After the success of ALIVE!, KISS had become a household name in the music industry. Media exposure exploded and in November 1975, the first gathering of the KISS Army appeared in Terre Haute, IN when a teenager named Bill Starkey together with some friends intimidated a local radio station that refused to play KISS songs. Calling themselves the “KISS Army” the guys organized some local events and soon caught the attention of Bill Aucoin and Howard Marks.
Around the time, Aucoin was planning to initialize an official fan club to give back some of the loyalty and respect the band received from their fans. And on the other hand of course, it was another source to earn money with. Initially, Starkey was intended to establish a nationwide operating fan club and was contacted by Aucoin’s right-hand man Alan Miller to build upon the already existing attention in the region. As press officer, Miller was responsible for many of the band’s early promotions and public events.
The first public imprint of the KISS Army came with a decal that was sent out by Miller to promote the newly formed organization. But soon it became apparent that KISS’ merchandise affairs had to be handled in a more professional way as the demand for labelled products got stronger each day. In May 1976, Boutwell Enterprises took over the business as KISS’ general merchandising operator and Starkey was out of the picture. The partnership between Aucoin and Boutwell dated back to late 1975 when both agreed to the foundation of a KISS fan club. To handle all business matters, a warehouse was rented in Woodland Hills, California. The first announcement for the KISS Army came as yellow flyers that were distributed at concerts and through an ad in the first tour book “KISS ON TOUR – 1976” that debuted at the first of three shows at Detroit’s Cobo Arena on January 25th 1976. The first version of the membership contained an iron-on T-shirt, poster and photo sets (All for only $5.00 per year!). To give the communication between band and fans a more personal touch, quarterly newsletters were issued to provide the fan base with the basic news. The final KISS Army logo that is still in use today was designed by a co-worker from Dennis Woloch named Vinnie.
At its peak in 1978, the KISS Army counted about 100.000 members that generated merchandise orders in large amounts. 1979 saw four guys from New York becoming Disney-like characters that were known by the majority of the American population. But due to lack of experience, Boutwell was soon overtaxed by exploding demands and the negotiation of bad licensing deals. Many fans have been annoyed by undealt orders and as consequence, logistics of the KISS Army were given away to an outside company of mail-order specialist Don Jagoda Associates in the beginning of the eighties. By the turn of the decade, the popularity of the band had already passed beyond its zenith while KISS products flooded the market in large amounts. As the band tried to find a new direction to become more adult-orientated, the operations of the KISS Army came to an end with the release of the elaborated The Elder concept in mid 1981. In Australia, the hype sustained for another year as the band celebrated one of the biggest successes in their career during their “Downunder Tour” in winter 1980.
IV.2: KISS ARMY KITS FROM THE U.S.
Packaging was and still is key element of the KISS philosophy. With its strong looks and image the band installed an identity that is still incomparable to any other band today. With the design of the KISS Army Kits the fashion of elaborate album packaging was continued to strengthen the bond between band and fans. As you applied for a KISS Army membership, you received a welcome package that contained cool collectible goodies as well as four quarterly newsletters.
Produced and distributed by Boutwell, the first kits shipped in spring 1976 while being constantly enhanced as the bands’ popularity skyrocketed during the latter part of the seventies. Fans were personally addressed by the pseudonym of Commander-in-Chief „Bob Steele” who was brought to life Peggy Thomarkin, copywriter of Howard Marks Agency. From early on, Thomarkin was involved in many press materials and became the mouthpiece for the KISS Army. Providing a very marketing-orientated speech, she wrote features in tour and song books, teasers for albums and ads and was the author for KISS’ first official biography “The Real Story” in 1979. Being responsible for the Kiss Army Newsletters, she crucially contributed to the band’s mystique by inventing fantasy worlds for each of the four KISS characters. Later on, another faceless person spoke to the army by the name of „Sergeant Baker”. As “Executive Director” he was actually represented by an employee of Boutwell called Jennifer Baker. In the beginning of 1979, KISS Army headquarters moved from California to Westbury, New York as operations were transferred from Boutwell/Niocua to mail-order specialist Don Jagoda Associates.
By collecting KISS Army Kits you’ll soon find out that the contents may vary from kit to kit. That leads to the assumption that the kits were put together at Boutwell with the kind of material that was available in the office. More than that, most of the original composition was disintegrated in the course of time. Single contents from the kit are offered quite often and get more valuable depending on the need to complete your set. But never pay more than $5 to $15 for an element. All kits up to the end of 1978 were shipped in a brown envelope featuring the address of Boutwell on front.
Here’s a basic guideline for the contents from various editions released in the years 1976 to 1981:
KISS Army Kit, Version #1 (pre-Destroyer era, January to March 1976)
Complete Kit w/ poster and 7” (Beth 1 DJ) $150 – $175
ALIVE! Poster, folded $40 – $50
Single items $10 – $15
Newsletter (Volume One, No. 1), Silver membership card, Membership certificate, Discography on yellow paper (new release: Destroyer), Fantasy biographies (“Meet The Members Of KISS”) on fold-out yellow paper (4 pages), KISS Army iron-on, KISS Army patch (silver logo on black background), 5 b&w 8”x10” photos from the ALIVE! era (4 individual, 1 group), 1 colour 8”x10” photo (cover shot from the first tourbook), colour poster 22”x35” (live shot from 1975 with Boutwell/Aucoin imprint at bottom right).
First kits also featured a yellow flyer promoting “Join the KISS Army” with order form on the reverse featuring the first three KISS endorsed products: a T-shirt with ALIVE! album artwork, ALIVE! era poster and the first tour book. This flyer was also sent to you in an envelope if you filled out the yellow postcards distributed at KISS concerts. Everything was housed in a two-pocket black folder featuring the KISS Army logo on front and b&w pictures of the first four album covers on the inside.