August 01, 2010
Winchester man has assembled an 896-piece collection of rock band

By Monty Tayloe / The Winchester Star

His grandparents say that when 4-year-old Benji Knee came to live with them in 1976, the obsession had already begun.

Born with Down syndrome, he brought his favorite toys to make the move easier: Four long-haired dolls - one each for Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, and Gene Simmons - the original lineup of the face-painted hard-rock band KISS.

"They're the hottest band in the world," Benji said 34 years later, standing in front of a dresser stuffed with KISS T-shirts.

His dolls are now just a small part of a 896-piece KISS collection that has taken over his grandparents' basement, his bedroom, and now even the family living room.

"This is his whole life," said Benji's grandfather (and retired city treasurer) Walter "Skeeter" Knee, 75, standing in the basement Benji calls his office.

Like most offices, it has a desk, but it's sitting next to a life-size cardboard cutout of the members of KISS, and is surrounded by shelves piled with statues, books, toy cars - even cologne - all featuring KISS.

Benji has at least three KISS lava lamps, a battle ax-shaped KISS lamp, and a toothbrush that plays "Rock and Roll All Nite" - his favorite KISS song - while he uses it.

"He even has KISS chap stick," Skeeter said.

When Benji goes bowling, he wears KISS-themed sweatbands, and uses a KISS bowling ball, and he's never without his KISS watch, KISS ring, and a KISS T-shirt.

"People always ask me if he has anything else to wear," said Nancy Knee, 77, Benji's grandmother.

Many of the items were sent to him by friends and family members who know to watch for memorabilia.

Some of those friends were on hand when former KISS guitarist Frehley was signing T-shirts in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 2007.

He wrote "Be safe! We support you!" to Benji on the shirt, which is now framed on the Knees's wall.

The shirt is a prized part of the collection, but Nancy said Benji loves everything involving KISS equally.

"He is thrilled with every single thing, even just a little card," she said.

Nancy said she believes Benji's membership in the KISS Army - as the band's fans are known- helps him.

"It's good for him to think about them and talk about them," she said.

At Benji's job at NW Works, his co-workers quiz him on KISS trivia, and Benji spends time each day in his KISS basement, photocopying and laminating pictures and articles about his favorite band.

His fandom even led him to write a short article for the NW Works newsletter.

Titled "My Dream Comes True," it is about the KISS concert that Nancy and Skeeter took him to in 2000.

"I'm pretty sure we were the oldest people there," Nancy said. "It's a pretty remarkable show," Skeeter added.

Though they don't completely share Benji's enthusiam, more than 30 years of being surrounded by KISS has started to wear them down.

Skeeter said he likes the song "New York Groove," while Nancy prefers "Beth."

"It's easy to kind of tune it out," she said.

While they may not feel the same as Benji about the band, the Knees are as dedicated to his hobby as he is.

Nancy said she buys KISS memorabilia as soon as it is released for fear that Benji will miss something, and Skeeter is nearly on a first-name basis with Virginia's authorized KISS dealer.

In 2000, when Skeeter gave Benji his basement office, the doting grandparents strung a streamer across the basement stairs for an official ribbon-cutting- which now hangs on the basement wall.

Benji loves KISS so much that he finds it impossible to pick a favorite band member, though he admitted liking the original lineup best.

He also has trouble picking his favorite piece in the collection, though he's partial to the lifesize cutout.

He said he likes to come downstairs and look at the whole collection.

"I like all of it."