By Lindsay Toler
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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.
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 haveto 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 Timemagazine 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.