FAREWELL KISS

For Weekly SurgeSeptember 26, 2013 

Shoppers wind around the KISS Coffeehouse at Myrtle Beach's Broadway at the Beach on Aug. 20. It opened in 2006 with a visit from KISS' Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. The boot on the left is a replica of Simmons' boots and the one on the right is a replica of Stanley's. Photo by Janet Blackmon Morgan for Weekly Surge.

ERIN BURGE

Because my favorite KISS song is “Beth,” the sticky sweet power ballad that played against type, becoming a not so rock ‘n’ roll hit in 1976, I’ll probably be shunned by many hardcore KISS fans. Even before “Beth” shot to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that year, becoming the band’s highest charting single, I had been witness, as a teenager, to KISS’ garish, gaudy and ghoulish world debut a few years earlier. My friends and I thought of the band as an oddity, a comedic group of twenty-somethings from New York City with a few catchy rock ‘n’ roll tunes, destined to sell a bunch of Halloween costumes, fade out, and not be heard from again. Boy, were we wrong. KISS went on to define theatrical rock ‘n’ roll and marketing savvy in ways that few bands, if any, before or since, have matched, including the KISS Coffeehouse right here in li’l ol’ Myrtle Beach.

By the time the tongue-wagging, blood spitting, fire-breathing KISS bassist Gene Simmons came to Broadway at the Beach, with Starchild Paul Stanley, to open the KISS Coffeehouse in the summer of 2006, I had gained a new respect for the juggernaut and marketing genius that was and is the KISS empire. Simmons, the primary business mastermind behind the realm, has led the band-turned-brand through murky waters, highs and lows, and back to highs again. Along the way the KISS Army, the so-named troops in the official fan club of the band, bolster profits as they pay for annual memberships (currently $45), snap up merchandise, attend conventions, and fill concert venues. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice enlisted in the KISS Army in 2008. Yep.

Thousands in the KISS Army (officially or unofficially) have visited the one and only KISS Coffeehouse, located at Broadway at the Beach, in Myrtle Beach, but perhaps too few loyal troops graced its funky counters to make its registers rock year-round. Serving a damn good cup o' Joe, locals and visitors enjoy snacks and real barista-made coffee drinks at this curiosity that is part KISS merchandise retail store, part museum, and part demon-possessed Starbucks. Several weeks ago fans, casual to rabid, were saddened, though maybe not complexly surprised, to hear that the KISS Coffeehouse would close its doors forever. Word spread that Broadway at the Beach, and the Grand Strand, would no longer enjoy its most obvious link to the world of KISS.

Original reports had the store closing at the end of this month, but Weekly Surge has learned that the Coffeehouse will stay open through Dec. 31, complete with a proper send-off, tentatively including: a Dec 28 party with a KISS tribute band, a meet-n-greet with an undetermined member of KISS, and fire sale deals on any remaining stock.

Looking back to its triumphal opening, just two years prior to the Great Recession, the KISS Coffeehouse seemed destined for greatness. On June 28, 2006, huge crowds gathered near the fountain at Broadway at the Beach, the spot that separates the clubs of Celebrity Square from the rest of the retail and restaurant trade of the sprawling open-air shopping and entertainment complex. Simmons and Stanley, KISS’ founding fathers, and arguably the most well known of the KISS original foursome, were there for the ribbon cutting and meet-and-greet that would mark this experiment into licensing and cooperative marketing between KISS and private entities.

For months prior to the opening, curious onlookers watched artists and workman sculpt 25-foot tall replicas of the famous KISS footwear. Standing like ominous guardians at each end of the small shop, the iconic red-eyed KISS “Destroyer” boot, and the KISS Rock the Nation tour boot call out to KISS fans, who spot the fake smoke pouring out of the boots, and are powerless to avoid its pull.

“Even before I lived here, I visited the KISS Coffeehouse,” said Nick Summers, Program Director and afternoon deejay at Myrtle Beach radio station Rock 107. “I was visiting Myrtle Beach, we were walking around Broadway, and I spotted it. I said “No way!” I went in and spent a couple of hundred dollars, because that’s what KISS fans do.”

And do they ever. Celebritynetworth.com estimates Simmons’ net worth at around $300 million. He was paid $125,000 per episode of his reality show “Family Jewels,” and is the recognized visionary and financial wizard of the KISS Empire, with plenty of help from manager Doc McGhee. Simmons’ partner, Stanley, is the co-founding lead singer and rhythm guitarist for KISS. His net worth is estimated at $125 million. These figures are hard to verify, and don’t take into account the 40-year history of making (and occasionally losing) money. The band has sold an estimated 100 million-plus albums, has 28 certified Gold and Platinum recordings, and is widely considered one of the best selling bands of all time. Theirs is a real rags to riches story.

While the earliest days for KISS were a struggle, with dismal record sales and non-too stellar radio performance, tenacity eventually paid off. Because the image of KISS is as equally important as the music, it became obvious to Simmons that merchandising represented an untapped revenue stream. First came the Halloween costumes, and then the onslaught of KISS-themed merchandise hit shelves across the U.S., and eventually around the globe.

While Hard Rock Café, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Planet Hollywood, B.B. King, and others all capitalized on the celebrity food tie-in, KISS, remarkably, moved slower to make the connection. The KISS Coffeehouse may have been its first themed food-and-beverage enterprise, but it won’t be its last.

Coffee, Rock, and Woe

“I can’t take credit for the concept,” said John Goldschmidt, the owner of the KISS Coffeehouse, who prefers to be called “Johnny Rock.” The creator and original owner, Brian Galvin, is credited for the opening and concept but within two years had apparently divested from the store. “I’ve been the sole owner for about five years,” said Goldschmidt. Despite the announced closing, Goldschmidt is smiling, and positive. He seems very optimistic about the future, but is pragmatic when it comes to the Coffeehouse.

“I’d been talking with KISS management for a while now,” he said. “Sales had been declining over the past few years. The economy is bad. The Myrtle Beach airport traffic was way down, again, in 2012.” (Airport traffic has picked up in 2013). That trickles down to all the merchants and small business owners. We’d been experiencing declining sales, declining guest counts, and declining check amounts. You can’t blame people. Discretionary income is down. Tourists don’t need souvenirs; they’re not a necessity.”

The Coffeehouse, at its peak of business, is filled with actual museum quality KISS memorabilia, and shelves full of merchandise, all surrounding a counter for coffee drinks and limited menu items. KISS music plays throughout the store, and KISS concert videos fill large TV screens. When Goldschmidt was asking during our interview if he could turn the volume down slightly, he smiled and shook his head. “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.”

A Philadelphia native, Goldschmidt moved here approximately five years ago with his wife, Sue Goldschmidt, who co-manages the store and works the counter. John Goldschmidt had a 20-year career in food service and in hospitality but more importantly, he says, “I’m a huge KISS fan. I was a die-hard KISS fan growing up, always will be. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the band in concert.” When asked if it was more than 30, he laughed. “I’ve got that number beat.”

Goldschmidt loves KISS and seems to love his customers, some of whom are “extreme,” he said. “I thought I was a KISS fan before I started to meet the fanatical KISS fans that would stop by the store. We’ve had people spend up to $1,000 on merch in a single visit. They buy shirts, panties, mugs, everything.”

Where do these KISS fan come from? One universal factor; they seem to start young. They’re mostly tween boys who can’t get enough of the wild men on stage breathing fire, spitting blood, and playing loud music.

Enlisting in the Army

“It was the late ‘70s,” said Summers, when asked when he first became a KISS fan. “I was around 10 and I heard a song on the radio (“Calling Doctor Love”). I called the deejay, and asked “Hey, What was that?” he told me it was a new KISS single. I ran down to the record store to try to find it, couldn’t, and was a little disappointed. Then about six months later I saw “KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park,” remember that great movie? I was reintroduced to the band and have been hooked ever since. By the time I was 12 my dad started taking me to every KISS concert there was. I sent in my $10 and became a member of the KISS Army. I’ve been to a show on almost every KISS tour since I was 12. On the reunion tour [1996], I saw them four times in three different cities. I’m 43 now, and have seen KISS more than 30 times.”

Local rocker Bryan Lankford is a member of Voodoo Highway, a mostly acoustic cover duo with Black Glass’ Ronnie Rogers. The act performs classic rock and 80s metal. Lankford is a devoted KISS fan that has seen the band as recently as three weeks ago. Like most, for him the attraction came when he was very young.

“I’ve been a big KISS fan since 1976 after seeing them on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” said Lankford. “I’ve seen them in concert more than 50 times. I have a KISS museum in my house.” When asked why he’s so devoted, he gives a fairly common response by those in the Army. “First you’re shocked and amazed at their image, and then come the good songs. I don’t know that I have a favorite KISS song, but I tell you, there’s nothing like being seven-years-old and dropping KISS’ “Love Gun” down on the turntable listening to it front to back, over and over.”

Lankford, now 42, came of age in a seemingly more innocent time when very young kids were free to rock without much parental oversight.

“I first saw KISS in 1977. I was 7. The world was safe enough, that my parents dropped us off at the Omni [Coliseum] in Atlanta – I think the oldest person with us was 12 – and my parents said: “Have fun. We’ll pick you up at midnight or 1, after the show.” Hilarious. The last time I saw KISS was like two weeks ago in Simpsonville [at the Charter Amphitheatre]. [My brother and I] took my two nieces, 12 and 13, to the show. We dropped 900 bucks on tickets and shirts – worth every penny. My nieces loved it. They were amazed at all the crazy grandparents rocking out. Everyone around me was easily 55-years-old and up.”

The large dollar amount “dropped” and referenced by Lankford is not an uncommon story among KISS devotees.

Band or Brand?

While lots of pop and rock superstars offer T-shirts and other merchandising to its fans and artists such has Sammy Hagar have ventured into their own lines of liquor, they all pale in comparison to the offerings of KISS. Bobble heads, mugs, hoodies, buttons, pins, wearable costume replicas, board games, videos, video games, and literally thousands of items of apparel and collectibles, and some still yet to be created, are all available to KISS fans.

Goldschmidt is charged with new product development at KISS Coffeehouse, and thus works closely with KISS management. “New products for the KISS Coffeehouse are my responsibility,” he said. “I come up with the concepts, send them in to Gene and Paul, and they approve or reject them, give me their feedback, and we get them manufactured.”

Throughout his tenure, Goldschmidt hosted several live music events each year, and the store was voted “Best Coffee Shop” in Myrtle Beach four years running in WMBF’s annual “Best Of” contest. “I hope to win again this year,” he said proudly. He’s also proud of the rock ‘n’ roll royalty that made unannounced visits while in town. “Alice Cooper, members of Megadeth, Sevendust, Alice In Chains, and a lot of others all stopped by,” he said. “They all told me how important KISS was and credited the band as a major influence.”

Where will they go once the Coffeehouse closes? Goldschmidt has some ideas and the confidence to move forward.

Proof of Concept

The authentic vintage costumes seen at the Coffeehouse will go with Goldschmidt, when he packs up in December. For years he’s been pondering new locations for a new KISS Coffeehouse. “We’re just in the wrong location and the wrong market, that’s all. We need to be in Times Square (New York City). We’re the only KISS Coffeehouse in the world. I’m absolutely sold on the concept. It works. It’s worked for us here every summer. When there are people here it works. It’s a seasonal town, but the season gets shorter every year. It’s now like the last week of June through the middle of August. It’s just too short. Myrtle Beach was a ‘proof of concept’ for us. We’re all on board to find a new location; Las Vegas, New York City, Chicago, Orlando, Tokyo – all of those could work, but I’d really like to see us in Times Square as the flagship store.”

We reached out to KISS management just prior to press date, but were unable to reach them for comment.

Besides owning an Arena Football League team, the L.A. KISS based in Los Angeles, KISS hasn’t given up on the food service tie-in. Its Rock & Brews beer garden-style restaurants are opening across the U.S. and Goldschmidt hopes to be a part of the expansion. “I’m pitching a KISS Coffeehouse within one or more of the restaurants,” he said. “But still, we’d love a stand-alone KISS Coffeehouse in Times Square.”

Will locals miss it?

“I was there for the Grand Opening,” said local deejay and MOVIN’ 94.5 Program Director Wally “B” Berlinger, who is a self-described “fan.” “It was a cattle call for the meet-n-greet,” he remembered. “Lines stretched all around past the clubs to [the Hard Rock Café]. I really liked the Coffeehouse. There were a lot of skeptics who didn’t think it would last – I think they were proven wrong. Seven years is respectable.” While fans of the Coffeehouse are sad to see it go, not all of them dropped fortunes on merch, or coffee, for that matter. “I think I bought a key chain and a guitar pick,” laughed Berlinger. “The Coffeehouse was a benefit to Broadway and Myrtle Beach. Sad to see them go.”

Local metal guitar shredder Steve Senes says he’s a “huge” KISS fan ever since he saw the band in 1977 in concert with AC/DC. “I still remember the phenomenal jamming. Neither me or my mom could hear for days after that night,” he said. As far as the Coffeehouse goes, Senes had been a regular fixture at Broadway at the Beach night spots performing with a variety of bands, and usually made a trip on break to the Coffeehouse. “I always looked forward to getting a big cup of the Demon Dark Roast. I’m bummed they’re closing.”

The Goldschmidts certainly gave it a college try, and firmly believe in the concept.

“We really liked Myrtle Beach. The [KISS Coffeehouse] concept is unique; it’s entertaining, fun. The store was fine, we just ran out of customers. The summers were fantastic, but then we gave it all back in the winter. It was time to pull the plug.”

Even in its waning days, die-hard fans still visit the KISS Coffeehouse because they can’t seem to help themselves. The store resonated with KISS fans, many of whom have fond memories of first, heady days. All of the original four KISS members have visited, at one time or another, except for Peter Criss. All the replacement members have visited as well, and each visit brought scores of KISS fans and curious onlookers. “I went to the Grand Opening,” said Lankford, “and met Paul and Gene, shook their hands, got autographs. They were so cool. Every time I’ve met them they’ve been awesome.” Lankford has stocked his home museum with pieces purchased at the KISS Coffeehouse, and he’s not alone.

“I still stop back in to check out the merch and inevitably buy something,” said Summers. “I realize I’m making another house payment for Gene,” he laughed. “It’s what we do.”

KISS Coffehouse will be open 9:30 a.m. – 10 p.m. seven days per week through Dec. 31. KISS Coffeehouse merchandise is always available at www.kisscoffeehouse.com.

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