On a muggy Friday evening near the end of June, grown men and grandmothers, second-graders and sweet-sixteens hunker over bingo cards in a ballroom at the St. Louis Marriott West. To any layman, the evening's prize list might seem quite obscure: "Puzzle Never Opened," "Linz 2006 Football," "Indian Chief NF 3.9 Austria Stem with Multi-Color Headdress." But to this PEZ-manic crowd the list is writ in pure platinum.
PEZ!? You mean those little candy dispensers, those throwaways you used to find at the five-and-dime? You mean they still make PEZ!? Indeed, PEZ Candy Inc. manufactures 50 million dispensers annually in Hungary, China and Slovenia, while a factory in Orange, Connecticut, spits out three billion candy pellets a year for the U.S. market.
And for the past fifteen years, hundreds of "PEZheads," as these dispenser-trolling collectors proudly call themselves, have descended on a St. Louis hotel for the National PEZ Convention. It's a time to play PEZ trivia, a place to catch up with old friends. It's a four-day extravaganza of an endearingly geeky subculture infatuated with a 99-cent plastic toy.
"A great chance to meet people from all over the world that you'd never meet otherwise," sums up St. Louisan John Devlin, the 52-year-old convention founder whose perfect posture calls to mind, well, a PEZ dispenser.
A former hoarder of pinball machines and Green Hornet memorabilia, Devlin's history in PEZ runs deep. Nearly twenty years ago, the south-county engineer was one of barely 50 people with a couple of thousand PEZ dispensers, when he began to scavenge "aggressively" for them. Recalls Devlin: "I'd go down to Cherokee Street and ask whether they had any PEZ? 'PEZ, what's PEZ?' the antique dealers would say. They sort of smirked when I pulled one out of my pocket. But then I told them I was willing to pay up to $100. They always had PEZ after that."
At the time, Devlin emerged as a veritable ambassador of PEZ, widely sought after by newbie collectors. His wife, Marian, who could give a tinker's damn about her husband's obsession used to yell, "PEZ emergency!" every time her hubby delayed a dinner date to field a phone call from a rookie on the hunt for a rare dispenser.
Starting a convention seemed to Devlin a fine way to put PEZ-hungry heads together. Fans from across the land followed suit. Today, there's even a "PEZheads at Sea" springtime cruise to the Bahamas. In 2004 PEZheads Online, the original listserv for PEZ fanatics, awarded Devlin the highest honor, PEZhead of The Year.
Devlin these days boasts of a collection so vast (he long ago stopped counting) that it covers every wall in the basement of his 2,500-square-foot home. The "Cool PEZ Man," as he's known, says his PEZ stash is insured by a collectibles company for $100,000. He stores his most valuable pieces in safety deposit boxes at two different banks. "I don't ever plan on selling," he says.
"There're always people that think they have a collection when they have, like, 50 PEZ. 'I've got a collection,' they say. 'No, you don't,'" says Devlin, who has three different PEZ dispensers molded in his likeness. "I've got friends that buy 50 PEZ at one time."
PEZ was a wholly different product when, in 1927, Eduard Haas III invented the candy in Vienna, Austria. Haas conceived it as a mint-flavored substitute for smoking and packaged the candy in small, rectangular tins. Paying homage to the German word for peppermint, pfefferminz, it was Haas who came up with a quasi-acronym, the now-celebrated "PEZ."
The mints were immensely popular in Europe throughout the 1940s, prompting Haas to set his sights on the U.S. market. In 1952 he introduced Americans to PEZ, this time packaged in a dispenser resembling a cigarette lighter. The product, though, hit with a thud. Says Devlin: "Americans weren't big on peppermint back then."
Three years later, PEZ crafted its hallmark design by adding cartoon "heads" to the dispenser stems. Legend has it that Santa Claus, Popeye or perhaps Mickey Mouse may have topped the original candy holders, though not a one of the estimated six million PEZ pals has nailed down the truth. Nor has anyone at the 80-year-old, privately-held company.
"They never kept archives; they have no records," explains Shawn Peterson, a Kansas City PEZ nut whom PEZ executives consider their de-facto historian.
This curious disregard for history means that no one is even sure exactly how many different dispensers PEZ has produced. Most PEZ collectors don't speak definitively about the sums of their own collections, either. That's because one PEZ character can exist in myriad color combinations, creating a philosophical conundrum: Do an all-white Casper the Ghost and a blue-stemmed Casper the Ghost count as one PEZ, or two? These variations are themselves a mystery: Did the company make them intentionally to ratchet up PEZ's collectible factor, or did entrepreneurial employees fuel the black market by sneaking misfits out of the factory?
Another longtime enigma was PEZ Candy's rationale for its unwritten rule never to reproduce the heads of living people. Last year the firm broke tradition when it issued dispensers resembling the owners of Orange County Choppers, a New York-based custom motorcycle company that stars in the Discovery Channel series American Chopper.
"It's the only rule we've ever broken," Peter Vandall, vice president of marketing, explains in a phone interview from PEZ's U.S. headquarters in Connecticut. "Usually you'd have to be dead to be considered for a PEZ. But OCC is alive and well. They happen to all be PEZ collectors who own Harley Davidsons, can you believe that?"
Vandall says the company wanted to expand its demographic to include the aging baby-boomer crowd and that every last one of the 350,000 Orange County Chopper PEZ has sold.
"George Washington, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth: We haven't done any of those, but they would be considered because they're legends and icons," Vandall continues. "When we make a product, it's absolutely perfect, so dealing with a live subject is not always easy. People aren't satisfied with the way they look, so it's constant changes, and that costs a lot of money. It's economics. But the OCC, we were able to duplicate them rather easily, and they loved it."
Vandall says the company will continue to immortalize real folks in PEZ. An Elvis Presley set (1950s, '60s and '70s Elvis) just reached stores in honor of the 30th anniversary of Presley's death this year. And PEZ is considering creating a line of "PEZidents," depicting U.S. presidents.
In 1955, the same year PEZ introduced character themes, Haas shelved the peppermint taste for friendlier flavors like strawberry, cherry and orange. Today the candy comes in cola, yogurt, raspberry and grape, not to mention sugar-free, and yes, even kosher varieties.
"There were a few flavors that never lasted: hot cinnamon, chlorophyll, anise," recounts John Devlin. "I think the weirdest candy pack was for Psychedelic Flower, which I have in my safety deposit box, and which came with flowered flavor candy in the '60s. I ate a piece of that ten or fifteen years ago. Five of us were sitting around eating old PEZ and it was the grossest thing. It tasted like somebody's bad perfume."
Whenever PEZ buffs congregate, PEZ stories are swapped and legends recounted, like the one about Andy Griffith, who preferred the tiny candies to aspirin as a headache remedy. They delight in pop culture "sightings" of PEZ in album covers and lyrics, like those of the ska band Less Than Jake.
The aficionados find all kinds of ways to incorporate PEZ into their daily lives, like donating to each others' favorite charities and using the rectangular candy pieces as poker chips. They vacation at each others' homes and meet at the two PEZ museums in Burlingame, California, and Easton, Pennsylvania, where they can marvel at a seven-foot-ten-inch PEZ, the world's biggest, or peruse baseball- and Halloween-themed dispensers.
What does PEZ think of its die-hard collectors? "They are eclectic," says Vandall. "And it's all professions: lawyers, nurses, doctors, motorcycle enthusiasts, blue collar, white collar, green collar, black collar, you name it, everybody is in it."
With a chuckle, he adds: "We've had people that have made sports jackets out of PEZ, glued PEZ all over them, it's crazy, they're absolutely nuts."
Seinfeld, 1992, Season Three, Episode 14, "The PEZ Dispenser": Kramer picks up five PEZ dispensers at the flea market and gives one, a blue-and-yellow Tweety Bird, to Jerry. Elaine bursts into laughter at the sight of Tweety while attending George's girlfriend's piano concert, effectively ending George's relationship. On a whim, Jerry gives Tweety to a drug-addict friend about to enter rehab.
At the end of the show, Jerry reports on the guy's progress: "He's doing great on the rehab. He's hooked on PEZ!"
The episode was PEZ's tipping point, with Americans everywhere suddenly hunting for the still-available but long-forgotten plastic toy. PEZ executives proceeded to send a Jerry Seinfeld look-alike PEZ to Jerry Seinfeld, you guessed it, a PEZhead himself.
"Every time the episode is rerun, the demand for Tweety goes right through the roof," boasts Vandall, the PEZ marketing director. "And we don't have any more Tweety!"
The other seminal moment in PEZ history came three years later, in 1995, when Tufts University graduate Pierre Omidyar opened the online auction site eBay from his California home. (PEZ was one of the first things he and his then-girlfriend, a collector, used the Web site to find.)
Until then, the PEZ community had been sealing deals among themselves via snail-mail, telephone and newsletters. But eBay prompted pack rats everywhere to scour their attics for antique PEZ dispensers. The Web site revolutionized the trade.
Though new releases generally go for 99 cents, the prices for vintage dispensers just keep on climbing. "I sold my first collection and bought a '94 Buick Skylark, my first car," recounts 30-year-old Jason Hueffmeier of Festus, a sales manager for Anheuser-Busch. "After that I couldn't take it. I kept seeing PEZ around town, and I got started up again. Then [my wife and I] wanted to get married, so I sold my second collection on eBay and we made our down payment on the house."
According to Vandall, a vintage Casper the Ghost PEZ is the rarest dispenser, valued at a whopping $10,000. "We work on a scarcity strategy here," adds Vandall. "We make only so many, and that keeps the value up. The price never goes down on PEZ."
The memorabilia, too, hauls in handsome sums. Not long ago somebody sold a 1950s crystal-clear PEZ gun for an estimated $11,000, the highest price ever paid for a PEZ collectible.
And yet, say PEZ enthusiasts, a convention outdoes eBay any day for sniffing out the really rare collectibles. Jeff Rosenberg, who attended the national gathering in Town & Country last month, agrees. "I got the Bride & Groom," exclaims the 27-year-old Chicago teacher, citing a sought-after pair of PEZ dispensers that were favors at the 1978 wedding of a PEZ executive's relative. "It cost me a couple paychecks, but I'm pumped!"
A shopper's paradise, the national convention also amounts to a Who's Who in the PEZ world.
Ronai Brumett, who crafts PEZ insignia jewelry from sterling silver and Swarovski crystals, and her husband Michael Brumett, a sculptor of giant PEZ dispensers, were in town from Minnesota with their four kids.
Gary Plunkett, an Oklahoma accountant, came to report on his mission to repair "The PEZ Car," a 1977 Dodge Aspen plastered with PEZ dispensers. Plunkett paid $550 to have the defunct clunker shipped to him from another collector in Texas and dreams of driving the car in parades to raise money for charity.
Canadian Red Conroy is another of the PEZ faithful, a former Lutheran minister who has logged 700,000 miles in nine years of crisscrossing the U.S. to find PEZ.
"One time I drove twelve hours to Indianapolis for a collection," says Conroy. "The person met me in a parking lot in the middle of the night. I got my PEZ and turned right back around."
Conroy, known as "Mr. Variations," has a sweet spot for "misfits," PEZ in odd color combos, and PEZ missing eyes, ears and heads.
"I'm on the hunt for an original, one-piece witch with a stamped stem," Conroy adds. "On the bottom it says 'Made in Yugoslavia.' On the other side it has the patent number. I've been looking for one for eight years. And I will find it."
For four days, these old friends kept up the long PEZ convention tradition of "Room-Hopping." Picture a hotel converted into a PEZ mall, with PEZ swathing the bedspreads and spilling out of dresser drawers in every room. Bushy-tailed buyers zoom up and down the hallways in search of the mask-less Incredibles, or the earless Miss Piggy, or Batman, using walkie-talkies to relay news of their discoveries to relatives.
In room 301, Kendra and Chris Skeene hawk T-shirts and their 2006 crowd-pleaser, PEZheads: The Movie. The couple from Georgia made the documentary on a shoestring budget, hit the film festival circuit and is now in talks with both American and European distributors, hoping for a red carpet deal.
"Our director [Christopher Marshall] was our friend, a grad student in film," recounts Chris Skeene. "He was over one day and started asking questions about our collection. He was fascinated. He said we have to make a movie about this.
"So we packed the car and went to the Tampa convention. It was our first time ever going to one, too. And when we left, Chris said, 'This is so weird. I came here thinking we'd make fun of these people, but I love them. I really want to hang out and get to know them.'" For all the PEZ legends and history that have come to light in recent years, the notoriously protective corporate parent nonetheless continues to project a Willy Wonka-like aura upon its admirers.
As unfounded rumors of new releases whirl around the PEZ-o-sphere, for instance, collectors sometimes wonder if PEZ executives aren't floating the gossip themselves to keep the attraction alive. And then you have the PEZ factory in Connecticut, to which PEZ aficionados make pilgrimages and would love nothing more than to tour. Alas, visits are strictly forbidden, though that didn't stop a former St. Louis resident from posing as a reporter on assignment with Time magazine and faking her way into the Connecticut factory a few years ago. (PEZ learned of the sham after photos appeared on the Web, and the company's reported displeasure caused the woman to become a pariah in the PEZ community.)
Kyle Jordan, of Kearney, Missouri, is an exception to the no-visit policy. Unprompted, the skinny sixteen-year-old relinquished to PEZ a very special dispenser that he had acquired through connections, one never intended to reach a consumer. The dutiful act got Jordan -- considered one of the hobby's most knowledgeable -- into PEZ's sweet spot, and scored him a sit-down with marketing executives.
"I always thought the candy was horrible I hated it," says Jordan. "But at the factory I got to try it fresh, right out of the machine, and it was so good. If they could only sell it like that, I'm telling you, they could sell so much more."
A collector since the age of four, Jordan was spending $2,000 a year scavenging for PEZ that was until last year, when he started selling off his collection to buy a car. Word got around to his PEZ pals, though, and Jordan had another think coming: Collectors at the Minnesota convention raised $1,000 for Jordan's Geo Metro, just so he wouldn't have to sacrifice PEZ.
Jordan goes starry-eyed giving thanks for his mentors. "I owe so much to John and Cheryl," he says, calling to mind an Oscar winner at the awards podium. "Shawn Peterson was my role model."
If there ever was an archaeologist of PEZ, Peterson is it. The 38-year-old Kansas City native has written two definitive tomes on the candy and is hard at work on a third. It centers on a California couple's million-dollar collection that, as Peterson puts it, "blew my mind.
"I've been doing this for seventeen years, and I had no idea any of their stuff existed," says the author.
Peterson's achievements earned him an audience at PEZ, and the company now uses him to leak information to collectors. At the National PEZ Convention, he held court like a pro athlete, signing books and showing samples of future releases.
"I got a call from Europe a year ago. They'd found something a donkey and wanted to know if I'd ever heard of it," Peterson tells the crowd. "It turns out that John F. Kennedy was visiting Vienna, when PEZ was still based there, and the company presented the president with a gift box holding three dispensers: a Donkey for J.F.K., a Golden Glow for Jackie, and a Bozo the Clown die-cut for Caroline.
"Nobody had ever found those, and all of a sudden this old Donkey turned up in an office drawer. Unbelievable."
Peterson, who works for Hallmark Cards but dreams of a job at the candy company, can relate PEZ lore for hours. There was the married PEZ guy, for one, who went sweet on a gal at a convention and used the annual gatherings to see her again. That was, until he returned home from one reunion and found his wife holding a brown bag of pulverized plastic. "Here's your PEZ collection," said the wife, according to Peterson. "I want a divorce."
And there's the story of the Michigan man, "a Hell's Angel look-alike," who was so mad for PEZ that he made yearly sojourns to an Eastern Europe factory. As Peterson tells it, the man convinced employees to make various dispensers in the color variations he demanded.
Back in Michigan, the man piled the PEZ so high in the hallways of his home that everything collapsed in the middle of a night. "One morning," says Peterson, "he woke up and literally had to dig himself out."
Then, recalls Peterson, there was the strange call the company received from U.S. government representatives earlier this year. "They wanted to know PEZ's policy on bootleg PEZ. And PEZ was like, 'What? Why?' Apparently there's some terrorist connection they wonder if people are making bootleg PEZ in order to fundraise for terrorist groups."
Last week Peterson planned to hang out in Kansas City with Robby Takac, bassist for the Goo Goo Dolls, who once traveled all the way to Tokyo in search of PEZ. "There's just so much to PEZ that people don't realize," Peterson sums up.
Still, why PEZ? After all, it's just a cheap piece of plastic.
"You never see a PEZ with a frown," says Kyle Jordan. "They're always so happy."
"It's the thrill of the hunt," says John Devlin.
Says Mike Chadwick, a Michigan collector who once spent $5,000 on a Maharajah PEZ: "I guess the answer is, why not?"