As Gary Doss, founder and curator of the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, says, it's very hard not to smile at Pez.
Pez - short for pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint - was invented in 1927 by Eduard Haas III in Vienna as a breath mint for smokers. The original Pez dispensers, called "regulars" by collectors, resembled a simple cigarette lighter that shot candy instead of flame. Then, in 1952, children, fruit flavors, and cartoon heads were added to the equation, leading to the beguiling little slogan: A Treat to Eat in a Puppet That's Neat.
New heads were introduced every year -- bicentennial Pez (Betsy Ross, Daniel Boone), circus Pez (Clown With Collar, Big Top Elephant, Ringmaster), superhero Pez (Bat Girl, Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor), cartoon Pez (Barney Rubble, Papa Smurf, Snoopy, Bambi, Pluto, Mowgli, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Tom & Jerry), kooky zoo Pez (Roar the Lion, Mimic the Monkey, Yappy Dog), monster Pez (Creature From the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, Wolf Man), and on and on .... Holidays became an especially fertile time for Pez characters with Halloween (Pumpkin, Dr. Skull, Mr. Ugly), Easter (Lamb, Fat Ear Easter Bunny, Duck With Flower), and Christmas (Rudolph, Santa, Snowman). That's where it started for a lot of people -- innocently, as children, during family holidays.
"When I was a little girl, my mother gave them to me," says 29-year-old Omaha native Meggan Scavio. "She put them in every Christmas stocking, in every Easter basket, in every Halloween bag ... I could never bring myself to throw them away. You can't just throw them away; they're like crazy little dolls."
Scavio found herself with an abundance of Pez dispensers -- Santa with hat and no eyes, Santa with hat and eyes, Santa with no hat, big pumpkin head, little pumpkin head, chick with hat in soft shell, chick with hat in hard shell, chick with no hat, one-piece witch, three-piece witch - and as every hard-working pack rat in San Francisco knows, if you have more than one, you have the makings of a collection.
Scavio began keeping her eyes open for other characters, and soon her friends were looking, too. Pez became an ideal gift for every occasion: birthday, promotion, breakup. Slowly but surely, one shelf became two, three, four, and five. Folks started calling her Pezhead, not for any physical abnormality (Scavio is a lovely woman with large dark eyes and a rich husky laugh) but because "Pezhead" is the common handle for anyone similarly Pez-possessed (say, anyone who knows that "MIB" means mint in bag, or that "Euro" refers to an international dispenser, or "Club Med Face" indicates a shade darker than the original).
In Scavio's bedroom, tiny eyes peer down from every door ledge and every windowsill; the bed is surrounded. And still, there are more head-tilting exemplars to secure. She thumbs through an early bible by Richard Geary, Pez COLLECTIBLES or Pez COLLECTIBLES II, and dreamily points to a full-page photograph of the very rare Make-A-Face Pez, a sort of Mr. Potato Head-style dispenser that was created in 1972 but quickly withdrawn because of the easily swallowed facial features. Choosing a favorite from her own collection is not easy: She points to a first- and second-issue Star Wars Pez collection, her Pez bubble blowers, flashlights, key chains, removable body parts, whistles, Inspector Clouseau, Jiminy Cricket, Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Captain Hook, Zorro, and settles on the relatively common Smurfette.
"I like her little bangs," says Scavio with uncharacteristic chagrin, "but Long Face Clown is probably my most valuable. It's worth between $30 and $50 by itself. It was a gift."
In the wider world of Pez, Scavio can be considered only mildly obsessed. In 1997, a one-of-a-kind Portuguese regular sold for more than $4,300. Dennis Martin, publisher of The Fliptop PEZervation Society newsletter, sends one of his dispensers around the world on vacations with other enthusiasts who take pictures. There are Web-rings, art cars, and haikus dedicated to Pez. There are wedding planners who rent the Pez Pal Bride and Groom for $200, plus transportation for the owner who attends the reception to keep an eye on the dispensers. There are "Fantasy" Pez designers who contrive and sell Adolf Hitler, Michael Jackson, Kiss, Pee-wee Herman, and Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man dispensers made from a mishmash of heads and body parts. An answer on Jeopardy read, "A hot stock in 1999, this web site began as a place for people to buy and sell Pez dispensers." The question: "What is eBay?"
Not fully grasping the mania, I call information to get a phone number for the Burlingame Pez museum only to have George, the telephone operator, completely lose his professional demeanor: "There's a Pez museum?! In Burlingame? I've got a couple dozen Batman [enter lengthy description of color and cape variations]. Do they sell them there? I'm looking for one in particular [enter lengthy description of color and cape variation]."
The Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia is cleverly disguised as a computer store. In fact, until only a few years ago, the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia was a computer store. A large sign for Computer Spectrum still hangs over the display windows, but inside, it's strictly Pezness -- walls of affordable Pez, shelves of collectible Pez, cases of irreplaceable Pez; Pez from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Mexico, Japan, Germany, England, and Hungary, to name a few; Pez puzzles, clocks, clickers, watches, guns (with or without belt clip), and Peruvian finger puppets (for your Pez dispenser); autographed dispensers from the fleshy folks behind Wonder Woman, Chewbacca, Garfield, and Jack in the Box; articles from Forbes and Ripley's - Believe It or Not! There is a video tour of the Pez factory, and a computer trivia game to rate your knowledge of Pez lore, and a volunteer museum docent who adamantly refuses to give his name because of his "real" job. And dozens of Pezheads who wander in and out, exchanging breathless stories with Gary Doss, who stands behind a display of Euro Pez dispensers.
Doss came to Pez a little late in life. It started 15 years ago with a Woodstock he failed to purchase for his wife, Nancy, because it would have meant leaving the 10-items-or-less line. To assuage her feelings of disappointment, he later bought a Charlie Brown, which didn't appease her in the least. Friends and neighbors started buying conciliatory dispensers for the Doss household. When the collection was large enough, the Dosses moved it to their computer store, and customers started donating dispensers; then customers started coming for the dispensers. Soon, the dispensers had entirely eclipsed the computers, and the Doss family had a new, more colorful bag.
"Pez couldn't be any more different than computers," says Gary Doss with a big grin. "There's nothing happier or simpler than a Pez dispenser." (Most collectors will admit off the record that they never use their dispensers to eat candy.)
Trying to contain her excitement, Scavio wanders through the museum wistfully, composing a mental wish list for her upcoming birthday: Super Mario Brothers, a Goofy with moving ears, Crystal Animals, Wacky Wobblers .... Squeals can be heard from the gift shop where Scavio's buddy has discovered no less than three Pez T-shirts with which to adorn his body (this from a man who earlier sarcastically explained that Pez has always existed in the human psyche, and Stonehenge is just an early manifestation of the sweet candy treat). "I was just talking to my mother the other day about Pez," Scavio says during a phone call later in the week. "My mother thinks it's totally normal, and she's surprised more of my friends don't collect them."
The recent addition of the Astrix and Super Mario Brothers collections -- brought from Bali by honeymooning roommates -- brings Scavio's total to 269. She is a very, very happy Pezhead.
Send comments, quips, and tips to email@example.com.