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Kiss meets the phantom

PART TWO : by L. Wayne Hicks

That first draft of KISS Meets the Phantom opened with a "resonant, authoritative voice" that attempted to set the stage for what was to come. As the movie originally was to open, smoke shifted to show a shallow crater with the talisman suspended in air: a silver lightning bolt, a gold cat, a green gargoyle and a silver star.

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The unseen narrator laid it on thick during the opening scene:
"Fantasy. Reality. Which is which? Are fantasy and reality interchangeable? Or are they one and the same? Kiss knows the answer. But who and what are Kiss? Is Ace an interplanetary being? Paul a Starchild? Peter really a cat and Gene a demon? Occult powers. Magic charms and amulets. Talismen. Kiss. Who controls who? What forces - evil or benevolent - govern these supernatural powers? This is the stuff of which dreams are woven, but at what point do dreams become - nightmares. You don't really want to know. Or - do you?"

Kiss meets the phantomThe script was revised many times, and the opening of the final draft showed how the four teenagers became Kiss. In a version similar to the Marvel Comics telling, the guys receive their talisman - and their powers - after trying to rescue a blind old man from a gang of thugs. Now in costume and makeup, the band takes on and defeats the gang. If the scene was filmed, it wasn't used. After the opening credits Kiss disappeared for a while. The only onscreen action for the longest time is of a couple of biker types - Slime and Dirty Dee - toppling a human pyramid of teenagers.

Totie FieldsKiss previously had made a few appearances on television, notably on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which aired on Oct. 31, 1976, and featured the band performing "Beth," "Detroit Rock City" and "King of the Night Time World," three staples of their repertoire. Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was the band's chance to stand out, to attract new fans.

"I think it was extremely successful in terms of reaching a new demographic at the time, that is the kiddie fan base," says Ron Albanese, who has seen the movie "well over 100 times" since 1978. He says those younger fans - he was 8 at the time - would help keep Kiss afloat during the 1980s when the band's popularity waned.

Albanese is writing a book about the movie, tentatively titled "Easy Catman, They Are Serious: The Complete Guide to Kiss Meets the Phantom." He owns the movie in seven languages, including German, Japanese, German, Swedish and Italian ("Some of the corny Kiss lines in English only get funnier in Italian.") The movie was released in theaters overseas. For his research, Albanese traveled to the Magic Mountain amusement park in Southern California where the movie was filmed and has conducted more than 20 hours of interviews with people connected with the production, including Bill Acuoin, the band's longtime manager.

"Bill Acuoin, who, of course prior to managing Kiss had television experience, saw the whole endeavor as a launching pad," Albanese says. "And at some point in '78 Filmation, the cartoon company, did some kind of preliminary embryonic contact with the Kiss organization to develop a cartoon series, but as far as I know nothing was drawn up."

The band envisioned more acting roles ahead. Simmons talked of another movie, with an even bigger budget, but said plans for an animated TV special for 1979 had been postponed "because that's just too much Kiss for you to swallow."

Kiss meets the phantom movieJoseph Barbera, co-founder of Hanna-Barbera Productions, who produced the $2 million movie, likened it to a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, with "this demented genius living down in the bowels of the amusement park …"

The task of directing Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park fell to Gordon Hessler, a German-born, British-reared protege of Alfred Hitchcock. His career would include directing the classic Ray Harryhausen movie The Golden Voyage of Sinbad as well as more pedestrian fare such as episodes of the TV series Wonder Woman, CHiPs and Switch. Picked to star opposite Kiss was Anthony Zerbe, who played their nemesis, the evil scientist Abner Devereaux, who fashioned their robotic doubles. Devereaux, who designed the rides in the park, is angry the park's owners have cut his budget for research and development.

cast of Kiss meets the phantomFilming took five weeks, finishing in June 1978, and included a free concert at Magic Mountain for about 8,000 fans. Barry Levine was there as photographer for the band, and he published his collection of Kiss photos through in his book "The Kiss Years." He wrote that the movie, "was the biggest mistake the band could have made at the time" and that Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park "ended up making the band look like a caricature of itself."

It didn't help that the movie resembled an episode of Scooby-Doo, with the guys taking on robotic versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man.

"I was disgusted," Criss said on the 2004 VH1 program When Kiss Ruled the Earth. "I can't see John Lennon getting beat up by Dracula and I can't see Mick Jagger wrestling with Frankenstein."
Initially, the members of Kiss held out promise for the movie. Stanley told a magazine interviewer at the time: "It's a wonderful, wonderful movie. Very deep."

In a promotional magazine published about the movie, everyone in the band had plenty of good things to say about making the movie.

Gene Simmons album coverSimmons: "I think more than anything, this movie is going to be first and foremost lots of fun, we hope, and also it's very accurate in the way we relate to each other."

Stanley: "I think the next Kiss film will probably be similar to this one only a lot more extravagant, a lot more elaborate. This will pretty much set the groundwork and the story line of who we are and why we are. It's almost like a movie series like James Bond where there's a common thread running through all of them."

Frehley: "I enjoyed it. It was a very pleasurable experience for the most part. I just can't wait to see it all put together. I guess I'm as excited about it as all the fans."

Criss proved the most honest: "I learned a lot from doing the movie, mainly that I don't want to do another one for a while."
But the hurry-up-and-wait nature of making a movie soon began to wear on the band. Frehley in particular wasn't happy with the early morning filming and having to wait for hours for his turn in front of the cameras. At one point, after arguing with the director, he took off, leaving his stunt double - who was black - to don the whiteface makeup and a wig and play his part. Both Stanley and Criss were heavily into drugs and alcohol at the time, the two have admitted, and Criss' reading of his lines apparently didn't pass muster. His voice was later dubbed by another actor, erasing Criss' Brooklynese. Simmons' own voice was given an electronic quality to it, and the script called for him to growl his lines.

"Ace and I partied through the whole movie," Criss said on When Kiss Ruled the Earth. "By the time it was time to go work, we were half in the bag."

Gene Simmons : Kiss meets the phantom photoAfter 10 albums and four years on tour, the pressure of making Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was threatening to break apart the band. The guys were hardly speaking to each other. Criss was making rumbling noises about leaving Kiss for a solo career. Aucoin suggested each member record a solo album as a way to ease the growing tension. After filming ended, the guys each recorded their own album, which were released simultaneously in September, a month before the movie.
To make matters worse, the members of Kiss knew immediately the movie was bad. Stanley remembers watching it at a screening before it aired and sinking down in his seat: "I was so low in my chair that I wanted to crawl out of the theater."

In the years after its debut, the subject of Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was strictly off limits around the band. In recent years, however, the guys have talked about the experience. A series of books and documentaries about the band have dredged up the movie's place in the history of Kiss.

Kiss meets the phantom title card"It's very hard to go from a musician in one of the biggest bands or the biggest band, whatever, to being an actor overnight," Stanley once said. He explained that actors start with small parts and work their way into larger roles. "For us, it was a very difficult 'cause we had to go in without any experience and star in a movie."

On Kiss Behind the Makeup, Stanley described an unusual way of making the movie: "Someone would yell out lines to us from the side and then the camera would roll and if we got the line out without making a mistake, that was a keeper."

Kiss fans sat through the movie, making it the second-highest rated TV movie of the year, after Shogun, but critics couldn't bear it. The Los Angeles Times called it an "abomination." Present-day Kiss fans aren't any kinder. The movie is known for its campiness, its kitschiness, something the band never wanted to be known for.

The guys talked about the movie in the book "Kiss Behind the Mask," an oral history of the band by David Leaf and Ken Sharp. Simmons recalled "it was interesting to do, but I don't think it's a very good movie." "When I look at it now I love it," Criss said. "My daughter just thinks it's the greatest movie she's ever seen. But it wasn't a great time for me."

"It wasn't a very good film," Aucoin said. "Don't forget that I'm a director/producer. Hanna-Barbera didn't want to spend that much money on it. It was a television film and they thought they could get away with it for a lot less money. … It could have been better than it was." Before joining with Kiss, Aucoin had created and directed the syndicated rock show Flipside.

Kiss solo albumThe movie and the subsequent solo albums would prove the undoing of Kiss. In the years to come, Criss and Frehley would leave the band and find themselves replaced by others. Kiss unmasked itself, removing the makeup that had made them so mysterious over the years. The absent Criss and Frehley would reunite with Stanley and Simmons for a reunion took that would take the band around the world, only to say goodbye again.

What's surprising is that even after their experiences on Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, everyone in the band has returned to acting. All of the guys were together and in costume again for 1998 episodes of Mad TV and Millennium.

Kiss meets the phantom cast"It just brought back memories of when we were shooting the Kiss movie, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park - hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait," Frehley said after taping those two shows. "And it all came back to me how much I hate doing movies and television. For us, it's a lot harder because we have to put on the makeup and the costumes, and hurry up and wait. And then the makeup starts to run, and you're sweating or you're upset. You're trying to eat, the makeup stars to crack, and you gotta re-touch it. It's like, a pain the ass, y'know? I hate putting the makeup on when I'm not performing, but it's something I gotta do."

Frehley acted, without the Kiss makeup, in the 2005 independent film Remedy. Criss guest-starred on a 2002 episode of the HBO prison drama Oz. Stanley took to the stage to play the Phantom in a 1999 production of The Phantom of the Opera in Toronto.

Simmons proved most interested in acting, most recently playing a bad guy on the now-cancelled NBC drama Third Watch. But he hasn't won over his critics yet. Blender magazine named Simmons to its list of the worst rock star actors, placing him at No. 10.

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Kiss met Totie Fields
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