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.

The Pizza Chase: P&M Pizza, Arnold

child's head seen over a large pepperoni and olive pizza, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

Sunrise over Lake Cheese d’Orange. P&M Pizza, Arnold

American cheese. Have wars been fought for less? Probably. At least…maybe.

As far as we can determine, the story goes like this: The original P&M Pizza goes back to 1947 in Arnold. Owners Lefty and Mooney Martz ran the place for over fifty years before finally selling and retiring in the late 1990s[1]. During that half-century, P&M became a landmark to locals with its unique pizza, distinctive in both crust and cheese blend (we’ll get to these).

At some point during the end of their run, the Martz’ trademark recipe was sold and is now reproduced across the river at Phillippi’s Family Dining and Pizzeria in Natrona Heights. Phillippi’s has rebranded both the pizza style and the restaurant, now calling itself the “Home of the Birdville Pie.”[2] 

In the meantime, P&M was re-opened in the late aughts in the very same 5th Avenue building the Martz’ called home for half a century. The new owners–a pair of Arnold natives–now claim to serve “The Original P&M Pizza” and they clearly want to take back the glory of what they believe is rightfully theirs. P&M’s web site features the crossed-out image of Phillippi’s cartoon pizza-eating chicken aside the text Leave it for the birds! P&M will also accept your (Phillippi’s) “Birdville Pie” coupons.

whole pepperoni and black olive pizza from above, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

P&M pizza

Whose pizza is really the most original? We have no idea. Sadly, we never got the chance to have a P&M pie cooked up by the Martzes. The Internet seems, as Internets do, both divided and unreliably-sourced on the topic. Technology-savvy Orbit readers can seek out opinions of each on their own, but suffice to say there are many reviews for both restaurants that include the cliché “you either love it or hate it” as well as the predictable accusations of “NOT the original…”

Regardless of how exact either P&M or Phillippi’s recreates the Martz’ formula, it’s clear they’re both working from a similar set of blueprints. As Zomato user Akvalleyfoodman–a self-proclaimed “expert” who’s “eaten (original P&M’s) thousands and thousands of times” since the mid-60s–says (of P&M), they’re “in the same zip code.”[3]

Coming late to the party, we’re just glad that there are two different establishments carrying the torch for micro-crust ambiguously-cheesed bar pizza located within minutes drive of each other. The Martz’ legacy–however approximate it may be–is alive and well.

child holding nose as a piece of P&M pizza is offered to him

P&M pizza: it’s not for everyone

So how do the two pies stack up? It’s been almost a year since The Orbit checked in at Phillippi’s, so we’re running on pizza fumes here. That said, we can attest that the two pies are very similar–at least, to tastebuds from outside the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Both are built on exceptionally thin crusts. In the previous report, we stated that Phillippi’s is “as wafer-thin as this eater has ever experienced.” Well, that may have been true last year, but P&M’s crust makes Phillippi’s look like deep dish. The crust is so thin that the cornmeal used to keep the dough from sticking to the oven becomes a major factor in the flavor. A pita looks thick by comparison. Heck, a Triscuit would need to get planed down to be this thin. [Carb-conscious dieters take note: P&M is a place you can get the thrill of hot, delicious pizza and barely consume any bread at all.]

The other thing that makes both places seem incomprehensible to all who didn’t grow up in greater New Kensington is the “proprietary cheese blend”. It’s electric orange and obviously contains some high percentage of American “cheese.” Now, we can get all snobby about our fromage, but gosh darnit if it didn’t taste absolutely gooey-great in the combination that P&M cooked up. Just editing the included photos is making this blogger hungry all over again.

one slice of pizza on a paper plate, P&M Pizza, Arnold, PA

Wafer thin and golden orange: a single cut of P&M pizza.

So which pizza gets the Orbit nod–P&M’s “original” vs. Phillippi’s “Birdville Pie”? We don’t want to disparage either establishment and it’s safe to say the two pizzas have a lot more in common than not. It’s also fair that both are definitely “acquired tastes” that you may have had to ingest in the womb to truly love. Curious outsiders: you’ve been warned.

All that said, in our very unscientific experience, The Orbit‘s guests at Phillippi’s declared that while it was an interesting experience, they didn’t really ever need to have another Birdville Pie. I couldn’t talk any of the bunch into trying their cross-river rival for comparison. The same was not true at P&M, where the entire table (O.K. just two adults and one narrowly-converted youth) was ready to go back for more the next day. Advantage: P&M.

front window of P&M Pizza, Inc., Arnold, PA

Check out The Orbit‘s first half on this two-part Pizza Chase story: Phillippi’s, Home of the “Birdville Pie”.


[1] “P&M Pizza in Arnold delivers the classic goods”, 10 April, 2014, TribLive.com,
http://triblive.com/aande/diningout/3761321-74/pizza-mckinley-phil
[2] Phillippi’s Family Restaurant and Pizzeria http://phillippis.com/
[3] Zomato: P&M Pizza House, user reviews https://www.zomato.com/pittsburgh/p-m-pizza-house-arnold/reviews

New Kensington Bauhaus: Aluminum City Terrace

Aluminum City Terrace block of two-story units, each with different front yard changes

Lived-in: Aluminum City Terrace today

Our story begins with a breakfast dish that goes by the auspicious name Never Again. Two eggs scrambled, bacon, home fries, and “S.O.S.” (Shit On Shingle). This is then topped with cheese and gravy, all in a fabulous pile-up that makes lunch at Primanti’s look like high tea. Needless to say, David’s Diner in Springdale is Orbit-approved.

We’d booked our resident architecture consultants Charles & Susan for a gorgeous bright Sunday morning poke-see at a site just across the river in New Kensington and David’s friendly staff made sure all aboard were well provisioned for the hard journalism work ahead.

The crew was on its way to Aluminum City Terrace, a historically-significant housing complex that touched the interconnected spheres of World War II, big industry, and mid-century rock star architects. We wanted to see what the place looks like today, who lives there, and how it’s fared in the seventy-some years since it was hastily built back in the day.

Original drawings for Aluminum City Terrace, 1942

[image: Library of Congress]

Nineteen forty-two. America had just joined World War II and the nation needed aluminum (along with lots of other raw materials) for the effort. That meant lots of work for New Kensington-based Alcoa and a whole slew of new factory jobs for the town.

In what was reportedly a lightning development process, ex-Bauhaus  founder/instructors/architects and design world big-wigs Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer drew up a 250-unit campus of cheap, simple, efficient worker apartments specifically geared to Alcoa (and New Kensington’s) immediate need to house the ramped-up workforce. The location was a beautifully hilly section just outside of town. It was a mere two miles as the crow flies from Alcoa’s plants along the Allegheny River, but must have felt like another world compared to the belching industry and urban grid of the New Ken/Arnold flats.

Aluminum City Terrace two-story units

Have you seen the back? The very utilitarian rear of the two-story units

Seeing the apartment buildings in person, the immediate effect is, frankly, underwhelming. Aluminum City Terrace may have a great history and rich architectural pedigree, but the two-story units basically look somewhere between the kind of no-frills “garden” apartments that sit at the perimeter of many American towns and the independent no-tell motels just a little further out. This is especially true of the buildings’ featureless back sides.

The road that snakes through the complex and swells into various parking areas dominates its midsection with a regrettable amount of pavement. There are many opportunities to include a shade tree, flower bed, or line of shrubs, but the groundskeepers of the Terrace have chosen to keep its midway decidedly foliage-free.

It’s not a great first impression–especially because you’re likely only going to arrive here by car, and that will land you on pavement. Look a little deeper, though, and the Terrace tells a really interesting story, both past and present.

I’ll add that Aluminum City Terrace is no Dwell set piece, either. People live here, and the sense of life is apparent everywhere. In the drying beach towels hanging off the back porches, the kids trampoline and sports equipment strewn about the yard, the incongruous white plastic picket fence added to a single unit. Architects must flip a gripper when they see what real people do to “their” spaces, but this neutral observer found the collision to be most enjoyable.

Aluminum City Terrace plan and elevation drawings, 1942

Good on paper: Aluminum City Terrace plan and elevation, 1942 [image: Library of Congress]

The irony of the complex that Alcoa built (not literally–the federal government actually sponsored the project–but you know what I mean) is that there wasn’t a square inch of aluminum in Gropius and Breuer’s design. That is, of course, because America needed all of it to fight the bad guys. What are now the long louvered aluminum sun shades were originally made from wood. The elevations tell us the odd jutting-out second-floor bedrooms/back porch roofs were first clad in vertical cedar siding (since replaced) and back entrances shielded by sleek flat asbestos board canopies (ditto).

Aluminum City Terrace single-story one-bedroom block

One-bedroom units, each with an integrated back porch and shed

Aluminum City Terrace Activities Center

Aluminum City Terrace Activities Center

Walking through the complex, I was repeatedly struck by the cattywumpus arrangement of buildings. Each individual set of apartments is one of two designs (single floor one-bedrooms and two-story combined two-/three-bedrooms). The only real exception being the unique yard spaces and controlled additions the current co-op owners have created. But with none of the units lining up in any form of metered placement, it gives the place the overall feeling of a child’s building blocks dropped indiscriminately on a (very well-groomed) lawn, or train cars gently derailed, but untoppled.

I’m sure the primary reason for this was to follow the natural contours of the land. This part of New Kensington is quite hilly, surrounded by trees, and the plan takes advantage of the location in many ways. But even with that in mind, the site plan suggests there was a conscious effort to break evenly lining up any two buildings–either in parallel or perpendicular–on the grounds.

Aluminum City Terrace site plan, 1942

Cattywumpus layout: site plan, 1942 [image: Library of Congress]

We were fortunate to run across a very friendly family, one of whom happened to be on the board of Aluminum City Terrace. They invited the group into their apartment and showed us before and after photos from a large scale remodeling job they’d done. We also got some background on how the co-op system works there.

Residents must apply, pass a background check, and pay a one-time expense to get into the co-op. They then pay monthly upkeep fees for the maintenance of the exteriors of the buildings and grounds. Compared to more strict co-ops (ex: Pittsburgh’s Chatham Village), the residents seem to have a good amount of leniency in the treatment of their yard spaces, adding trees, fences, all manner of shrubs, flowers, vegetable gardens, etc. According to our hosts, all 250 units are occupied and there’s a waiting list to get in.

And it’s easy to see why. The buildings, sidewalks, its one road, and the grounds are in immaculate condition. This is in stark contrast to seen-better-days New Kensington proper. Our hosts told us their daughter is living in a one-bedroom nearby with other relatives also in the complex and there seems to be a strong community throughout. The Terrace is surrounded by trees and was built in maybe the last age before developers routinely flattened the landscape prior to development, leaving it with terrific rolling ups and downs.

Aluminum City Terrace unit with heavily-manicured front yard/garden

There’s a lot going on here: one of the busier/more heavily-maintained front yards

So…what’s the takeaway? Well, this is the first Bauhaus-related project this architecture-curious (but just a casual fan) blogger has experienced up close and personal. As such, it’s cool to find out it’s here, and it’s so loved, lived-in, and accessible in a very real world way. I don’t know much about Gropius and Breuer, but I hope they’d like most of what they’d see seventy years on. I do.

Oh, and that breakfast? On that, David is wrong: you can bet I’ll be having it again.

Signs of New Kensington

Painted wall advertisement for Owl Cigar

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign,” goes the old Freedom Rock classic.  I don’t know if the Five Man Electrical Band ever made it to New Kensington, but they’d likely be dismayed that said signs are still “blockin’ out the scenery (and) breakin’ (their) mind.”  These signs, in fact, have managed to outlive many of the people, businesses–entire industries–that once surrounded them.

New Kensington.  The town Alcoa built.  An obviously once-thriving, larger-than-average industry town that lies up the Allegheny River from metro Pittsburgh.  Like many of its sister communities, the industry is now long gone and the overwhelming experience of visiting is both vacancy and beauty.

I’ve been to New Ken maybe a dozen times for a variety of reasons, but usually just to poke around. I’m always struck by how incredible much of the architecture/building stock still is. Gorgeous late Victorian/pre-war grand homes and ornate apartments, great industrial spaces, lean art deco retail storefronts in terra cotta and stone.  It kills me that businesses will continue to locate their expansions to desert office parks when there are fully intact towns like New Kensington just dying for that Amazon distribution point, a call center or manufacturer to come in.  Sigh.

Anyway, there are a bunch of great things to see in New Kensington.  I visited on a cold, but beautifully sunny day (no filters needed!) last weekend.  This trip I chose to just focus on the (painted wall) signs downtown in the flats, but the Orbit will be back–we didn’t even make it to Parnassus or Arnold!

Parking lot kiosk, New Kensington

You Park It and Lock It

Old sign for Abraham's missing letters

Abraham’s

Painted wall advertisement for Pillsbury's Best flour

Pillsbury’s Best

Painted wall advertisement for Coca-Cola

Drink Coca-Cola

Painted wall sign for Sons of Italy No. 881, New Kensington

Sons of Italy No. 881

Painted wall advertisements, New Kensington

Bull Durham Tobacco / Gold Medal Flour

 

Un-Graffiti

"No Dogs!" painted on side of small factory in Millvale

“No Dogs!”, Millvale

If there’s anything that watching television has taught us, it’s that serial killers are everywhere. The Pacific Northwest, the beaches of Miami, Belfast, 1950’s London, you name it.  Hell, Chloe Sevigny turned up scads of them right here in Pittsburgh–imagine if she could have finished the season!

We street bloggers can learn a lot from the fictional hunting of these seemingly very normal monsters: trust no one, collect as much material evidence as possible, we all need to take a long look at our own mothers, and mainly that we’re always looking for patterns.

When The Orbit photography staff started going through their deep back-catalog of photos, one such interesting pattern emerged.  Photos of places that had all the hallmarks of graffiti: the crude, quickly-executed messaging, raw emotion, paint applied directly to wall surfaces.  But these weren’t graffiti in the typical sense; they all appeared to be committed by the owners of the buildings, too in-a-hurry or just too cheap to have a sign created, instead scrawling the messages directly on their own property.  We’re calling these “un-graffiti“.

"No Parking Open-Pantry Customer Only" painted on wall in Lincoln

“No Parking Open-Pantry Customer Only”, Lincoln

Not only were there no non-customers parking at the Open-Pantry, there were no customers, there was no open business, and there were no human beings anywhere to be seen for blocks around this former convenience store in Lincoln.

"PAULs" letters on side of building in New Kensington, PA

“PAULs”, New Kensington

PAULs is a little different in that the medium isn’t paint, but rather recycled letters from (likely) commercial signage, fixed to plywood.  So maybe this is more like “un-street art”, but I think it counts.

"Wrap Your Garbage" painted on side of building in Lawrenceville

“Wrap Your Garbage”, Lawrenceville

This message obviously predates some heavy-duty rewiring of a commercial building on Butler Street.  On this day there was no problem with unwrapped garbage.

"Quit Paintin...... Dumb Shit on Garage" painted on garage door in Bloomfield

“Quit Paintin…… Dumb Shit on Garage”, Bloomfield

This one is the mother of all un-graffitis: a homeowner’s desperate plea/demand for the scofflaws of his or her Bloomfield neighborhood to cease and desist their assault on this small cinderblock garage.  The request seems to have gone unheeded.

Update: since this photo was taken the entire garage was repainted a deep blue and I don’t recollect any new tags on it (yet).