Double Vision: An Orbit Day Trip to the Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum

stereoscope view card of zeppelin in flight
Zeppelin, baby! In stereo!! “The Maiden Flight of the ‘U.S.S. Akron.’ Sept. 23, 1931.” A stereoscopic view card with its characteristic double image and concave bend produced by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, PA

Meadville, Pa., New York, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., London, England. A hundred years ago, these four city names were printed on hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of photographic view cards enjoyed the world over.

With apologies to the fine people of Crawford County, one of these cities is not like the rest. That said, Meadville—little Meadville, a town of 13,000 people an hour-and-a-half due north of Pittsburgh—was actually the ring leader in this particular group in one important context.

Home to the Keystone View Company from the 1890s to the 1960s, Meadville found itself as one of, if not the, largest manufacturers of stereoscopes and stereoscopic “views” during the medium’s heyday in the first half of the twentieth century. New York, Chicago, and London were but vassals selling and distributing the wares created and produced in Meadville.

hand-tinted stereoscope view card of woman in canoe in river
Canoe dig it? “Far from Gay Cities and the Ways of Men.” A hand-tinted color view card
stereoscope view cards of nature scenes
Egrets, I’ve had a few. “A Close View of American Egrets.” / spider’s web

If you’ve never had the pleasure—or just didn’t know what they were called—a stereoscope is a handheld device with two lenses that a person looks through. Stiff paper cards with specially-printed images are placed into a slider aligned with the viewer’s eye holes.

The two photos—they’re usually photos, but come in other media too—were taken with special cameras equipped with a pair of lenses spaced at roughly the distance between a person’s eyeballs. With each of the viewer’s eyes focused on a slightly different perspective of the same scene an illusion of three-dimensionality is created.

doll figure in easy chair holding a stereoscope
A tiny man with a tiny stereoscope in a tiny comfy chair

The history of both this unique, pre-television entertainment/educational/optical technology and, more specifically the Keystone View Company, is documented at the Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum in Meadville.

The museum houses thousands of view cards produced by Keystone in their seven-decade run. Travel photos, news and current events, teaching aids, children’s stories, optical illusions, and visual gags are all collected in banks of cards available for the visitor’s perusal. One could spend an entire visit riding the old-school 3-D wave from Lake Conneaut to distant Asia and everywhere in between.

humorous stereoscope view card of mother rabbit with babies holding tiny plates
Humor was simpler back then. “The Bunnies’ Breakfast Hour.”
stereoscope view card of cartoon characters climbing a telephone pole
… and so was physical fitness. “The Human Body is Strengthened by Proper Exercise—The Eyes are no Exception.”

Hard to capture in photos is the care the Johnson/Shaw has taken to showing the way Keystone created its products. Factory workers ground the lenses, hand-carved the wooden stereoscopes, assembled the parts, glued pictures to cards, and hand-tinted black-and-white photos into gloriously over-saturated color scenes that one imagines were the pride of any stereophile’s collection.

The museum includes examples of the desks and workstations, tinting tables and shipping molds for the full process, each step attended-to by a period-dressed mannequin.

hand-tinted stereoscope view card of oranges in tree
“Orange Blossoms and Fruit, Los Angeles, California.” A hand-tinted color view card
stereoscope view cards of humorous cartoon scenes
collection of humorous color view cards
mannequin with framed photographs
Mannequin fever, Meadville-style! One of several displays showing how view cards were created.

It will come as a surprise to no one—especially those who’ve never heard of stereoscopes—that the medium didn’t last. In a pre-Internet, pre-television era, stereo views were a solid way to armchair travel to places and events far from home. They could be borrowed, traded, and housed at libraries and museums for use by larger audiences, even if viewing a particular scene was a decidedly personal experience.

But—you know where this is going—by the time America got past the depression and World War II there were just a lot more options out there: a television right in the living room, movies in vibrant technicolor, glossy magazines full of frivolity, and bebop jazz and rock-and-roll’s daring thrill. Putting a view card in the slot of a stereoscope so you could see a still image have a little extra dimension must have felt hopelessly quaint by the mid-1950s.

woman with red/blue 3-D glasses
The world looks better through rose—and blue—colored glasses. A satisfied 3-D museum-goer at Johnson/Shaw

The concept didn’t die there, though, and all of us who grew up with View-Masters and their rotating slides and stories are living proof. [Side note: apparently these are still available brand new, but it’s hard to imagine today’s youths getting that excited about them.] Old school blue/red 3-D glasses used a different optical technology but were a similar attempt to bring the third dimension to photography and film. These updates to the world of stereoscopic entertainment are also covered by Johnson/Shaw’s collection.

stereoscope view card of snare drum and drummer's hands and sticks
unlabeled view (snare drummer optical illusion)
stereoscope view card of childrens story
“The Three Bears”

That’s a lot, huh? … but there’s more!

The Johnson/Shaw also contains a unique array of glass milk bottles, each with seemingly a different size, shape, and/or graphic treatment. If you’re into the history of Western Pennsylvania dairies, The James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection is the place to be. This museum-within-a-museum has giant display cases full of silk-screened glassware memorializing extinct dairies from Erie to Uniontown. Each bears the beautiful simplicity of mid-century typography on crystalline, reusable glass and is well worth your time … if you can stop digging through the stereoscope views.

detail of milk bottle graphic
Art Deco meets oil extraction on Titusville Dairy’s milk bottle
old milk bottles from different Pennsylvania dairies in display case
A small portion of the James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection

Getting there: The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum and James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection is located at 423 Chestnut St. in Meadville. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Pittsburgh and is real near Conneaut and Pymatuning lakes, if you’re up that way. The museum’s only scheduled open hours are on Saturdays (10am – 4pm) but is also open by appointment on other dates (call 814-720-4306 to schedule).

exterior of brick The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum in Meadville, PA
The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum and James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection, Meadville

The Collectors: Mix and Mingle with Kris Kringle, Paul Schifino’s Secret Santas

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Wind-Me-Up Santa, Robot Santa, and Abnormally-Long-Torso Santa are all part of Paul Schifino’s massive collection

It’s about time Santa Claus turned the tables on us. We only have to remember one of him, but His Redness has to keep track of the names, addresses, personal wishes, naughty/nice status, and illegal home invasion strategies for every child on the planet.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
You Could Even Say He Glows Santa

A visit to one particular Lawrenceville row house reveals us mere humans as once again way over-simplifying the wide world of Santadom. Why, there’s not just one Jolly St. Nick! No, here you’ll find Robot Santa and Motor Scooter Santa, Glowing Cologne Santa and Tootsie Santa. They share mantle space with Santa-Wan Kenobi, Light-up Cookie Jar Santa, Wind-Up Articulated Santa, a two-dimensional Pepsi-Pimping Santa, and Santaralli—the nickname a portmanteau of Ol’ Bowl-Full-of-Jelly and the Italian holiday cookie affixed to his tin foil-wrapped belly.

In between, there are kindly Santas, smiling Santas, mischieviously-winking Santas, and slightly-menacing Santas. Tin spinning top Santas rub red-robed elbows with home ec project Santas, crafts-gone-wrong Santas, ceramic Santas, and various sleighs laden not with presents for good boys and girls, but perversely with even more tiny Santas as cargo.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Sad-faced Santaralli and Big Smilin’ Santa

“It’s because I love Christmas,” Paul Schifino tells The Orbit in one of the year’s most explosive revelations. That love started early. “When I was kid, there was this man in our neighborhood, Mr. Mayo, who would dress up like Santa Claus, visit all the houses with children, and every one of us got a toy.”

The artifice of Mr. Mayo attempting to fool the youth of 1960s Carnegie with his dime store red suit and add-on white whiskers mattered not. “I didn’t even care that I was lied to,” Schifino says, “I’m just such a fan of Christmas.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Crystal Bowl Full of Jelly Santa

The collecting bug began some forty years ago with a particular figure found at a long-gone Carson Street antique shop. That wind-up Santa, made of molded tin in 1960s Japan, moved in elaborate head-turning, arm-oscillating ways. Paul gave the original to his sister when he recently acquired a superior edition that included the original Merry Xmas sign. [See photo at top.]

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Santas upon Santas

Since then, the collection has grown, and grown, and grown. While this season’s display occupies both surfaces of a big, double-decker mantlepiece and nearby cradenza—let’s say hundreds of Santas—a less-restrained decorator could have taken over the entire house with what remains in the basement archives.

“I have enough Santas to do all of that,” Schifino says, motioning past a pair of big antique curio cabinets and additional shelving, “But I like that these get put away after Christmas and then I bring them out once a year for the holiday.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
A bouquet of Santas
detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Blow Your Horn Santa and Big Bunny Santa

It seems every Santa in Schifino’s collection includes an origin story. This little ceramic Santa was handed down from his grandparents, its legs glued back on after after a tragic fall; that one a gift from a neighbor. Some were mini craft projects recycling Santa-themed candy packaging; others were bedazzled by friends who know just who to gift a tiny Santa, wrapped in tin foil, with an ancient cookie strapped to his chest like a suicide bomber with a sweet tooth.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Old-school bobblehead Santa with a basket full of tiny Santas
detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Whole lotta Santa goin’ on

By far, though, the majority of the collection originates in the region’s flea markets, antique shops, and thrift stores. “Most of these cost two or three dollars,” Schifino told us. “Of course I could buy them on the Internet, but that takes all the fun out of it.”

“I buy Santas all year—especially during the off-season,” says Schifino, “The actor Don Brockett—he was Chef Brockett on Mr. Rogers—also collected Santas and when I’d see him at flea markets I’d always try to stay ahead of him so I could get to the Santas first.”

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Santootsie, Scooter Santa, and the gang

Christmas—and the holiday season, writ large—means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it is indeed “the most wonderful time of the year”—but we know that’s not a universal truth. For the rest of us, the emotions that kick in as soon as the days grow dark, the colored lights turn on, and Christmas music takes over the oldies station are much more nuanced.

Santa collector Paul Schifino in front of a portion of his collection
The Most of Christmas Present. Santa collector Paul Schifino with a portion of his Santa collection.

The sentimentality of the season may be the toughest nut for many to swallow. But even for your Bah, Humbug-curious author, seeing this mass of glowing, grinning Santas, lovingly brought out for their once-yearly starring role, is enough to warm the soul.

Each little Santa bears not physical gifts, but memories and imaginations—of who owned these figures before they came into Paul’s collection and how they arrived here, now. They’re souvenirs of Sunday trips to the flea market and mementos of friends and family past and present. That may be Santa’s greatest gift of all.

detail from large collection of Santa Claus decorations
Glowing church with big little Santas

The Collectors is an Orbit series focused on interesting personal collections and the people who assemble them. If you know of someone with a great collection, please let us know.

See also: The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason (Pittsburgh Orbit, June 23, 2019)

Barbie’s Dream Cult

collection of Barbie dolls displayed on chain link fence in the sunshine

Fun in the sun. A handful of the hundreds of dolls in Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill.

If you were a kid that played with dolls and ever wondered whatever happened to them, now we know. They ended up here, on an overgrown former basketball court in Polish Hill.

Barbie dolls are everywhere[1]. Placed into tree branches and tied to fencing, dangling from a basketball hoop and performing headless yoga in the buff. They appear in clustered groups large enough to field a sports team and as loners cast off into the mud. Some look joyful–in relaxed repose, absorbing the morning sunshine–others have been abused and contorted, stripped bare and dismembered.

And then, rising from the twisted, haphazardly-tossed little bodies at the rear of the space, is the motherlode. At least a hundred dolls–probably more–forming the shape of a giant Valentine’s heart across a wide section of chain link fence.

large number of Barbie dolls hung on a chain link fence in the shape of a heart

Big love. The heart at the center of Barbie’s dream cult.

“Part Marwen, part Jonestown Massacre,” was artist Lisa Valentino‘s brief description after coming across the collection of Barbies on one of her WATSOP (Walk All the Streets of Pittsburgh) hikes. That enticing teaser, plus a handful of photos, was all it took to send the Orbit on a mad dash to see for ourselves.

You could accurately call this little out-of-control diorama a Pink Plastic Crime Scene or maybe Return to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s both the oxymoronic street art in the woods and an exploded American fantasy. Ultimately, between the Druidic imagery of The Wicker Man and the visions of The Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate lingering in the cranium, we settled on Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Welcome-to-the-Cult Hostess Barbie

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence with wooden hex symbol

High Druid Priestess Barbie

Barbie has done a lot of things in her 60+ year history. Why, the Mattel Corporation is not so tone deaf here in the 21st century as to ignore expanding their flagship brand into all manner of dress-up outfits. One can now purchase Barbie the trial judge, astronaut, entomologist, astrophysicist, and robotics engineer. On her time off from drilling cavities and performing root canals at the dentist’s office, Barbie, D.D.S., enjoys beekeeping, pet-grooming, baseball, art, and tending chickens in the backyard. The list goes on and on.

That’s all great … but none of these focused, career-minded young ladies ended up here. No, among the hundreds of dolls scattered about, we spotted exactly one roller-skater, one Jazzerciser, and one apparent employee of Pizza Hut wearing a cropped t-shirt and miniskirt combo that almost certainly fails to meet the restaurant chain’s dress code.

Despite the wide array of careers and avocations Barbie is now free to pursue, the cult clearly appeals most to a more conservative–or, at least, traditional–young lady, almost entirely white and blonde, whose sartorial preferences lean toward pink party dresses and formal evening gowns[2].

dolls dressed in Pizza Hut shirt and roller skater gear

Sent-Home-With-a-Warning Barbie / Roller Skater Barbie

collage of Barbie dolls in fancy dresses

Formal dress Barbies

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that these are just plastic dolls that happened to end up the way most of their fellow children’s toys do: played-with, dropped in the dirt, broken-apart, and left behind. We find them in the street all the time.

That said, it has to be noted that today, in the #MeToo era, the image of so many post-adolescent/not-quite-fully-adult young women, lifeless, often stripped bare, and dramatically discarded in the woods, is somewhere between disconcerting and hardcore creepy. Hopefully you’ve never come across anything like this in real life, but watch any episode of Law & Order or Broadchurch–let alone the evening news–and it will often feature a similar-looking tragic young victim as Plot Point 1.

collage of blond Barbie doll heads on pavement

Heads-a-poppin’ Barbies

Barbie dolls dressed in bathrobe and exercise outfit

Rough Morning Barbie / Jazzercise Barbie

If Jan and/or Dean are still fantasizing over the mythical Surf City’s two-to-one gender ratio, they’ll completely flip their noggins when they arrive at Barbie’s Dream Cult. Kens do make  appearances here–both in the big Barbie art heart and tossed around the premises–but they’re easily outnumbered ten- or twenty-to-one.

If you’re a Ken, that’s the good news. (I guess?) The bad news is the Kens have been brutalized as much as any of the Barbies. Missing limbs, heads, and all/most of their clothes, Kens are found covered in dirt, with their pants around their ankles, buck naked, and frozen into ice. Maybe Surf City was a better plan after all.

collage of Ken dolls resting on dirt

Hey, ladies! Pants-Around-the-Ankles Ken / Which-Way-to-the-Phish-Concert Ken

collage of Ken dolls frozen in an icy creek

What a way to go. Two versions of You-Messed-with-the-Wrong-Barbie Ken

The obvious question: what are all these Barbie dolls doing here? For this we need to declare an official Spoiler Alert. We received some insider information, but if you’d rather not know and just let it remain a mystery, feel free to skip ahead.

We were lucky enough to get this short history from a Polish Hill resident, intimately involved with Barbie’s Dream Cult:

The Barbie heart story started originally with a guy in the neighborhood who bought all the Barbies to make an art car. Other people in the neighborhood felt the car was creepy and people started to say things on the Internet insinuating he was some kind of pervert and that they wished him harm. So, the gentleman took the Barbies off his car and well, what else do you do with that many Barbies? He graciously donated them to the abandoned courts.

In the beginning they were all in bags and rubber tubs and they sat there for a while. I took em out to write my name in Barbies and photograph it. Since then, they’ve been getting thrown all over the place. The heart was made by another human who wanted to remain mysterious about its origins and meanings.

collage of broken dolls found in the woods

Headless Yoga Barbie / Arm-Where-It-Shouldn’t-Be Ken / Whole-Lotta-Pink-Hair Barbie / Half-a-Horse

Barbie dolls placed in thick vine wood

Run for your life! Escape-While-You-Still-Can Barbies

Now, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone in the neighborhood considers leaving bags of Barbie dolls outside for public dismemberment is a “gracious donation.” From our vantage point, though, it’s an intriguing opportunity.

We can think of a lot worse things than this little abandoned corner of Polish Hill becoming a kind of ever-changing Barbie art park, outdoor creative space, or just another weird Pittsburgh thing to discover. It could also be a one-of-a-kind, no-questions-asked Barbie lending library: Need a Barbie? Take a Barbie. Have a Barbie? Leave a Barbie.

Barbie doll placed in a tree branch

Footloose, fancy-free, and hanging in a tree Barbie

Barbie takes a lot of well-deserved heat–for her does-not-exist-in-nature body proportions, reliably Aryan features, and dress-up-and-look-pretty career goals. This is a chance to counter that–to take a tiny amount of the world’s Barbies and do something new and innovative with them.

The last thing Marine Biologist Barbie or Wildlife Conservationist Barbie want is for the mountain of molded pink plastic the Mattel Corporation has brought into the world to end up casually thrown out, minced up, and washed out to sea for an even larger Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the real doctrine of Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Naked and not ashamed. Nudist Colony Barbie


[1] We’re using the names Barbie and Ken generically here. The dolls likely come from many different sources and are not necessarily all Barbie® brand toys.
[2] In fairness, many of the dolls have been stripped of all clothing, so it’s impossible to establish if these may have originally worn different outfits.

Swinging for DeBence’s: Pipe Dreams and Piano-Playing Robots at the Antique Music World

antique calliope at DeBence Antique Music World

These pipes are smokin’! A deluxe calliope at DeBence Antique Music World in Frankin, PA.

Close your eyes and imagine what a robot looks like. Chances are, you might conjure up a blocky sci-fi stereotype–all shiny metal, wires, and blinking lights, rolling around assisting space forces in a stilted computer voice. Others may envision the kinds of already-in-the-real-world robots currently zipping through assembly plants and fulfillment centers with lightning precision, or the pure artificial intelligence powering high-tech interactive devices everywhere.

Whatever you’re thinking of, it doesn’t look like this.

wooden piano attachment to mechanically play a standard piano at DeBence Antique Music World

80 (or so) fingered mechanical piano-playing robot

A large, handmade wooden cabinet–maybe six feet long, four feet high, and at least 18 inches deep–is placed directly in front of a full-size upright piano, rendering the instrument completely inaccessible to any human hands that might wish to tickle the ebony and/or ivory. The add-on unit takes input in the form of elaborate scrolls and translates the paper’s precisely-cut notches to the mechanical operation of eighty-some wooden fingers, one placed on each (almost) of the piano’s keys*.

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion at DeBence Antique Music World

interior of nickelodeon music machine including player scroll, xylophone, and percussion

DeBence Antique Music World has one of these piano-playing appliance-attachment-robots on display and ready to crank up for a mini concert on your next visit. DeBence’s collection also includes elaborate coin-operated mechanical music machines, calliopes, band organs, and more evolutions of disk-playing music boxes and phonographs than you ever knew existed.

The museum, located 80-some miles north of Pittsburgh in the über-quaint “Oil Country” town of Franklin, is a little out of our typical reach. But DeBence–and the region’s other many out-of-the-way attractions–are well worth the easy day trip from home.

metal musical disk on antique player at DeBence Antique Music World

Regina music disk and player

brass horns attached to elaborate band organ at DeBence Antique Music World

band organ horns

It’s probably safe to say musicians, record collectors, and those excited by domestic history and the development of America during its boom years will have an extra special interest in DeBence. The sheer volume of intricate, hand-cut music disks and elaborate, room-filling multi-instrument machinery is awe-inspiring and humbling to anyone who’s already dabbled in the media, fiddled with sound, or rocked the wheels of steel.

But you don’t have to be a music freak to appreciate DeBence. Just experiencing all the little gears clicking in metric time, wooden mallets tick-tocking stacked xylophone blocks, and the hair-blown-back blasts of dozens of brass pipes squonking in unison is a fascinating spectacle. The objects–polished metal disks, dark hardwood cabinetry, hand-painted decorative details–could stand alone in a design museum without ever hearing them play.

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display at DeBence Antique Music World

ornate disk player with dancing ballerinas display

painted detail on band organ frame at DeBence Antique Music World

painted detail on band organ frame

But, oh–you know where this is going–at DeBence, you do get to hear them perform. The collection is no mere array of historical objects entombed behind glass. No, they really don’t make them like they used to–and part of that means you can still hand crank the coil spring of a c. 1890s disk-playing music box and hear its metallic tines ting-ting-tingling out the popular music of the day. Try seeing if your 10-year-old Zune is still up to the task.

Our crew was fortunate enough to have an excellent volunteer guide who not only knew his stuff, but took us on the full tour even when we slipped in the door just before closing time. We don’t know how many of DeBence’s machines are still in working order, but an enormous number of them got cranked-up, switched-on, or otherwise sprung to life for the tour–each full of beans and with a song to sing.

costumed figures playing bells inside Victorian music box at DeBence Antique Music World

Dumb bells. Jesters ready to strike in a 19th century music box.

gold-colored pipes of a home pipe organ at DeBence Antique Music World

organ pipes

It takes a whole lot of mind-bending technology to enable the history of recorded music to be beamed instantly through one’s digital device and straight into their psyche. That’s great and all, but there is an intangible loss in this convenience.

Maybe it’s an extreme rationalization from a part-time blogger and full time record collecting junkie, but something otherworldly happens when the black lacquer spins up, a tone arm adjusts over and drops down into place. There’s an electric moment of heightened sensation when we get just the barest static sizzle of a stylus in dead wax before the Side A, track 1 music kicks in. Sure: by any objective measure, it’s low-tech, obsolete, and patently nostalgic. But there’s a magic here you just don’t get with a Spotify stream.

wooden dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

handmade wooden Victrola dancer attachment

ceramic and textile dancing puppet attached to spinning center of a Victrola at DeBence Antique Music World

ceramic Victrola dancer attachment

If it seems like that today, imagine what the technology must have felt like to the Victorians–pre-radio, pre-motion picture, probably before most had ever talked on a telephone. Those early adopters, who first plunked-down an entire paycheck for a Victrola and then had to send off to Sears for a couple two-and-a-half-minute songs to play on them, must have lost their minds at the variety of voices and sounds coming to them from far, far away.

To see these old machines whir to life, sound spilling out–yes: creaking, wheezing, groaning, and, as Randy Jackson would say, “a little pitchy, dog,” at times–is a beautiful, transformative, and, yes, magical experience. I don’t know whether there’s a chance that gets your keister to dust off the phonograph and back in the record store [we’re rooting for you!] but it should at least get you up to Franklin.

Regardless, we can cross our fingers, hope the bellows push air, the paper score feeds the tickling digits, and the beautiful sound of magical music fills the air around you.

novelty decoration of real frog, stuffed with sawdust, holding a guitar at DeBence Antique Music World

Frog fantasy. Among DeBence’s novelties are many “real frogs stuffed with sawdust.”

exterior of DeBence Antique Music World, Franklin, PA

DeBence Antique Music World, downtown Franklin, PA

close-up of pump organ keyboard and stops

All the stops: Vox Humana, Gemshorn, Dulcissimo, etc.

Getting there: DeBence Antique Music World is located at 1261 Liberty Street in Franklin. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown Pittsburgh. DeBence has regular hours through the warmer months, but slows down over winter, so check the museum’s web site to make sure you’ll be able to get in.


Almost. The unit doesn’t quite reach the full 88-key range of a standard piano keyboard. If you want to hit those super low notes, you’ll have to do that yourself.

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.