By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
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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.