Can an L.A. Kiss Arena Football Game Actually Be Considered "Theater"?

Markee White (#8) of the L.A. Kiss makes a catch on Sunday, May 4 in a game against the Spokane Shock.EXPAND
Markee White (#8) of the L.A. Kiss makes a catch on Sunday, May 4 in a game against the Spokane Shock.
L.A. Kiss

Inside four steel, egg-shaped cages suspended from the ceiling, go-go dancers dressed in itty-bitty cheerleader skirts, silver booty shorts, red bikini tops and gleaming black knee-high boots slither around poles and whip their hair. The squeal of a live guitar pierces the air. Pyrotechnic fountains boom and spew fireworks. A DJ blasts "Rock and Roll All Nite."

It only seems like a typical Saturday night at Playhouse on Hollywood Blvd. In reality, it's just after 4 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon at the Honda Center in Anaheim during the first half of an L.A. Kiss football game.

Gene Simmons, legendary Kiss guitarist, makeup wearer and long tongue bearer, begins air drumming and singing along to his band's most famous song as he peers out of the press box onto the field. "So that's what it feels like to get a touchdown," he says, presumably equating scoring a TD to being a rock star. The DJ switches to the current rager anthem, DJ Snake and Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What," and Simmons, wearing sunglasses and a leather button-down shirt, spins on his heels and disappears.

When Simmons and Paul Stanley became co-owners of L.A. Kiss, an arena football franchise, they promised to "fuse the worlds of sports, entertainment, music, and theater into a two-and-a-half-hour event like no one has ever seen." Football and theater are usually thought to be diametrically opposed. Just ask a high school kid, or um, anyone. Such a preposterous objective warranted a trip to Anaheim to see not only if they were living up to their lofty goal, but if football actually has anything at all in common with theater.

The truth is, football and theater have more similarities than we first imagined. As Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage." For instance, a game is separated into four quarters, or if you will, four acts. The football team is just a big cast. No two games, just like no two live performances, are ever the same. The players could have a good show, or they could have a bad show. And the only thing performers-slash-players can control is what happens onstage, or on the field. In the theater world, there might be a screaming baby, or a man who forgot to silence his iPhone, or a hard-of-hearing couple who shout when they think they're whispering. At an L.A. Kiss football game, however, the distractions are on a bit grander scale.

At one end of the field, a stage is set up. During halftime, a band called Flashback Heart Attack, sporting red (p)leather suits and black headbands, will play '80s songs like Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran." But even while the game is going on, a DJ is stationed there, and he injects bursts of songs not only between every play, but during every single time-out, pause or breath the players take. An announcer uses the breaks to turn the spotlight on the crowd, flashing a "Kid Dance Cam," a "Kiss Cam" of smooching couples or the handful of fans who have smeared their faces in the famous Kiss style. Suddenly, four capoeira dancers painted with tribal tattoos tumble onto the field and fling themselves into aerial cartwheels and martial arts tricks.

As if the Brazilian quartet weren't enough, in the next break in the action, a car emblazoned with flames drives onto the field. The Kiss Girls, a dozen or so ladies clad in leather pants and spike-covered bralettes, pile out like sexy clowns and perform a dance routine. Three contestants from the crowd have been chosen to compete for a $500 gift card by kicking a field goal, and one nails it. Nita Strauss, the team's in-house guitarist, stands on the roof of the Kiss car and plays a solo. An usher with Gumby-like limbs is caught dancing on the big screen, and the crowd roars.

Sure, some hubbub is standard fare at sporting events. Cheerleaders, marching bands and dance teams are ever present - but on the sidelines, allowed on the field only for their halftime show. L.A. Kiss, on the other hand, not only ushers its performers onto the field throughout the game, they welcome "wild and crazy" acts. Its website says it's especially soliciting elephants, fire-breathers, little people and animal handlers, "the whackier [sic] and more exotic, the better."

"If there's one thing we know, it's how to give people bang for buck," Simmons told our sister paper O.C. Weekly earlier this year. That's an understatement. It's a smorgasbord of sights and sounds. With a couple of exceptions, the interludes have nothing to do with football. At the same time, true fans still seem zoned in on the game, and even the less-invested find themselves gasping when L.A. Kiss fumbles or leaping up when they run a successful play. Perhaps that means Simmons and Stanley are hitting their target of welding together several different worlds of entertainment.

Branding their creation as an "event like no one has ever seen" is a stretch. Right now, it feels more Ringling Bros. than Cirque du Soleil. Even so, it's a pretty fun spectacle, especially when you come armed with low expectations.

When the team loses, as they did on the game observed, Sunday, May 4 - a 70-21 trouncing, courtesy of the Spokane Shock - reactions are dramatic. Leaving the game early, one fan grabs a cameraman and yells into the camera, "That was the worst game ever!" Downtrodden and visibly mortified - the game was broadcast nationally on ESPN2 - a handful of the team's featured players emerge from the locker room for the post-game press conference. It's the question on everybody's mind: is it possible that all the stuff going on around them while they're trying to play is to blame for their poor performances?

Quarterback J.J. Raterink wisely sidesteps the obvious: the other team has to deal with the same distractions. Instead, he says something that rings familiar to anyone in show business, from theater geek to rock god to, yes, athlete.

"The whole thing is a show, but also a game. We have to focus. If you're a professional, you've gotta be able to play through, in all types of environments," he replies.

In other words, the show must go on.

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