Arguably, the rock band KISS has been the most successful merchandising recording artist in history. From action figures to belt buckles to coffins (you read that correctly), and everything in between, KISS has put its image and instantly recognizable logo upon countless items and products (estimated to be over 3,500 different products by one KISS fan site). The KISS persona and image, as it turns out, has been perfect for such an endeavor.
The band, shortly after its formation in late 1973, hit upon the idea of what has been termed "kabuki" style makeup for each of its members. Gene Simmons morphed into the "Demon," Paul Stanley became the "Starchild," Ace Frehley flew to outer space as the "Spaceman," and Peter Criss gained nine lives as the "Catman." Upon honing the makeup while adding six-inch heeled boots, leather costumes (which later became spandex as it is more comfortable and "breathes" easier) and a wild stage show, KISS climbed the mountain of success.
Along the way, the members of KISS established their own unique identities, took turns at singing and simultaneously released four solo albums in 1978 (each album attaining Platinum status). KISS joined the Beatles as perhaps the only two bands to individualize its members and share vocal duties amongst all musicians in the band. Thus KISS fans, like Beatles fans, are able to "pick" their own favorite KISS member.
KISS, still going strong today, turned 40 years old this year. Besides its marketing prowess, the band has had a successful recording career (28 Gold or better albums) and is known for its high energy and entertaining live shows complete with explosions, fire breathing and blood spitting.
Over the course of a 40 year long career, KISS has ridden the tides of varying heights of popularity. KISS hit its first apex of popularity in 1977 through 1978 (and not coincidentally, released a barrage of products in its likeness including 12-inch action figures by Mego and a "KISS Your Face" make-up set).
KISS, which until about 1976 had been viewed as a "dangerous" and "edgy" band for adults, was now attracting younger fans in droves. Such was not surprising given the marketing of toys and games and their starring in the now cult classic from 1978, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
The band has gone through many lineup changes over the years. The classic and most recognizable lineup consisted of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. While Gene and Paul have remained constants in the band during its entire history, others have come and gone to replace Ace and Peter. Not surprisingly, Ace and Peter re-joined the band for its second apex of popularity in 1996 and 1997, when the band embarked on its historic "Reunion" tour.
While Ace and Peter have since parted with the band again (Ace's tenure ended in 2002 and Peter's in early 2004), Gene and Paul carry on the band with Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer. The band remains a viable and successful touring act today. Of course, KISS still remains a force to reckon with in the area of merchandising.
KISS Turns to Cardboard
One of the most endearing, and successful, products authorized by KISS is the 1978 Donruss KISS bubblegum cards. Series one consisted of 66 cards and a second series, printed in smaller numbers, was also a 66-card series.
According to KISS Behind the Mask - The Official Authorized Biography by David Leaf and Ken Sharp, KISS generated $111 million in the retail sale of KISS merchandise in 1978. Ron Boutwell, head of KISS merchandising, is quoted in KISS Behind the Mask as saying the Donruss cards were the most popular KISS merchandising item in 1978. Considering packs sold for a mere 15 cents each, that was a lot of bubblegum!
Reviewing the cards, it is easy to determine most photos were taken in 1977 or early 1978. Such can be done by noting the costumes worn by the band. In the 1970s, KISS was known to change its costumes about one to every two years. With the release of their Love Gun album in the summer of 1977, KISS changed costumes again and wore what became known as the "Love Gun" costumes from 1977 to 1978 (and may have even worn them at times in early 1979, for promotional appearances, prior to the release of their Dynasty album in May of 1979).
In the first series, 63 of the cards present KISS in their "Love Gun" costumes, thus suggesting the large majority of the series was photographed in between the summer of 1977 and early 1978. The exceptions show Ace, Peter and Paul in their costumes from 1976, known as the "Destroyer/Rock N' Roll Over" costumes: Ace on card #5, Peter on card #13 and Paul on card #49. (Interestingly, Gene only appears in the set in his "Love Gun" costume.) Accordingly, we can date all photos from the first series to have been taken between 1976 and early 1978 with the majority most likely taken in 1977.
Turning to the second series, 62 of the cards feature KISS in their "Love Gun" costumes and such dates the photos to 1977 or 1978. Of the four exceptions, the most interesting may be card #115 which shows the entire band, in a rather blurry concert shot, wearing their "Alive!" costumes. This would date the photo to somewhere between 1975 and early 1976. Cards #124 (Peter), #126 (Paul) and #131 (Gene) feature the band members in "Destroyer/Rock N' Roll Over" costumes.
Interestingly, Donruss used a few of the exact same shots on multiple cards. Cards #13 and #126 of Paul are the exact same photo. Cards #84 and #86 of Gene are the same, but for some reason, one is presented vertically while the other is presented horizontally. Cards #1 and #99 are the exact same shot of Paul. Cards #19 and #89 show Ace in the same pose. Cards #21 and #102 are yet another duplicate shot of Ace. Ace gets duplicated again between cards #65 and #116. Considering KISS was heavily photographed during this time period, it is a bit puzzling why any duplication occurred.
The only explanation for duplication is perhaps an issue of sloppiness. Exhibit A of that sloppiness is demonstrated in the puzzle that made up most of the back of series one. The puzzle, when put together, shows KISS in a posed promotional shot (a shot that was repeatedly used and was also found in poster form). However, a simple glance at the formed puzzle reveals it is a reverse negative.
Such is easily determined by the photo of Paul -- his star makeup is over his left eye and his rose tattoo is shown on his left arm (he always wore his star makeup over his right eye and his rose tattoo is on his right arm). Donruss used the same reverse negative photo on the top panel of the series one wax box. The reverse negative was never corrected with the first series.
The same photo was used as the top panel for the series two wax box; the photo however was not reversed. On the backs of the series two cards, they make up two joined puzzles: (1) one side features the same aforementioned shot (corrected for proper orientation); (2) the other side features a posed concert shot.
Turning back to the first series, 12 of the cards contain biographical information about the band members on the back while the balance of 54 cards, when flipped over, make up the puzzle. Shedding some insight on the printing process, a few years ago a member of the Collectors Universe Message Boards posted two photos of an uncut sheet of series one. (The pictures can be found here.)
As can be seen, series one was printed on what had become an "industry standard" in the trading card business: a 132-card sheet. The set, however, was printed in double on each sheet (thus the 66-card set). The cards with the puzzle back were in the middle of the sheet while the biographical cards formed the left and right margins.
The sheet presentation answers a burning question: why are the biographical cards generally shorter in width than the puzzle backed cards? In this author's experience, many of the biographical cards submitted to PSA are returned for failing to meet minimum size requirements. It is this author's opinion that the biographical cards were generally cut shorter in width at the factory in order to assure there would be no "bleed over" of the puzzle pieces on to the backs of the biographical cards. This also seems to be supported by the fact the author has not seen any of the outer puzzle cards to be lacking in width.
Given the previous information, the biographical cards are the most difficult to secure in high grade. The biographical cards are #s 1, 2, 4, 5, 21, 27, 28, 31, 36, 39, 43 and 65 (each member received three biographical cards each). The PSA Population Report supports this theory. Of the 12 biographical cards, only card #21 has received a PSA GEM-MT 10 (three copies). No PSA 10s exist of the other biographical cards. Of those remaining biographical cards, cards #1, 4, 5, 28 and 43 are unable to support an unqualified mint grade.
Adding to the difficulty of the set, the cards were printed on "mushy" card stock and it appears as if many of the cards were cut from the sheet with a dull knife. As such, it is not uncommon to open packs of these cards only to find some with pushed or soft corners. As of the writing of this article, the PSA Population Report lists 1,312 of the cards graded while only 59 have secured the lofty PSA 10 grade. That is a mere 4.5 percent of the cards submitted.
While the number of cards submitted is significantly larger, a comparison with the popular 1978 Topps Baseball set reveals that it's "easier" to secure PSA 10s from this sports set, as 7.8 percent of those baseball cards graded have received the coveted PSA 10 grade. This does perhaps suggest the quality control with Topps' 1978 Baseball issue was better than the KISS card issue from Donruss in that same year.
As far as basic design, cards from both series have the front photos outlined by bright and colorful inner borders. Card fronts are both vertical and horizontal in orientation. On the bottom front of each card is the same inscription: "© AUCOIN MGT. 1978 BY AGRMT. WITH KISS."
Aucoin Management was headed by Bill Aucoin, the first manager of KISS, who is rightfully credited with extensively assisting KISS reach stardom. (And as has been noted in many KISS periodicals, he financed the band in the early days with a credit card; fortunately for Bill and KISS, the band made it and Bill's credit card was paid off).
The production numbers of the 1978 Donruss cards are not known. While such is just an educated guess, it is estimated that the first series was printed about two to three more times in quantity than the first series.
The author, whose mother bought him these cards as a child back in 1978, recalls the first series being available for most of the summer and the second series being available for just a short period of time towards the latter part of 1978.
Considering the second series wrappers advertised a Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park magazine and invited fans to watch that movie on television on October 28, it seems as if the second series was distributed in September and perhaps October of 1978.
Both series of cards were packaged almost identically. Both series came with 36 packs to a wax box. Each pack typically contained seven cards with one stick of bubble gum (some packs have been found with as little as six cards or as many as eight cards). The first series wax wrappers were blue and the second series wrappers were red. Interestingly, both series wrappers present drawings of the band members that appear to be based off of their 1974 album, Hotter Than Hell.
It is fascinating to note that Donruss released what has been dubbed the "third series" of KISS cards in 1980. It is believed this series was released exclusively in Australia to coincide with KISS' first tour of Australia in 1980.
While all of the cards kept the 1978 copyright date on the front just like the original cards issues in 1978, many cards were updated with new photos and most cards of Peter Criss were replaced by photos of Eric Carr (who replaced Peter on the drums in 1980).
The puzzle back was also changed. Though this is not a part of the 1978 Donruss KISS set, it is based heavily off of the first series from 1978 and presents yet another illuminating piece of "KISStory" in the world of KISS trading cards.
The 1978 Donruss KISS Set and the PSA Set Registry
KISS memorabilia is highly sought after and highly collectible. There is a thriving market for all things KISS - especially for merchandise from the 1970s, stage-used costume pieces and instruments. A number of KISS conventions are held throughout the United States and globally at which fans buy, sell and trade KISS memorabilia.
Based on these facts, one might be led to believe there would be a large number of active participants on the PSA Set Registry with respect to the 1978 KISS Donruss set. Somewhat surprisingly, there are currently only five sets registered by three members (two of the registrants own two sets each).
An explanation for the foregoing might be the fact that KISS collectors, in general, do not also collect sports trading cards and memorabilia. They therefore may not yet have been exposed to the PSA Set Registry and the secondary market value PSA grading can add to their trading card collection.
Also, the average KISS collector, not being a collector of trading cards in general, usually does not place as much emphasis on condition as the typical PSA card collector does. As collectors of KISS memorabilia become more educated, closer attention to condition of the trading cards will certainly change. And in time, the astute collector will find that both PSA's grading and authentication services and the PSA Set Registry are areas of great growth potential.
Based on the aforementioned, it is not surprising that owners of the KISS sets on the PSA Set Registry also collect other trading card sets. Mick Daly, who presently owns the No. 1 All-Time Finest, 1978 Donruss KISS set (which holds an 8.98 GPA and is 100 percent complete), is an obvious trading card collector and active PSA Set Registry participant. Daly has a large number of sets, in various states of completion, on the Registry from sports and non-sports alike, including a 100 percent complete 1958 Topps Football set. It is no wonder then that Daly turned to PSA to grade cards of his favorite band.
Daly was an eleven-year-old in 1978 and KISS fast became his favorite band. He remains a fan to this day. "I used to purchase the series one and two cards from the local pharmacy store that always had the baseball, football and basketball cards throughout the year," said Daly. "The thing I remember about the cards was the unique smell the KISS cards had compared to the sports cards from the time. I always took great care of my cards and a number of the cards I have in my PSA set came from the cards I purchased in 1978."
When asked what he likes most about the set, Daly states he enjoys the outstanding picture quality and the varied pictures of the band in concert and in various scenes. "I also like that the back of the cards make a large KISS poster, which KISS was known for at the time."
Daly also finds the 1978 Donruss KISS set to be of much better quality than Donruss' first foray into the baseball market in 1981. His favorite card from the set is card #46, "which shows Gene, Ace and Paul jamming on one of the classics." Daly finds the first five cards of the set difficult to obtain in PSA "non-qualified" condition due to centering issues.
Daly's favorite member of KISS is Paul Stanley and he collects other KISS memorabilia, specifically the large posters and albums from the 1970s together with tour books. He also collects KISS autographs.
The owner of the No. 2 All-Time Finest set on the Registry is the author of this article, Matthew Farmer. His set is 100 percent complete with an 8.86 GPA. Like Daly, Farmer too is an avid trading card collector and an active participant on the PSA Set Registry (he is building, amongst other sets, a 1933 Goudey Baseball set).
Farmer became a KISS fan in 1978 and has remained a fan since that time. Besides collecting the 1978 Donruss KISS set, he is an avid collector of KISS memorabilia and his collection includes an Ace Frehley, stage-worn costume, action figures and multiple autographs. He has also been fortunate to meet the band, and a number of its members, on more than one occasion.
Farmer's favorite card from the set is card #50, which shows Gene Simmons spitting blood while devouring a microphone cover. While Farmer still owns his KISS cards purchased as a child from 1978, they did not survive in the same condition as Daly's considering Farmer constantly handled the cards and put the puzzles together as a child. Ace and Gene are Farmer's all-time favorite members of KISS.
The owner of the No. 3 All-Time Finest set on the Registry is Joe Verrico. Verrico is yet another avid trading card collector who owns a fine assortment of non-sport sets on the Registry, including a 100 percent complete 1971 Topps Partridge Family set. His chosen set name, "Strutter," is an ode to his favorite KISS song of the same name.
"The KISS song, 'I Want to Rock and Roll All Night and Party Every Day,' pretty much sums up my adolescence in the 1970's," said Verrico. "KISS was one of my favorite bands back in junior high." Gene is Verrico's favorite member of the band, and considering that, it is not surprising a Gene Simmons card set him on his journey with this set.
"Fire breathing Gene Simmons was my favorite band member back in the day. A PSA MINT 9, KISS card #42 [which pictures Gene breathing fire] caught my eye while surfing eBay one sleepless night. That purchase started my obsession with creating a high grade set. Two years later, after opening a few wax boxes and spending countless hours searching eBay, my set was complete." Card #42 remains one of his favorite cards from the set.
Undoubtedly, registration of 1978 Donruss KISS sets will continue to grow in the future as KISS collectors become aware of the benefits of PSA grading. Such seems inevitable considering the popularity of KISS and this particular set. The set remains highly collectible within the KISS fan community and is considered a "must have" collectible of any die-hard KISS fan. The set captures and preserves in-time images of KISS at its first peak in 1977 and 1978. It is a key KISS collectible that, combined with the benefits of PSA grading, will become more valued as the years pass.
Matthew E. Farmer is an attorney with Littler Mendelson in Fresno, California. He exclusively represents employers in both employment litigation and in the provision of employment law advice. Matthew is also an adjunct law professor at San Joaquin College of Law in Clovis, California. He is married to his wife Jennifer, and the couple has three children, Jessica 14, Raymond 11 (whose second middle name is "Ace" after Ace Frehley) and Mitchell 10. Please note that the Population Report figures and Set Registry rankings are those as of August 2013.
KISS Behind the Mask - The Official Authorized Biography by David Leaf and Ken Sharp (2003) Warner Books, Inc., p. 158
www.everythingkiss.com (review of 3,664 distinct items of KISS memorabilia)
www.riaa.com (searchable data base for artist gold records)
View the set in the PSA Set Registry.