Pez collectors pop up everywhere

Obsession: It's not the candy -- many can't stand the flavor -- that attracts these folks. No, it's the wonderfully imaginative delivery system that draws them in.

March 01, 2000|By Brendan A. Maher | Brendan A. Maher,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Dennis Wildberger had a confession to make. He has been into his peculiar obsession, he said, for 10 years now. But until his introduction to the Internet five years ago, he "didn't think that anybody else was into this."

Those assembled around him at the table at Pizzeria Uno at the Inner Harbor could understand. Some had been there themselves. But now they were here, out in the open, out of the online newsgroup where they'd met, to discuss -- no, to celebrate -- their shared obsession: Pez.

Yes, Pez: the decades-old plastic dispensers of candy tablets that have earned a devoted following. When some two dozen collectors from the Baltimore area and beyond got together this past weekend, it clearly wasn't like the Beanie Baby frenzy or the prepubescent glamour of Pokemon acquisition, but a hobby steeped in nostalgia and a love for toys.

Not that those on hand were not well-versed in the talk of their trade and the prospects for the future of Pez. But beneath their business-like manner was something akin to the awe of children let loose in the proverbial candy store.

Created by Austrian entrepreneur Eduard Haas in 1927, Pez candy tablets were introduced as an aid to stop smoking. The only flavor offered was peppermint; the name Pez was derived from the German word pfefferminz. When dispensers were introduced, they were plain, designed to look like cigarette lighters (items now known to collectors as "regulars"). Beginning in 1952, when the company began adding cartoon-character heads to its dispensers, Pez began to make its mark as a pop culture icon.

As more people began collecting, simple descriptions of dispensers as "old" and "rare" popped up.

These days, the leader of the pack of Pez characters is the "Bride," a veiled cartoon that can fetch anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 for a lucky collector. Close behind is the "Make a Face," a Mr. Potato Head-like character that was quickly discontinued due to the choking hazard of its tiny parts. One recently sold online for more than $4,000.

"I started collecting Pez because I thought it would be cheap," said Heather Brautman of Parkville, who organized the lunch. "Now, I have to make myself not look at eBay when I don't have the money to spend."

EBay and Pez, in fact, have a very close relationship. The online auction giant had its origins in Pez trading; a "Spider Man" Pez was its first item for bid. Elsewhere online, as through e-mail newsgroups like the one that brought these hobbyists together, collectors such as Wildberger find that they are not alone in their obsession.

Besides buying, selling and trading online, Wildberger also markets his own line of "Fantasy Pez": dispensers he styles himself. Wildberger takes generic Santa Claus dispensers, released by Pez at Christmas, and removes their hats and beards. Then he outfits them with NFL helmets and color-coordinated stems.

"They're only exposition pieces," he cautions as he displays his homemade Baltimore Ravens dispenser. "They don't actually hold Pez candy."

Some of the Baltimore-area collectors who attended the luncheon own hundreds of dispensers. But on this day, they brought only some of their prize pieces.

Tom Rhodes brought in two: an "outsider" (non-Pez) piece, a circa-1952, cylindrical dispenser made for Smarties candies, and a vintage "Pez Santa" featuring a complete body rather than the simple rectangular stem. Both pieces, gleaming works of retro art in aged and yellowing plastic, were real crowd pleasers.

"It's so much smaller in person," Brautman said of the Santa.

Gerry Lanenzo brought a huge box. His prize piece, a representation of Disney's Captain Hook, stayed at home, but he touted his Hungarian "Whistle Head" -- mostly because of the discontinued packaging.

John Schmitz brought pictures of his extensive collection, which branches out into toys and train sets. He started collecting five years ago when his son brought him an "Angel" dispenser. His collection now fills an entire room of his house.

"It helps me pass the time," he said, "and it keeps me out of trouble."

Schmitz also brought pictures of the renowned Texas Pez Car, which he saw in St. Louis. The car is completely covered in Pez dispensers and large reproductions of the candy.

Pez collectors are not without their heroes. Many made mention of the "Seinfeld" episode that starred a "Tweety" dispenser. (Jerry Seinfeld's collection is rumored to be vast, as is Rosie O'Donnell's.) Cameo shots of Pez in the movies and on TV are hailed as golden moments, though some have been misleading. For the record, the Elvis Presley dispenser that appears in "The Client" does not actually exist. In fact, Pez Candy Inc. has never modeled a character after a real person.

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