March 14, 2010
Corporate meets entertainment at the opening and closing of each trading day. What better place to bring KISS and Dr Pepper together?

By Tina Susman

KISS guitarist Paul Stanley fluffed his thick, shaggy hair as bassist Gene Simmons fidgeted in the background, their eyes looped in black makeup, faces painted chalky white. As the seconds counted down to 4 p.m., Stanley leaned on the green button in front of him.

"Clang, clang, clang!" went the bell as the clock struck the top of the hour.

Flap, flap, flap went Simmons' famous tongue, stretching to the tip of his chin and back again.

"Bang!" went the gavel, which Stanley brought down with a thud. The white-haired man next to him, Larry Young, head of Dr Pepper Snapple Group, smiled gamely and hoisted a Dr Pepper Cherry soda.

It was closing time at the New York Stock Exchange, and if it weren't for the fact that a Scottish terrier named Sadie, the Aflac duck, Sports Illustrated swimsuit models and snowboard champ Shaun White would soon stand on the same platform, the KISS-meets-Dr-Pepper spectacle might have been more of -- well -- a spectacle.

But abnormal has become normal on the ornate bell podium. The stage once reserved for corporate leaders has become one of the nation's highest profile red carpets, a result of the global melding of the corporate world with entertainment, sports, politics and social causes.

Just as entertainers seek out a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, stars of all ilk clamor to ring the opening or closing bells at the world's largest stock exchange, a task broadcast to more than 100 million people worldwide.

"I'd say the hardest thing about managing the bell calendar is that we only have two a day to offer," said Marisa Ricciardi, the exchange's vice president for marketing and branding. The bell, opened to guest ringers since 1995, already is booked through June.

For those who sound the chimes, it is "a reinforcement of their accomplishments," she said. "That emotional connection, I think, is what drives the demand."

Exchange officials gather weekly to sort through dozens of requests, each department head lobbying on behalf of their applicants, often sent by publicists.

Special events -- the anniversary of an exchange listing, a corporation's initial public stock offering -- get priority, a juggling act for planners trying to fit in high-powered schedules.

"We turn down less than we say 'yes,'" said Ricciardi, declining to identify rejects. The general rule is not to offend anyone. But standards have loosened because a new generation of trading floor employees isn't so bothered by commercial antics.

The decision-makers try to keep the calendar newsy. After snowboarder White won gold at the Vancouver Olympics, it was a no-brainer to grant his wish to ring the bell when he visited New York. A giant Hershey's Kiss rang just before Valentine's Day. When the United Nations General Assembly met in September, an array of world leaders took to the podium.

"It's a thrill even for the most sophisticated people," said Howard Rubenstein, whose public relations firm, Rubenstein Associates Inc., has a client list that includes several bell-ringers. Rubenstein has ushered many of them to the podium, where a wooden gavel used after the closing bell lies next to a thick metal mound worn down from decades of pounding.

"It's neat -- you feel like a judge," said Liz Ann Sonders, chief strategist for investment firm Charles Schwab, who has done the closing twice. On March 5, she opened. "There is no greater goose-bump event."

There's no denying the giddiness that overtakes people as they gaze out at the traders below.

"What else is on TV every single workday?" said Larry O'Donnell, who had two goals at his Feb. 5 opening ring: to represent Waste Management Inc., the Houston-based company of which he is president and chief operating officer; and to promote his star appearance on the premiere of "Undercover Boss," a reality TV show.

The bell has been used for more than 100 years to mark the opening and closing of trade. It used to be performed by exchange employees who would "stand there rather stoically. They wouldn't smile," said Rich Adamonis, the exchange's chief spokesman.

As the exchange sought to increase its visibility and give listed companies a means of celebrating milestones, officials hit upon the idea of inviting guests to sound 10 seconds of ear-splitting chimes.

The increased mixing of corporate and entertainment industries heightened opportunities for bell events.

Time Warner Inc. is listed on the stock exchange and owns Sports Illustrated magazine. Each year it trots out swimsuit models, albeit fully clothed, to advertise the February swimsuit issue.

KISS appeared with Dr Pepper officials on Jan. 25 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the soft drink, and to promote a Super Bowl commercial featuring the band singing the praises of Dr Pepper Cherry.

The superstars have helped turn the ringings into top-flight entertainment, featuring, among others, Nelson Mandela, Snoop Dogg, Darth Vader, the Energizer Bunny and countless presidents, prime ministers and princes -- many of the guests with animals or mascots in tow. Lions, cats, dogs and even a bald eagle have appeared.

On Feb. 18, the newly crowned winner of the Westminster Kennel Club's dog show, Sadie, used her left paw to ring the opening bell.

Perhaps the most famous opening was on Sept. 17, 2001, the day the stock exchange reopened after the Sept. 11 attacks. After a moment of silence, New York rescue workers and city officials rang the chimes.

Another such occasion occurred when a cancer-stricken boy received his dying wish: to ring the bell. The traders spontaneously tossed thousands of shreds of paper into the air and gave the boy an ovation.

It was a poignant moment that showed the bell's evolution from a mere noise to an event and, for some, a dream come true.

"Few bells," Adamonis said, "are just bells alone."