For the collector, Pez's tough to swallow

August 31, 1993|By Irene Lacher | Irene Lacher,Los Angeles Times

The object of Phyllis Schafer-Oreck's sweet obsession lies behind closed doors.

They open onto a room in her Los Angeles home entirely dedicated to Pez: Pez dispensers, Pez trucks, Pez tattoos, Pez guns, Pez jigsaw puzzles, Pez T-shirts, Pezcetera . . .

Call Ms. Oreck a Pez-a-holic, the technical term for the burgeoning ranks of baby boomers who are turning a quaint hobby into serious business. Serious enough to lure collectors to two recent Pez conventions. Serious enough to entice an auction house, Christie's, to mount its first-ever Pez sale in New York earlier this summer -- 100 dispensers, with an estimated total value of $4,000-$6,000, sold out for $7,500.

"It went through the roof," says Christie's collectibles specialist Tim Luke. "It's a very emotionally based collectible. The baby boomers are of an age where they can spend money on things that remind them of their childhood."

Baby boomers such as Sue Sternfeld, 36. The New York Pez-a-holic, among an estimated 500 serious collectors in the United States, supplied Christie's with some of her frankly so-so dispensers, she says.

Ms. Sternfeld has forged a life from her Pez obsession. She met her husband, Richie, through a Pez newsletter ad he placed in his fervent search for more Pez. Now the two buy and sell Pez a deux.

"When we got married, he took out a full-page ad in the newsletter that said, 'Sue Wheelis' and Richie Sternfeld's inventory have recently merged' and that we were now going to be a power to contend with. It was a warning to the Pez community.

"We got married on a Tuesday and on Wednesday we took a tour of the Pez factory in Connecticut. And on Thursday, we left for the first Pez convention."

Not surprisingly, Pezheads are regarded as particularly intense even for that generally focused breed known as collectors.

"It's like a feeding frenzy because there's not enough of the rare material to go around right now," says Dave Welch, author of "A Pictorial Guide to Plastic Candy Dispensers Featuring Pez." "That makes them seem crazier than maybe they really are."

Ms. Oreck, a 40-year-old nurse, says things got kind of nasty at a Culver City, Calif., Pez party last year. "One person stole someone's Pez," she says. "This is supposed to be a fun thing and people are stealing people's stuff? And these are adults.

"There are a lot of violent people in this group. They want Pez. They want these things real bad."

The object of their desire was invented in Austria in 1927 as a minty antidote to smoking. Pez comes from the German word for peppermint, pfefferminzi. World War II forced Pez into retirement for 10 years. When it was resurrected in 1949, the company began manufacturing the first headless dispensers designed to resemble cigarette lighters and hawked with the slogan "Smoking prohibited -- PEZing allowed."

In 1952, Pez arrived on U.S. shores. Here the candy was aimed at kids, so the company added the first cartoony dispenser-heads and changed the formula to fruit flavors. The company, based in Orange, Conn., is tight-lipped about sales figures, but another company brochure said Americans consume more than 1 billion Pez candies a year. The factory doubled in size a couple of years ago. And Pez Candy Inc. CEO Scott McWhinnie, dubbed "the Pezident," says sales continue to grow.

The phenomenon has been tracked by newsletters, the now-defunct Optimistic PEZZIMIST and now, Positively PEZ, the winning logo in the name-your-Pez-newsletter contest (PEZmerized didn't make the cut). The bimonthly runs letters, history, trading ads and collector profiles, such as this recent look at New Jerseyite Gordon P. Breslow, who says: "Sue and Richie Sternfeld invited me to see their collection. Well, it was so impressive and extensive that I felt like going home and throwing rocks at mine."

Such a destruction-inspiring collection can cost a pretty penny these days, indeed. Craig Robbins, a Los Angeles contractor, figures his collection is worth more than $20,000. He's only missing a few of the more than 200 different dispensers ever made.

Dispensers celebrate the broad swath of pop culture -- from cartoons and snowmen to astronauts and psychedelia. The all-time best sellers are Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse, says Mr. McWhinnie. Forty different dispensers are on the market at any time, which now go for $1.29 a pop.

Despite the company's reticence to push Pez on the screen, it has popped up on "Stand by Me," "Empty Nest" and those emblematic boomer TV series "Seinfeld" and "thirtysomething."

So with all that peer support, why should Ms. Oreck even consider converting her 1,000-dispenser collection, worth about $15,000, into cold, hard cash?

"What could you buy with that?" she says. "A new car? I enjoy these. I really like them. They're so cute. They're so little. And I've had them so long."

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