has kept Kiss alive a lot longer than they would have been without all the stuff,” says John Dingley, owner of Big John’s Cards and Collectibles. Dingley’s store, located at the Midway Travel Center, sells Kiss comic books and other memorabilia.
“Basically, if you make it and put Kiss on it, someone will buy it,” says Barbara Ramsbottom, the manager of Spencer Gifts in Columbia Mall. Spencer’s carries a variety of Kiss memorabilia, including trivia games, stickers, action figures, mugs and occasionally (when supplies permit) $2,000 Gene Simmons Punisher bass guitars. The guitars invite more onlookers than buyers, but Spencer’s has sold three of them in the past five years.
Gaines gets a lot of his memorabilia from Spencer’s. When the store receives a new Kiss item, the staff reaches for the Kiss call list, which includes three fans other than Gaines. Ramsbottom says when she calls, the people on the list usually ask the store to hold one of each item, and then employees will see each fan within one week of the phone call.
Gaines has been a Kiss fan since grade school. His infatuation started when he heard his cousin’s Love Gun album. Years later, this playground passion led to Gaines’ tattoo of the Love Gun album cover across his back. He first sat for the tattoo in 1995; it took several sittings and cost a little more than $1,000. In 1996, Gaines met Kiss in St. Louis and had each original band member sign his back. Before he washed the ink off, a tattoo artist permanently inked over the signatures on Gaines’ tattoo.
Collectible items for Kiss fans such as Gaines range from Kiss buttons to Kiss condoms. “There was a comic book back in the ’70s that was supposed to have Kiss blood in the ink,” Dingley says. “It was Marvel Comics Super Special #5, which came out in ’78. That was probably the oddest thing I’ve seen.” The members of Kiss had their blood drawn and added it to the vials of red ink for the comic book as a promotional gimmick.
“The craziest item of Kiss memorabilia would have to be the full-size coffin,” says Gaines. “It’s a real casket, and they run about $4,800.”
Jeff Sweatman, a DJ on KBXR/ 102.3 FM, is also a Kiss fan. “When I was 4 years old, for some reason my aunt bought me Kiss’ Alive II,” Sweatman says. “They were like superhero rock stars — the best of both worlds.”
Kiss merchandise appeals to an enthusiastic collector, no matter what age. “They’re random,” Ramsbottom says. Kiss customers range from fans who remember the formation of Kiss to 11-year-olds who collect memorabilia and will inspect the package to make sure each sticker and piece of plastic is in its place.
“They’ve always been about marketing,” Sweatman says. “Kiss was different because they mass-marketed themselves, with help from their grassroots fan club Kiss Army, as opposed to Elvis or the Beatles. Kiss wasn’t on radio or TV much at first, but they made up for it with their live show and marketing savvy.”
Gaines explains the craze like this: “Some people collect stamps or coins.
I collect the hottest band in the world.”
— Florence Kizza