A sad, desperate city puckers up

Economically besieged Oshawa has found something it can re-pin its dreams on: KISS

A sad, desperate city puckers upAs the auto industry continues its painful collapse, Oshawa, Ont., has become pretty desperate these days for a little good news. So in April, urged on by councillor Robert Lutczyk, the city endorsed a plan—peculiar even by municipal government standards—aimed at winning a contest hosted by KISS. The rock legends had called on fans to determine, via online voting, the route Gene Simmons and the boys would take on tour this fall. At the time, Oshawa was ranked 143rd as a potential stop. Suddenly, getting the city on the band’s map was a top priority. As part of the effort to get out the vote, Oshawa declared the week of April 27 “KISS in Oshawa Week.” This culminated in an event at a local mall where shoppers voted, pulled on KISS T-shirts, and had their faces painted like it was 1976 while, in many cases, their kids watched in horror. “No matter where you go, from the grocery store to the train station, [the contest] is the talk of the town,” says Lutczyk. “I’ve never seen so much excitement and energy around city hall in my life.” Even those tight with the big guy (that’s God, not Gene) are in on the action. For two weeks in May, Oshawa’s Simcoe Street United Church showed its support on its lawn sign in big block letters: CHURCH MEMBERS HAVE VOTED. BRING KISS TO OSHAWA.

Several weeks and more than 12,000 votes later, Oshawa has vaulted into first place. In fact, at last check, Canadian cities, including Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie and Peterborough, make up the entire top 10 list. “KISS has always done well in the non-hipster centres,” says Alan Cross, host of The Ongoing History of New Music, a nationally syndicated radio show. “The smaller centres, the blue-collar concentrations, don’t have the choice,” he says. “So when an internationally renowned band, be it Nickelback, the Tragically Hip or KISS, comes through town it’s a huge deal.” For some of the smaller cities in contention for KISS, this is that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So with the possibility of seeing the famous tongue-wagging in person just a click or two away, it’s no surprise people are lunging at the chance. Still, nowhere in North America has the KISS army mobilized as strategically and with as much vigour as it has in Oshawa. “This is the headquarters,” laughs Lutczyk. “Oshawa Rock City.”

Lutczyk, a regular on local TV and radio in the last couple of months, is a 41-year-old piano-playing former mayoral candidate turned army lieutenant turned city councillor who, admittedly, has never been to a KISS concert. He’s a fan of their music, but more importantly, Lutczyk figures that scoring the city a date with KISS will not only provide a “positive distraction” during these tough times and elevate Oshawa’s image but will generate about $1 million for the local economy. That argument, no doubt, carries a lot of weight with fellow councillors and the public. Since the city owns the General Motors Centre, a 6,400-seat arena in downtown Oshawa, taxpayers are essentially on the hook each night it sits empty. “Getting KISS here is going to open the eyes of promoters who will bring in more acts, more money,” says Lutczyk, who makes the comparison with the Rolling Stones’ appearance at SARS-stock. “Until the Stones played Toronto, tourism was like a lead balloon.”

Though it’s possible KISS will build a tour around the contest’s top-ranked cities when voting closes on June 30, Cross suspects a typical big city tour that features the fan-route winners as “bonus” stops. Whatever the case, if Oshawa earns a spot “it would be the biggest thing since the Rolling Stones came here,” says Lutczyk, referring to a show at the Civic Auditorium on April 22, 1979. By that calculation alone, Oshawa is due.

The same can be said for KISS’s return to Canada. Aside from a handful of upcoming dates in July, KISS hasn’t played in Canada since its “Farewell Tour” in 2000. Cross says hitting a string of smaller markets, even in Canada, makes sense for a band like KISS at this point in their career. “They’re guaranteed a sellout,” he says, “and a huge amount of swag sales.”

And while Simcoe Street United’s Rev. David Moore took a little heat from a few of his older parishioners for the sign, most, he says, supported it and recognize that a KISS concert would provide a much-needed jolt to the besieged community. The most recent blow came in mid-May when the GM truck plant shut down after 44 years, taking 2,600 jobs with it. “[Oshawa is] kind of a sad place to be right now,” says Moore. And yet, says Lutczyk, the city’s ability to mobilize is proof of its resiliency: “It’s not all doom and gloom.”