KISS revisits 'Phantom of the Park,' 40 years later — 'Wow, that was weird'

Lyndsey Parker

Forty Halloweens ago, members of the KISS Army across the nation gathered around their rabbit-eared TV sets for what was supposed to be the television event of the year. It was Hanna-Barbera’s KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, starring everyone’s favorite rock ’n’ roll ’70s superheroes — the Starchild, the Demon, the Space Ace, and the Catman — at the absolute height of their fame. But while the $3 million NBC production, lensed by Hitchcock protégé Gordon Hessler, was the second-biggest TV movie of the year (behind Shogun), it was initially despised by critics, fans, and even the band members themselves. And it nearly derailed KISS’s career.

The utterly bizarre fantasy caper depicted the members of KISS miming to prerecorded hits at a Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park concert; kung fu fighting with evil animatronic look-alikes, various robotic furries, and a mad scientist; and displaying such comic-book superpowers as teleportation, mind control, and shooting laser beams from their eyes. So of course it has now reached cult-classic status, just like another how-did-this-get-made holiday phenomenon released that year, The Star Wars Holiday Special. And while KISS reportedly refused to even discuss Phantom for years, the band members — especially the original Spaceman himself, Ace Frehley — now seem to have no problem talking about the infamous flick.

“If you talk to Paul [Stanley] and Gene [Simmons] about the movie, they both hate it. As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s campy, funny — and if you’re a KISS fan, you’re going to enjoy the film,” Frehley chuckles. “I never really had any negative feelings about the film. I thought it was funny. I laughed at some of the scenes, I cringed at some of the scenes, but I was intelligent and smart enough to realize that it was what it was. It was just a silly rock ’n’ roll movie that was designed for KISS fans. I mean, it wasn’t Love Story!”

“I have very mixed memories about it, because we were kind of talked into doing a film that we were told [by KISS’s manager at the time, Bill Aucoin] was going to be a cross between A Hard Day’s Night and Star Wars, and wound up being neither,” says Stanley. “The best thing I can say about that film is that people think we were kidding, and that it was campy. But we were serious! It just goes to show you when somebody is in the room with you saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s gonna be great,’ and your heart is telling you there’s something not great, that you should listen to it.”

Frehley admits that maybe the more clearheaded Stanley and Simmons were more critical of Phantom “because they weren’t loaded. Neither of those guys drank or did drugs.” The same could not be said for Frehley or KISS’s equally hard-partying drummer and original Catman, Peter Criss.

“I was loaded through half of the movie, so I didn’t even know what was going on half the time, but luckily I had cue cards and yeah, I was pretty good at hiding it,” Frehley recalls. “I didn’t drink too much when I knew I had an important scene. One of the guys on the set was a cocaine dealer. I’m not going to mention any names, but he used to keep cocaine in his hat and come to my trailer. So if I had drank too much, back in those days, I’d do a little cocaine. I’m not going to lie, because I’ve been sober 12 years; we’re only as sick as our secrets. So back in those days, yeah, I’d do a little coke if I drank too much, which would give me a little pick-me-up, and then I’d be ready for the scene.”

Frehley add that Criss was so inebriated at the time, Criss may not have even realized that his voice was retroactively dubbed in every scene with the voice of actor Michael Bell (known for playing Handy Smurf and Lazy Smurf on The Smurfs). “I gotta be honest with you: Peter at the time was as loaded as me, if not more, and he may not even have known for a while. But I mean, the guy that they got to dub his voice was pretty good.”

Frehley further explains how Criss struggled with his lines on set: “Peter was having a big problem saying the word ‘talisman.’ … and it got to the point where he couldn’t say it, and I would crack up. We did 25 takes. So finally, the producer said, ‘Ace, you take the line.’ … What happened was after the postproduction on that film, they realized that the problem he had with that one line, there was more imperfections. And it was a production call; we had nothing to do with it. But they actually replaced Peter’s voice in the whole film! I would have been really pissed off if it was me, but I know how to speak, luckily, even though I’m from the Bronx. But you can tell that from my accent.”

At first, however, the plan was for Frehley to barely speak in the movie, and only utter one odd catch phrase. “Originally it happened whoever wrote the script didn’t give me lines because I didn’t take the phone call,” Frehley laughs. “Everybody in the band was supposed to get a phone call [with screenwriters Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday] talking about what kind of personality they were, and what would they want to say. Something like that, I don’t know. I missed the call, or something happened, and I think they said, ‘Well, you know Ace likes to ack.’ Classic. So I got the script, and everybody’s got lines except me. So I walked up to Bill Aucoin’s office, and I said, ‘You better rewrite this, because I want some lines!’ And they did.”

That was just one of several mishaps during shooting. Stanley laughs thinking about the several times that both Frehley and Criss went AWOL during filming. “I’ll tell you some funny recollections, is that Ace and Peter at that point were not that reliable in terms of staying on set. And they would leave,” he says. “And literally, we’d be onstage — and we were lip-syncing, because you play to track — and I would turn around to see Peter, and there’d be some old man on the drums in cat makeup. Or I would turn around, and there was an African-American dressed as Ace.”

The biggest snafu came when Frehley, in a state of “drug-induced insanity” and furious after he showed up for an early morning call time only to find out he “could’ve slept another six hours,” stormed off the set, grabbed a six-pack of beer, and played hooky at the King Tut exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I was walking around without makeup, and it calmed me down,” Frehley recalls. “So then I slowly drove back to the set, walked into the producer’s office, and apologized. And we made friends, and I was fine for the rest of the picture.” As a result, the Space Ace was played by Frehley’s African-American stunt double in the “Den of Horrors” scene, and the lack of continuity was glaringly, hilariously obvious.

Forty years have passed, and Frehley has not had any alcohol or drugs of any kind since 2006. But even the most sober person would still have trouble figuring out KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park’s plot line. “The plot? I have no idea what that movie’s about,” Frehley shrugs. “But you’ve got to look at it in the right light. It’s not a serious film. Paul and Gene took that movie very seriously.”

That being said, Stanley and Simmons seem to have finally found the humor in Phantom after all these decades. For instance, Simmons jokes that he and current KISS members Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer (who will join Stanley and Simmons on next year’s “End of the Road” farewell KISS tour) like to cuddle and watch the movie on Saturday nights. And Stanley says of the experience, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. … But in hindsight, people still love it. It’s not what we expected it to be. But KISS Meets the Phantom usually brings a smile to everyone’s face.”

Frehley has really gotten the last laugh, however. “I mean, come on, we’re superheroes. We’ve got comic books out. How serious can you take KISS? I never took KISS seriously,” he says. “The whole roller coaster ride of KISS to me was just like this jolly, crazy ride where I’m wearing makeup, and dressed up as a superhero, and playing guitar, and having fun, and meeting beautiful women along the way. I just never took the thing that seriously, even though we were one of the biggest groups in the world. And I still look back on it today and I go, ‘Wow, that was weird.’”

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