Onion Dome Fever: The Domes of Jeannette

St. Demetrius Ukranian Catholic church and clergy house, Jeannette

Come around the back, narrow your focus a little bit, and forget about how you got here. It doesn’t take too much imagination to feel instantly transported several thousand miles away–to Khmelnytskyi or Zhytomyr, Bila Tserkva or Ivano-Frankivsk.

The scene is something right out of a movie depicting a romanticized rendering of old world Eastern European rural quaintness. In all directions, hills rise with gentle grace, their trees a deep green in this wet summer’s lush glow. A simple old stone church, built for maybe a hundred congregants, rests aside its semi-attached, wood frame clergy house.

Saint Demetrius Ukrainian Catholic Church has a peaked roof, tiled in red shingles, with a single small steeple at the front. Atop it sits a glorious–if weather-worn–steel onion dome, accented by the Byzantine cross of the orthodox church.

St. Demetrius

It’s not alone. Jeannette had around 8,000 people at the time of the 1910 census. Likely most of them were working in the small city’s many glass factories–there were at least seven and there is a claim that at one time 70-85% of the world’s glass was made in Jeannette.

Yeah–that seems like a stretch. Regardless, the little boom town clearly attracted a fair number of these folks from old Russia as two different orthodox Catholic churches were constructed that same year, mere blocks apart.

cornerstone, St. Demetrius, 1910 (remodeled 1954)

St. Demetrius Ukranian Catholic Church, Jeannette, PA

St. Demetrius, the Ukrainian church on Gaskill Avenue, is the smaller and more humble of the pair. It sits in an otherwise unremarkable row of simple wood frame houses just a block off the railroad tracks that bisect Jeannette. It’s also a little ways downhill, so you won’t spot the gleaming silver-colored ornament until you’re relatively close.

Ss. Cyril and Methodius Russian Orthodox Catholic Church, Jeannette

The same can’t be said for Saints Cyril and Methodius. The eponymous brick Russian Orthodox church constructed in their honor decorates the absolute peak of Scott Avenue on the north side of town. The building’s distinct roofline, featuring multiple sky blue-with-gold crosses, is visible from just about anywhere in the city.

Ss. Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius is a magnificent brick-and-stone structure of multiple depths and angles, details and decorations, murals and stained glass. It also appears to be in spectacular shape, freshly repainted and bricks tightly pointed, on well-groomed grassy grounds. Catch it as we were lucky enough to on a cloudless day, gleaming in the hot sun, and looking resplendent against a perfect blue sky and even this atheist feels like he’s died and gone to heaven.

Cornerstone, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, 1910. We don’t know if the smiley face skull and cross-bones is original.

It’s doubtful anywhere in the area–heck, anywhere in America–has the per-capita domes of little Lyndora, up in Butler County. (Not to mention being able to righteously claim Poison’s Bret Michaels as a former congregant.)

That said, Jeannette’s lovely pair of orthodox churches, mere blocks from one another on the same side of town, are a feast for the onion ogler and an invitation to sidle out to Westmoreland County that should not be turned down. You can load up at DeLallo Foods, pace anxiously as two new microbreweries threaten opening any day now, and walk off that nervous energy with an old world constitutional. Recommended.

steeple view, Ss. Cyril and Methodius

Out of Orbit: Falling to Earth at the Kecksburg UFO Festival

The truth is out there … but it’s probably not here at the Kecksburg UFO Festival

There is a lot of green in Kecksburg this time of year. The deep, multi-hued leaves on trees, rich with heavy spring and summer rainfall, are present in all directions as are rich earthy greens found in grasses and flower stems, corn fields and vegetable gardens bursting with life in summer’s thick humidity. The local volunteer fire department has painted their cinderblock-and-wood plank buildings in muted emerald shades and you’ll find dark, military-issue greens in the small set of U.S. Army Jeeps and troop-transports brought in for the weekend.

With all this, the green that stays with you is an electric, iridescent lime color. Like a fluorescent safety sign come to life or the inside of one of those light sticks, the eye-popping Day-Glo green wiggles in spring-mounted antennae on the heads of youths, graces noggins in the form of synthetic costume wigs, and gently flutters as inflatable figures dance in the wind. It glows in the bright sunlight on a 10-foot pneumatic carnival saucer and struts through the midway in novelty full-body costumes.

The Kecksburg “space acorn” monument, created for “Unsolved Mysteries” in 1990

Little Kecksburg, a rural community 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, was the perfect spot for a UFO to crash land. Far enough in the country to have few eyewitnesses but close enough to city resources for federal authorities to swoop in and make off with the evidence before anyone could figure out what had happened.

Exactly what occurred on the evening of December 9, 1965 is still in question. Theories range from a stray meteor and fallen Russian satellite to a time-traveling Nazi war machine and, yes, alien spacecraft.

It is this last possibility–amazingly, not the weirdest option in the list–that has kept dogged UFO hunters and seekers of truth in the unexplained coming back to “Pennsylvania’s Roswell” for the last 54 years. The continued interest brought the TV series Unexplained Mysteries to town in 1990, bringing a custom-built, scaled-to-life facsimile of the flying object with them. The hieroglyphics-engraved, acorn-shaped replica lives in permanent display elevated atop a tall pole on a hillside near the VFD hall. (See photo, above.) It’s also one of the things that brought us here. That, and the 14th annual Kecksburg UFO Festival.

The Orbit wasn’t the only news outlet on the scene. TV crews interview Kecksburg incident expert Stan Gordon.

Stan Gordon is the self-declared “primary investigator” of the 1965 Kecksburg incident and a lifelong researcher of the unexplained. Mr. Gordon operates a “radio command center” from his home in nearby Greensburg and regularly attends the UFO Festival. He was busy signing books and DVD documentaries at a corner table that included numerous fuzzy photo enlargements of mysterious lights in the night sky and enormous ape-like footprints in both mud and snow.

Gordon has spent a lifetime looking for the truth about Kecksburg and the description of the event and summary of his findings on his web site are without parallel. We encourage our readers to visit stangordon.info for his full rundown of the event and subsequent investigations.

Yes: the tinfoil hats were there

Stan Gordon wasn’t alone. Appearing at the annual UFO festival is both de rigueur and a no braineur for the region’s experts on the unexplained–and there are a lot more of these than you may think.

Why, there was Raymond Keller, author of Cosmic Ray and Tony Lavorgne of the Legends & Lore podcast. Bilco Productions, the team behind the film Paranormal Bigfoot, was there, as was Ed Kelemen, author of a half dozen books of haunted Pennsylvania lore. Saucers Over Appalachia! author William B. Van Huss had books to sell as did “Mr. UFO” Timothy Green Beckley.

Carried away. This parade-goer may or may not have made it to the main event.

Of course, not every attendee of the Kecksburg UFO Festival takes the event quite so seriously. The costume du jour was clearly this one that effectively makes the illusion an alien is hoisting a child-sized version of the person within (see photos above and below). After seeing a bunch of these–both at the event and then reviewing the pictures afterward–I can tell you neither is the deception obvious nor does the joke get old.

The Leeper Meats crew in the festival parade

The three-day festival is paced with a number of marquee events. Some of these–lectures from UFO and paranormal experts–stay firmly on-message. Others–a corn hole tournament, country band, and the “UFO hot dog-eating contest”–not so much.

Saturday afternoon features a parade down a half-mile of Kecksburg Road, alongside the VFD grounds where the main event takes place. The fancy term bifurcated comes to mind as there were really only two unconnected parties involved here: a handful of old-school military vehicles, with riders playing along dressed-up as the 1960s-era G-men and -women that whisked E.T. away, and then what felt like every fire truck in Westmoreland County.

That’s it. No high school marching bands dressed in coordinated alien costumes and no pre-teen dance troupes shimmying to “Outta Space”; no local politicians waving from tinfoil-covered convertibles and no flatbed hay bale dioramas. Just army play-actors, fire trucks, and Leeper Meats.

U.S. Army truck with replica of cloaked UFO remains

Yes, the parade was a disappointment. Luckily The Kecksburg UFO Festival redeems itself in its many other offerings.

The best of the lot were a number of artisans who brought chainsaw-hewn sculptures of big-eyed aliens and models of Big Foot. (Big Feet?) Among the latter were some extremely impressive life-size (around 7-feet tall) carved-from-a-tree-trunk Sasquatches–any one of which would look great in the backyard of Chez Orbit.

Sasquatch chainsaw sculptures

alien chainsaw art

It’s unclear who comes to the Kecksburg UFO Festival and why they’re there. If I had to put money on it, I’d guess the dressing up/having-a-laugh group outnumbers the relatively small contingent of true believers. Both sets are likely dwarfed by the soft pretzel-and-corn hole crowd, for whom this is the nearby summer fair benefiting their local fire department.

These numbers don’t work in the favor of a researcher who’s given his or her life (it’s pretty much always his) to studying alien contact and Big Foot sightings. Visibly annoyed at having to answer the same old questions from funnel cake-wielding skeptics and won’t-stop-talking over-enthusiasts, a number of the authors and filmmakers came with an arms-crossed, scowl and furrowed brow body language that pretty much told the world, just buy the damn book and get out of my face. No one said ghost hunting was easy.

little green man, big soft pretzel

The story of the Kecksburg incident and its supposed cover-up is even getting the big-screen treatment courtesy of a new, feature-length independent film by SW PA local Cody Knotts. Representatives from the team were there to sell t-shirts and offer advance tickets to the world premier and “red carpet screening” this September in Uniontown.

A couple trailers for the movie are already out. While it’s clear the filmmakers are working on a budget and you won’t recognize any of the local actors (at least, you know, not from acting), they managed to get the period look of mid-’60s America right and shot in a creepy, stylized Twilight Zone way that should satisfy the Creature Feature audience. Judging from the preview clips alone, I doubt we’ll see Kecksburg during Oscar season, but hats off to anyone who can produce a full-length dramatic period piece–even if the actor portraying  L.B.J. had to be shot from behind.

Alas, a real journalist would have bunked-down for the full UFO conference on Sunday–or at least stayed later on Saturday to catch the bed race and Renegade Ridge Band! But it was just too damn hot and your fair-skinned, not-watching-his-figure-enough author didn’t need any more time around the deep-fried pierogies and Helltown beers.

So … we headed home early, content that whether or not the truth is out there, it could wait for another day.

Kecksburg V.F.D., home of the 14th annual UFO Festival

Face Down in the Gutter: Sad TVs

Lawrenceville

What hits you first is the shame. Turned away, unable to conjure even the faintest energy required to greet the day, jokingly scrawled on like a passed-out drunk at a juvenile party, or left at the very end of the line–face down in the gutter.

Who wouldn’t feel dejected? The trusted friend who delivered Olympics and Super Bowl cheers and kept us up-to-date on Snowmaggedon, the Iran-Contra Affair, and the pursuit of O.J. down that L.A. freeway rudely evicted from the relationship. Years–decades, even–of loyal service at their masters’ beck and call tossed out over night. It’s a cliché: the family member at the center of the home and intimate partner in the bedroom broken up with for a younger, better-looking model.

Bloomfield

Friendship

Where would a soap opera like this play out? We’re speaking, of course, about the television set. As ubiquitous as the units are in (seemingly) every home, bar, restaurant, gym (I’m told), waiting room, lobby, transportation hub, and high-profile public thoroughfare, they’re also quite literally littering the sidewalks and back alleys just about everywhere you go. To continue a theme, we’re calling these sad TVs.

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

American cities were clearly not ready for the arrival of big, cheap, flat-screen televisions and all the various technology that came along with it. The bajillion old cathode ray tube sets that lived anywhere and everywhere were seemingly rendered useless over night. With all the creative souls out there turning discarded t-shirts into fiber art and your (grand)parents Montovani records into fruit bowls, still no one wants to deal with a TV set.

Bloomfield

Lawrenceville

What it’s produced is a bizarre landscape where TVs still show up just about anywhere–but now we can also add outside public spaces in that measure. In the back alley, left out for a trash collection that will never come, sure, but also just randomly on sidewalks, stashed behind shopping malls, next to retail storefronts, and dumped in the woods.

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

We sat on this story for a while. The Portland Orbit had already scooped us on this one. They use the term “street TVs,” but the first line from their 2015 post describes the phenomenon as “sad, dejected, and lonely,” so we’re coming from the same place. The topic just didn’t seem either particularly Pittsburgh-centric (it’s not) or all that news-worthy.

But, in the spirit of capturing this moment in time–a very visible landmark where an old, pre-Internet appliance is literally thrown out with the trash to be replaced by a next-generation fancy new feature-enabled and home theater-ready future–it just seems like an important marker of what the world looks like now.

Bloomfield

Garfield

Plus … they’re kind of cool. Waste, environmental catastrophe, disposable culture–these are abhorrent things–but I don’t know what options we realistically have here. Nobody wants these old TVs.

As long as this legion of useless television sets is going out the door, it’s kind of fun–and bizarre–to trip across them along the sides of commercial buildings and out in front of nice apartment houses. They look as out-of-place as one could imagine and yet they’re so common as to be skipped over entirely.

Bloomfield

Shadyside

Conway

Lawrenceville

While we most commonly see the old, big box, cathode ray tube sets left out in the rain, the phenomenon–and its attendant waste-disposable challenges–have gone on long enough for us to begin experiencing sad flat-screen TVs too. These aren’t typically as interesting, but we’re including a few greatest-hits in the collection here.

“I don’t know who put this TV here…” Sad TV with sad note, Lawrenceville

graffiti-written sad TV with sad phone booth, Bloomfield

Lawrenceville

How many episodes of Golden Girls and Meet the Press, Judge Judy and Monday Night Football were consumed under these glowing pixels? How many laughs did Norm and Sam, Rerun, Raj, and Dwayne deliver from their tiny speakers? Where did the news from the attacks on 9/11, the nailbiting Bush-Gore presidential election, and the pre-me too Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings come in?

These are rhetorical questions, sure, but it’s interesting to consider both how absolutely central the television is to so many households and also how quick we are to throw it away. Each unit itself is filled with enough toxic components that the trash guys won’t even take them, so they end up here, abandoned by the side of the road.

Consider that not-too-subtle metaphor for a minute–the very same item that we bring into our home and invest countless hours in its presence is too lethal to go the dump. This, your author supposes, is the cruel fate of twenty-first century (American) life. That may be something we should all feel shame for.

sad toy on sad tv, Donora


What are your thoughts? Is there something great–or, at least, interesting–you can imagine doing with a more-than-you-can-handle supply of old TV sets? We know where you can find them! We’d love to hear about it. Leave us a comment below.

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way, Bloomfield

Well, it took long enough–three years and change.

It was that long ago, in this same electronic publication, where the author declared, “To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!” (“A Thomasson!” Pittsburgh Orbit, March 16, 2016)

Rabid fans of architectural effluvia have been sitting on their hands for years now, waiting for a promised revival, but was the wait ever worth it! It’s not every day that a beaut’ like this comes along.

Five short steps form a poured concrete stoop along the alley side of a Bloomfield row house. They lead to a blank wall. The base has been freshly repainted in a deep slate blue with its risers and wooden railing accented in alternating colors of red, mauve, aqua green, yellow, orange, and a couple shades of blue. The whole construction pops from the otherwise nondescript off-white siding.

We’ll not go into the whole thing here, but a “Thomasson” is an artist-created name for an architectural or infrastructure relic that no longer serves any purpose but is still actively maintained. It’s that second clause that makes them so rare.

While Webster Hall’s former retail entrance (see the earlier story) is totally legit, it never felt quite right. The remaining two-step platform makes a pretty obvious nice long bench along the Fifth Avenue sidewalk bookended by a pair of planters. One could argue this is less Thomasson and more adaptive reuse. In reality, no one ever sits there; theoretically a person could.

In contrast, the Bloomfield side steps-to-nowhere are really textbook Thomasson. They clearly led to a door that’s no longer there, boxed in by after-market aluminum siding in a serious home renovation project. It’s expensive and/or labor-intensive to jackhammer out all that concrete–not to mention there’s a possible structural hazard for the home’s foundation. So one can imagine the very reasonable desire to just leave it be.

But by preserving the useless handrails and taking up the paint brush–in eight different colors, no less–the homeowners are working at some next-level Thomasson generation. It’s an oddball curio, discussion topic, and detour destination for a backstreet Bloomfield gambol.

Someone made the effort to redd up their Thomasson. We’re glad they did.

Waiting to Go Off: In the Street, On Target, and Under the Bus with Off Hole

Perhaps the world’s finest “off hole”: bus lane, downtown Pittsburgh. [Photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

They had, the joke goes, one job … but it wasn’t this one. In this case the specific task was probably something pretty important: keeping electric power running between buildings; telephone and Internet connectivity; making sure the sewer system doesn’t back up into your basement.

What the job clearly didn’t involve is paying too close attention to how exactly the door was closed when the real work was done and the crew packed up to move on or go home.

switch symbol off hole, North Side [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

Despite this relatively minor detail in the grand scheme of things, those of us top-side get the tiniest evidence that work was occurring under city streets in the form of manhole covers, striped in accordance with road markings and put back not quite where they ought to be. It’s a stretch to say these patterned cast iron discs tell us a story–or really anything–about what was happening below the surface, but we do know something was going on down there.

The effect on the visual landscape is more notable. Each of these little displacements creates a subtle but striking schism in the very regular, ordered, and predictable world of thoroughfare infrastructure. These are known as off holes.

it’s not easy finding a green off hole, Downtown [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

“As a very neat person that needs everything in order, I couldn’t fathom how utility workers didn’t put the covers back in the correct direction,” says Greg Lagrosa, “I would never be able to do that–it would drive me crazy!”

Indeed, it would take someone with more than a little obsessive-compulsiveness to notice–let alone photograph, publicize, and catalog–the city’s off-kilter manhole covers.

If you’ve never noticed the phenomenon, you definitely haven’t been looking. Off holes–the name was coined by Pittsburgh artist Kirsten Ervin–are everywhere. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that every intersection in the city, along with plenty of spots in-between, have manhole covers smack dab in the middle of cross-walks and lane markings. Many of these have gotten worked-on and most of them didn’t get put back in line with their paint jobs.

So close! Single yellow stripe off hole, North Side [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

“To me it’s all about your worldview,” Lagrosa says about the Off Hole project, “There are all of these small things happening in our city. Taking the time to notice the minutiae is a way of interacting with the city in a tangible and human way. Workers are obviously using the manhole covers–that’s why they’re there–we just barely ever see it happen. This is a window into how things work and those lives and stories.”

Lagrosa is regular bicycle rider who commutes from his home in Stanton Heights to a job downtown. As a self-described person that “hates driving and walks and bikes around as much as possible,” he began noticing off holes everywhere he travelled.

classic “waxing gibbous” off hole, Oakland

After studying the random occurrences of off holes throughout Pittsburgh, Lagrosa started studiously photographing each specimen–both as a straight down top view and a broader-context “in the wild” shot. The location and other details are logged in a spreadsheet and one photo a day gets posted to the @off.hole Instagram account.

Nearly half a year into the process, Lagrosa describes some favorite patterns or types of off holes that have emerged:

In my opinion, the best off holes are the clean ones. Just one or two painted lines across the hole, the paint is still really clear and it’s just off. Something like this:

middle double-yellow off hole, Oakland [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

The off holes I wasn’t sure about the most are where the old line is off but it’s been repainted and the new line is still on. At the end of the day I decided this was fine too:

off hole with repainted line, Lower Marion, PA [photo: Off Hole contributor @hottenrottb]

There are the ones where multiple lines have been painted and they are all off:

multi-lined off hole, Friendship [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

And finally, some of them just create cool designs that I like:

pie-slice off hole, Strip District [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

The concept is still a relatively new thing, but Lagrosa has considered expanding into other Internet platforms and possibly going full-on Off Hole IRL in the form of an art show or t-shirt. [Editor’s note: sign me up for a men’s XL!]

For now, though, the focus is mainly on collecting and expanding the Off Hole community. While Lagrosa lives here in Pittsburgh, he accepts–and encourages–submissions from anywhere with pavement and manhole covers. (See details, below.)

a collection of off holes submitted by Orbit staff photographers

When the robot work crews take over, off holes will likely disappear forever. Heck, there are probably industrial designers working right now to try to solve this “problem.”

Here at the Orbit, we love off holes–and Greg’s got the clogged In box to prove it! The phenomenon is another example of the superiority of randomness over hyper organization, faded paint that tells a story to a crisp line’s empty page, and the indefatigable human desire to leave work early and get on to Miller Time. We can all learn something from this.

Friend of the streets. Off Hole’s Greg Lagrosa with a new find, North Side.

Postscript: If there’s a moral to the story it’s that sometimes the cloud may actually be its own silver lining. When asked if on holes were more or less satisfying since commencing the project, Lagrosa responds resolutely, “On holes are just future off holes. I definitely take notice of painted holes in unusual spots and wait for them to go off.”

Think about that for a minute: the guy with self-described OCD who would be “driven crazy” by a misaligned lane stripe actually looks forward to a disruption in his space-time continuum. Whatever you say, that’s progress.


To submit an off hole you’ve found, email photos to off.hole.pittsburgh@gmail.com or direct message the @off.hole Instagram account.

Per Lagrosa, “I like to get two pictures for each hole, an overhead shot and one that shows the hole in context. The overhead is the money shot and is the most important. I also need the location, date, time, and your Instagram username so I can credit you.”

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2019

Stars and bars for cars and, uh … more cars. Parking garage flag, Sharon.

No tanks. No flyovers from the Blue Angels. No fireworks, baseball games, or charcoal-grilled hot dogs. Not even a damn sparkler!

No, when it comes to Independence Day, The Orbit is all about the American flag—and flag-like red, white, and blue things—hopefully created by human hands and not too picky with its star count.

We’ll not blah, blah, blahbiddy, blah about the strange folk craft of shipping pallet flags or the ethical paradoxes of letting one’s most patriotic symbol peel paint or get covered in mold. Instead, it’s just wall-to-wall flags. Happy birthday, America!

patriotic dresses, J. Jones Evening Wear, Weirton, WV

pallet flag, Lawrenceville

pallet flag, Oakdale

flag/football, Steubenville, O.

porch flag, Oakdale

porch flag, Charleroi

yard flag, Follansbee, WV

yard flag, Buena Vista

play set flag, Buena Vista

wall flag, Blawnox

window flag, State Farm Insurance, Bloomfield

Uncle Sam: patriot/grill master, State Farm Insurance, Bloomfield

flag window, Bloomfield

Oakdale: America’s Home Town

Fourth of July Savings painted poster, Giant Eagle

flag, row houses, Lawrenceville

patriotic fountain, Follansbee, WV

Thi$ i$ American street art, Garfield

The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason

KISS super collector Bruce Gleason in his New Kensington home

The collection is called The Elder’s Closet of Heroes. One enters through a short half flight of steps, past walls of signed album covers from the likes of Heart and Linda Ronstadt, Belinda Carlisle and Cher. This alone would be an impressive attraction for the memorabilia-curious but for the imposing, intriguing, and attention-grabbing feature mere feet away at the foot of the steps.

The stout wooden door looks like it came from another world. It is a standard size for an interior space in the quaint, pre-war bungalow that houses it, but everything else about the structure suggests the darkest depths of Mordor or a final line of defense against banshees.

What a knocker! Entrance to Gleason’s KISS collection modeled on album cover art for “Music from ‘The Elder'”

The door is strengthened with gridlike cross braces, an array of irregular brass tacks hammered in for folksy verisimilitude. The giant ornate iron knocker is placed just so, where the visitor’s first visual detail is an inscribed brass plaque with a verse from a KISS song called “A World Without Heroes” from their 1981 album Music from “The Elder”:

A world without heroes
Is like a world without sun
You can’t look up to anyone
Without heroes.

cover art for KISS’s 1981 album “Music from ‘The Elder'”

KISS, the bombastic stadium rock act whose over-the-top antics and Kabuki-meets-Stan Lee stage personas helped define American popular culture in the 1970s, is still going strong today. For the past four-and-a-half decades, the band is also likely the most merchandised musical group to ever accept your Visa or Mastercard. There are KISS-branded t-shirts, posters, books, and concert videos, of course, but the marketing goes way beyond the standard collection of musical ephemera.

Over the years, you could purchase KISS garbage cans, flying model rockets, bubble gum trading cards, and a knock-off Rubik’s Cube. There was a KISS pinball machine made by Bally in 1979; a KISS board game, checkers set, and jigsaw puzzle from the years prior. There are KISS sneakers, bedspreads, pillowcases, neckties, and sunglasses. If one wanted a giant teddy bear made up like The Catman or Space Ace, that is available, as are KISS Pez dispensers, lava lamps, die-cast miniature stock cars, HO scale model railroad trains, and a LEGO set depicting the band on stage.

Hello Kitty, meet The Catman

Not content to live in the past, KISS has totally gone totally Merch 2.0 with branded earbuds, thumb drives, mouse pads, and insulated travel mugs. Famous teetotalers both, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons are happy to supply you with KISS wine, ornate German-style beer steins, champagne flutes, shot glasses, bottle openers, and beer koozies.

And then of course there are the figures of KISS band members. Like the superhero characters they’re modeled on, Paul, Gene, Ace, and Peter have been turned into collectable dolls/action figures from six inches in height to several feet tall; adorned in various faithful touring costume iterations; rocking out in concert stage sets and alone with their thoughts; mythologized as Grecian gods in ornamental busts and as faces carved into a mini-Mount Rushmore.

On the other side of that incredible entrance door, Bruce Gleason, KISS super collector, has every single one of these–and a whole lot more.*

LEGO KISS stage set

Let’s put the “X” in Xmas: KISS ornaments

More precisely, Bruce has four of each. “The trouble with collecting KISS,” Bruce Gleason sighs, “Is that there’s never just one of anything–each band member has to get their own.”

While that’s not always the case–KISS M&Ms, condoms, and Christmas ornaments, for example, seem to be group-branded–for the most part it’s true. This results in many linear feet of Bruce’s basement shelf space, repurposed retail display racks, and enormous grab baskets devoted to individually-packaged figures nestled neatly side-by-side like the world’s most specialty of oddball boutiques.

KISS figures, Matchbox cars, soft blocks

one of two baskets overflowing with KISS plush toys

The packaged/made-for-the-collector’s-market items are impressive for both their volume and breadth [who knew the world needed KISS plush toys or a KISS skateboard?] but Bruce has a number of handmade pieces created by friends who understood how much he would appreciate them.

“My handmade pieces are my favorites,” Bruce says, “They’re all one-of-a-kind, but the most important reason is that friends have taken time to create something for me that I will absolutely love. I can purchase KISS items, which I love to do, but I can’t purchase someone’s creativity and thoughtfulness. These pieces are priceless to me.”

Plaster Casters: handmade, life size Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley figures

I haven’t met Bruce’s friends, but you can tell a lot about a person by the kinds of gifts he or she gives. You’ve got to love someone an awful lot to create all six-foot-something of a life-sized, tongue-waggling, codpiece-wearing Gene Simmons model or individually placing ersatz curly chest hairs on Paul Stanley’s likeness. Rest assured, full-size Ace and Peter, complete with the same tiny white repurposed jewelry model hands, are in Bruce’s basement as well.

handmade KISS nutcrackers

There’s a general truth that if it’s got a face, probably someone has slapped KISS makeup on it at some point. Let’s call it Beth’s Law.

That said, the handmade KISS nutcracker and marionette sets Bruce received from friends are truly some next-level fantasy-come-to-life. While they lack the sheer terror invoked by the trifecta of clown-like makeup, mannequins, and Gene Simmons, they make up for it in creativity and oddity.

Bruce tells us that KISS actually went on to market their own set of nutcrackers later on (surprise, surprise), but these predated that move. The marionettes are redecorated and bedazzled from a collection of puppets purchased in Mexico. The selection of Ace Frehley to be the one with the tequila bottle-turned-space beverage is a clever touch.

handmade KISS marionettes

handmade Gene Simmons marionette

This is all small potatoes compared to the elaborate big ticket items you’d expect to see in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame … err, Hard Rock Cafe, at least. There are eight sets of giant silver and black platform boots–exact likenesses of KISS stage gear for two different costume iterations; a dozen signed, framed replica gold albums; cymbals and drumsticks; Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons limited edition electric guitars.

“I would love to own an original record player from the ’70s in mint shape,” Bruce tells us, “I have seen them but have never let myself justify spending the amount of money they are worth. Other things I’d love to have: an original pinball machine and an original Ace Frehley signed guitar. His is the only signed guitar I do not have.”

Bruce goes on to say that he doesn’t actually have room in the basement for a pinball machine [your author can attest to this] and he’s got a strict rule that the collection doesn’t breach the main living floor of his house.

Strutter: Gleason’s collection replica platform boots

KISS collectables including signed gold record, Gene Simmons figurine, and four-headed ornament

Asked about his hopes for the collection, Bruce shares a dream that seems to cross all fandom–to be able to meet one’s heroes as equals:
My hope for my collection is that those who have seen it can appreciate the collection for what it shows and not what’s included–and that’s my love for this group of guys who have been a huge part of my life.  They have given me my sparks of creativity, my love for music of all kinds, my love of live music, and that’s it’s OK to be different and unique as long as you’re being yourself.
I would love for Gene, Tommy, Eric Singer, Eric Carr,  Paul, Ace, Bruce and Peter–all eight–to take a walk through my stage, without their boots, costumes, and makeup, just as eight regular guys. Then sit around my table and let me point out the things–toys, records, posters, or whatever–that meant something very special to me at the time and why.

Dark Light: rotating KISS lamp

It’s been said that one spends the first half of his or her life acquiring things and second half trying to get rid of them. On the ride home, Bruce’s ultimate fan archive sparked a, dare I say, existential conversation about the nature of collecting.

Why do we collect? Is the enjoyment in the possession or is it in the chase? Who do we share the collection with? What do we hope will happen to all our stuff?

Heavy questions, indeed, and not ones we’ll answer here. But if there’s anything that KISS can teach us it’s that you go big or go home. And, sweet Jesus, if you’re going big, you’d better shout it out loud.

Watchin’ You: busts of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss

The Collectors is a new series documenting people with extraordinary personal collections. If you are, or know of, someone with an interesting set of stuff, we’d love to know about it.


* Bruce doesn’t actually own one of the KISS pinball machines–more about this later in the piece.