In 1978, KISS set out to make a film that they hoped would be the definitive cross between “A Hard Day’s Night” and Star Wars. What resulted was the whimsical, low-budget TV movie “KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.”
Almost comparable to a Rock N Roll equivalent of the “Star Wars” Holiday Special, the film is deemed by many as a misstep in the band’s career. Filled with lackluster pacing, low-grade special effects, and stilted acting from the KISS members, the film certainly has its share of imperfections.
However, some fans consider this a cult classic and find benefit from its shortcomings. No matter which side you’re on, it’s hard to watch the film and not feel a sense of curiosity about what went on behind the scenes.
In the early 2000s, writer and KISS fan Ron Albanese went on a quest to interview people involved with “KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park” for a book that would shed light on the film’s ill-fated production. Over the years, life has interfered and setbacks have occured, but the book is now finally being released!
“Conversations with Phantoms: Exclusive Interviews About the 1978 TV Movie, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” is now available for pre-order through BearManor Media and Amazon and will be officially released on October 28, 2020.
Andrew got to chat with Ron about his book and all things “KISS Meets the Phantom.” Check it out below!
Congrats on Conversations with Phantoms! You originally started working on this book several decades ago. How does it feel to finally have it coming out?
I’m totally over the moon and just stoked about getting it done. The story actually is: I was sitting in a college course getting my final credits for being a schoolteacher and my mind was wandering. I always wanted to write about KISS. I had done a series of funny essays online – not like jokey essays, but humor writing. As a side note, I’m kind of into Bill Bryson and PJ O’Rourke and guys who write these mental travelogues. I like that kind of writing and I had done some about KISS. I had always seen the more humorous aspects of the entire KISS thing. With “KISS Meets the Phantom,” I had a match made in heaven in wanting to write about that because it has such an inherent kitchiness to it, intended or otherwise. That’s how it got started.
Do you remember your experience watching KISS Meets the Phantom for the first time?
I sure do. It’s one of those things that’s in my memories indelibly. I was eight years old at the time. I actually had a little bit of a hassle with my mom at first because she was having people over and the place to have people over in the seventies was most definitely your family rec room. Well lo and behold, in the family rec room was the state-of-the-art, nineteen-inch Magnavox color console television. I had to sit there and watch KISS Meets the Phantom. It was a long room so my mom kind of acquiesced and she entertained at one end of it while I started watching the KISS movie at the other. I was galvanized. I watched every second of it and at the end of it I was a KISS Army member for life. As if I weren’t already!
Did your impression of the movie change over the years? Was there a point where you thought “Wait, this isn’t quite how I remember it”?
There’s two points about that. I totally understood it right away. It was KISS on screen. I didn’t expect anything to be utterly serious or not have any realms of fantasy about it. I always got it. Later on, KISS started to develop their narrative. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are experts at speaking in interviews. They really have woven a great history of the band, especially by the late 1990s. There are certain things they stick to. “Kiss Meets the Phantom, bad! The Elder, bad! No makeup, back on track!” They have their talking points and it’s really well constructed. I feel like the movie has suffered because of that. I think people need to just get in a fun frame of mind. I’ve never heard anyone else say “I’m going to sit down and watch The Three Stooges. Now, what about this cinematography? What about the sound quality? How is the script?” They never put The Three Stooges under such a microscope and I don’t feel like it’s fair to put KISS Meets the Phantom under one either.
You started working on this book when the internet was still fairly primitive. What was your process of doing research and tracking these people down for interviews?
It was tricky stuff. I armed myself initially with a bunch of blank VHS tapes and got to dubbing and made a bunch of copies of the movie. Then I jumped on the internet. At the time, the Internet Movie Database was up and running and it was helpful in locating some people by way of finding their agents. Or I would dial AFTRA, known as SAG at the time, and try to get contact info. “Hi, how could I get in touch with Carmine Caridi?” or anybody like that. From there, it started evolving a little bit and I started getting in touch with people. It was tough. I would imagine today it would be infinitely easier.
Was everyone pretty cooperative when you reached out?
Great question. Actually, my inquiries were almost without fail met with elements of surprise. “You’re writing what? You want to talk about that, really?” The KISS legend, as it were, was just coming into play at that time. They had done the reunion, they had re-established themselves and people in Hollywood and the like were knowing this now. There was knowing KISS was huge, but there was also this element of surprise that I would write about this little 1978 TV movie.
Did you ever reach out to anyone from the band?
Only in a certain roundabout manor. I had always maintained since starting this that I didn’t have much of an interest in talking to any of the KISS guys. I wanted the people who, maybe, this was one of the biggest things they’ve ever done in their life. I wanted to talk to them and get a hold of their memories. KISS were the eye of the hurricane. I just wanted to hear about the hurricane and the damage it did in general or the good it did in this case. Gene Simmons knew about it back then. Just recently, I told Ace Frehley that I had written the book. Those are the only ones I’ve had direct contact with.
What was Ace’s reaction when you told him?
He actually got a chuckle out of it. He said “You know, I had a good time doing that movie.” I said “Ace, I know you had a good time because about five people I interviewed for the book made sure to tell me that you had a REALLY good time.”
Was there anyone you interviewed who was the most revealing or had the most unique insight into the making of the film?
As far as the making of the film, the movie is a real pop culture institution that nobody knows about. It’s really a coming together of many pop culture forces. There’s a lot of talent and fame behind this film. Going into things like talking to Gordon Hessler the director, Deke Heyward the executive in charge of production, and Terry Morse really gave a great insight into the vibe on the set and the challenges they were faced with in delivering this thing on time. You know Andrew, we’re talking a TV movie in 1978. You’ve gotta get in there, get the script, and you’ve gotta make it happen. And you have to do it sidestepping the various forces at play such as Hanna-Barbera being co-producers and NBC being a major television network. Those three interviews really come to mind about painting the picture and putting it together as far as what was going on behind the scenes.
Without giving too much away, what’s something you were most fascinated to learn about the making of the film?
There is one small, but huge nugget that’s in the book. I had never known this and I don’t believe it’s out there in the KISS world. This one piece of information just blew me away. To hear about that, you would have to get my book!
There are probably several answers to this question, but what do you think is the main contributing factor to why the film didn’t pan out the way the band wanted it to?
Naivety on the part of the KISS guys. I think the KISS guys were just so busy at the time. They were working and working and someone tugged at their sleeves in management. “Hey, we’re gonna do this movie!” I think when they finally crash-landed on the set and when it came down to the cameras rolling and reading the script, I think it hit them that they weren’t making a rock n’ roll version of Citizen Kane. I think the shock value set in where they said “Oh, this wasn’t what we thought it would be.” You know, if I were a twenty-something rock n’ roller on top of the world in 1978 and someone handed me this film co-produced by Hanna-Barbera, maybe I wouldn’t be exactly into it either.
You interviewed voice-actor Michael Bell for the book. I’ve read conflicting reasons of why Peter Criss’ voice had to be dubbed over in the film. The band claims Peter refused to do it, but I know he has disputed that. Were you able to uncover more about that?
I know the official reason is not that. His interview does go into it a bit. I wanted to dig a little past the KISS narrative and find out exactly why. The real reason is more of a technical one.
Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in writing an unauthorized biography?
I really do and that advice is “Do it.” You know guys like me and guys like you can’t get enough of this pop culture stuff. I think we know it even more during these times that we need these great escapes. We like to know everything possible about something and do a deep dive to find out things. I found out a lot while writing this book. The discovery of there being a really cool 70s pop culture crossroads happened during the writing process. I learned a lot about movie making in researching this and interviewing people. I got a lot more out of it than I bargained for as a writer and KISS fan.
Was there anything you were hoping to find for the book that you weren’t able to ultimately achieve?
One elusive piece was getting to interview Deborah Ryan who played Melissa, the female lead. It’s cool that she’s not in the book. As I fleshed out the book and put the interviews together, I see enough of an overview. There’s not something where readers might say “But if only you interviewed Melissa.” I think you get enough of a picture there. I eventually did connect with Deborah Ryan and she provided commentary for KISSOLOGY II when a version of the film got released in 2007.
Were you able to get in touch with Anthony Zerbe (Abner Deveraux)?
I did get in touch with him. He declined to be interviewed at the time. He was still working a lot and coming off the heels of the Matrix stuff. Who knows, maybe he’ll be in the second book.
Is that something you’re thinking of pursuing?
We have been talking about maybe doing a second volume. Maybe this book will blow the door off of people wanting to talk about Phantom. In a perfect world, yes, there would be a second edition.
I heard you on the Three Sides of the Coin podcast a while back and you jokingly said you wanted to write a book about the Asylum costumes.
[Laughs] You know, I wouldn’t rule that out! There’s a lot of variations and there’s a lot of important information that needs to be disseminated about those very outfits. Thank you sir for reminding me. Here’s where I see it going in pop culture and I think it’s a great direction: people are choosing little aspects of things and again, doing that deep dive. The Asylum costumes for an example… okay, it was kind of an offhand joke, but if I were to do that, I would talk about the earliest versions of them, I would talk to the designer, try to talk to someone who was working wardrobe for KISS on the road at the time. I would talk about the different variations and how things looked on stage as far as theatricality. You know, I think there’s a book here!
You could almost just do a whole book on all of their costumes and how they went through so many weird phases. Dynasty was another interesting one.
Oh, The Elder costumes alone! What Gene did to himself during the Elder. I mean, he comes out first in that initial outfit with the silver pants, the shark mesh kinda thing. He looks like a Klingon right off of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I thought it was an awesome medieval spin on the Gene demon character. Then all of a sudden those pants go bye-bye and he puts on a pair of black spandex. He started switching out costume pieces and growing out his hair and you could see the rollers in his hair from the perms. It didn’t look as cool after a while, but that early Elder Gene look? Whoa, he looked cool!
What’s your opinion on The Elder, just out of curiosity?
I’m a big Elder fan. As years go on, I think you listen to some of the material and you’re like “Okay.” I always loved “Odyssey” for example, but it’s very outside. It came from Tony Powers and maybe it doesn’t quite fit on the record. Paul’s vocal was maybe a little overwrought. We’re talking about Paul Stanley, a major rock vocalist, but even he had a hard time selling that song. But warts and all, I love the Elder. The great irony about that record is they had this concept. Gene wanted to do this, Paul goes along and Ace hates it, yet Ace runs away with the record. “Dark Light”, to me, is the stand-out track of that record. The vibe, Eric’s drumming, Ace telling you in a decidedly New York accent what’s going on in the story. I think my only problem with the Elder is the production. I think there’s a blanket over the mastering speaker. It just sounds a bit muffled and could use a little more high end. But once a year, I go on an Elder-thon.
Is there anymore info you’d like to share about the book?
The book is on pre-order status now. It’s coming out October 28th which of course was the air date of the TV movie back in 1978. You can preorder at bearmanormedia.com. You can find the book there in paperback and hardcover.
Do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
If you’re a mom or dad out there and your kids are into rock n’ roll, you might like what I do. I’ve been a children’s music entertainer for over twenty years. If you look up Ron Albanese Polka Dot on Facebook, you’ll find some cool links to what we call kiddie rock n’ roll. It’s very KISS inspired stuff. It’s fun, it’s colorful and I want your kids to hear it!