CORONA DEL MAR — Nothing can prepare you for your first visit to the hilltop home of Helene and Howard Moore.
Not the press release letterhead showing lovers kissing. Not the "Lovers Inn" plaque out front showing lovers kissing. Not the etched-glass front doors showing lovers kissing.
Inside, it's overwhelming. The rug in the foyer shows a couple kissing. Picture after picture of people kissing line the staircase wall. A huge case on one foyer wall displays ceramic, bronze, glass and terra-cotta figures. They're all kissing.
It's everywhere. It covers the walls in the 9,000-square-foot house and more.
At the bar, a mannequin sits on a bar stool with a kissing couple painted on its back. In the closet, T-shirts and jackets depict kissing scenes. On the walls of the "X-rated powder room," couples are engaged in advanced kissing.
Kissing posters even hang in the garage, where the license plates spell out "KIS R US." Want to call the Moores? You have to dial "KISS."
Helene, now 60, said they've collected 725 art objects depicting kissing, ranging from $1.95 knickknacks to a $50,000 painting ("A Touch of Innocence" by Armenian-born artist Martiros Manukian). Total spent: "in excess of $1 million," said Howard.
The Moores list ownership of works by Marc Chagall, Auguste Rodin, Salvador Dali, Erte, John Sloan, Claes Oldenburg, LeRoy Neiman plus many other well-knowns and unknowns. "From kitsch to classics," according to the Moores' press release.
The collection is not unified by style, period or medium, only by subject.
"This drives the art people nuts," said Howard. "Usually the theme is all bronze or the 18th Century or it's all modern. They think in very structured terms that way, and that really never mattered to us. I think the art people can't understand that you can have a very expensive painting and also an $8 print."
What the art people \o7 can \f7 understand is that the Moores have money and spend it.
Howard, semi-retired at 61, built a small, family-run candy and toy store in Baltimore into a small chain of discount toy stores. He sold them, invested in Toys R Us stock early on, then became an executive and director of the mammoth toy chain. He still sits on its board of directors.
"They had a very successful stock-option plan for their people," he said, richly.
They met on a blind date in Baltimore in 1951. Howard, son of a Baltimore insurance agent, had just been discharged from the Navy. Helene, daughter of a Brooklyn butcher, was working as a Social Security key punch operator. They were married within a year, the first marriage for both, and they've remained married for 39 years.
Helene's enthusiasm for collecting "is remarkable," Howard said.
"She's really a quiet person, almost subdued in most situations. But when it comes to the art collection, it's called cloud nine, I guess. Her feet aren't touching the ground.
"She takes center stage now, deservedly so. I call it the Mrs. Helene Moore-and-husband collection. I enjoy it--don't get me wrong--but she is so, well, as you see."
Obsessed? Yes, she said. Corny, square, unhip? "You've hit it on the head," she said. "So be it," he said.
It began, she explained, after the couple moved into Howard's parents' apartment over the family candy store. Mrs. Bradley, a regular customer, remarked that the young couple did a lot of kissing during business hours, and she gave them a set of ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers--the stereotypical Dutch boy and girl leaning toward one another to kiss.
They were placed on the TV set, "and depending on the day I had, I'd either leave them kissing or if I had a bad day, I'd turn them around. So Howard always knew."
When the figurines broke, "I realized it was something that I touched just about every day. It was a barometer of our life, and so I said we have to replace it. We didn't have very many pretty things."
Eventually, she found a replacement, "and by that time I was hooked."
As the family's means increased, so did the cost of and the fervor for other acquisitions. Purchases have been made as nearby as Laguna Beach and as far away as Israel. The latest, purchased in London: Two immense fiberglass faces locked in a kiss.
Helene is uncertain just where to put them.
It's like this, she said: If she likes it, she buys it, period.
"I love when children are kissing. I love when Howard and I are kissing. I love when everyone else is kissing. I like to kiss. \o7 We \f7 like to kiss. We like to be with each other. We're unusual in that."
"We're pretty much always together," he said. "I may take off on a one-day business trip, but outside of that, we're always together."
"There was a time when he wouldn't take a one-day business trip without me, but I've gotten older, so he's content to leave me home," she said.
"We work at it, too," he said. "We have learned to--and I use this in a positive sense--accommodate each others needs. I think maybe she did it first. And we just take care of each other and our needs."
"And \o7 enjoy \f7 it," she said.