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"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."