March of the PEZ Dispencers

Bring me the head of Adolph Hitler. That's what a lot of PEZ collectors say.

The very sight of an unauthorized Hitler PEZ dispenser makes many collectors shudder. PEZ Candy Inc. even went to great lengths several years ago to sue the rascal responsible for this joke. Yet there are a few collectors of these "Fantasy PEZ" figurines who'll plunk down a few weeks' pay to flip up the toy Nazi dictator's chin for a fruity little candy with absolutely no nutritional value.

The Fantasy PEZ Hitler was just one of the hot-button issues at PEZ-a-Mania in Cleveland last weekend — a gathering of 1,500 hobbyists from 33 states and as far away as Japan and France — all to celebrate all things PEZ, one of the most highly sought-after baby boomer collectibles.

First PEZ, Then eBay

If you don't think that there are big bucks at stake in those little dispensers, you ought to have your little hollow plastic head examined. Just remember, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar created the Internet auction company after starting an online site for his girlfriend to trade Pez dispensers.

Those 4 ½-inch-high plastic candy containers are more than just an American cultural phenomenon. They're available in at least 60 countries. Go to Scandinavia and you can come home with a Viking PEZ dispenser.

At the show, a likeness of Captain Hook produced in the late 1960s can fetch upward of $100. The rarer Make-A-Face PEZ — a would-be Mr. Potato Head with removable body parts — now sells for $4,000.

"It really changed my life. With me, it's all PEZ all the time," says Gary Doss, who runs the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, just south of San Francisco.

Doss once ran a computer store. PEZ was just a sideline, something folks might see on display near the cash register. "But it just sold and sold and then I got the idea to make my passion a career," he says. Now he runs a PEZ-head Mecca.

It's hard to believe that the first PEZ candies came on the market in 1927 as an aid to quit smoking. The word "PEZ" is derived from pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint.

PEZ came to the United States in 1952, and they were an immediate bomb. At first, they were sold in tins, not unlike today's Altoids. Then, in a effort to promote hygiene, the manufacturer introduced dispensers that looked a bit like disposable cigarette lighters. They still wouldn't sell.

But then, in a stroke of genius, company executives rethought their product. They put cute heads on the dispensers and decided that they were now selling to children. Some of the early models featured Mickey Mouse and cost about 29 cents. They're now the sort of items that are auctioned by Christie's.

"I don't try to explain the phenomenon," says Scott McWhittie, who describes himself as the PEZident of the company. "They're the collectors. We're the manufacturers."

But McWhittie realizes what a powerhouse he has. It's hard to find another children's product that is recognizable by 98 percent of mothers. Some sources estimate that Americans consume 3 billion little PEZ candies annually. But don't bother asking McWhittie.

"We're privately held. We don't give away trade secrets," he says. "Good luck finding out."

Eau de PEZ

The PEZ folks are quite conservative with their brand. If you've seen Elvis, Pee Wee Herman or Monica Lewinsky on a PEZ, it's unauthorized, just like the Hitler mentioned above. In fact, only two humans have ever been enshrined as candy dispensers — Daniel Boone and Betsy Ross.

But the company has opened up its licensing channels in recent years. If you rush out to the supermarket now, you'll see four new PEZ dispensers in General Mills cereals — the Trix Rabbit; Lucky the Leprechaun from Lucky Charms; Sonny the Cuckoo Bird from Cocoa Puffs; and BuzzBee, the mascot for Honey Nut Cheerios.

And in a more bizarre move, there will soon be a PEZ perfume. A small Florida perfume company has signed a five-year deal to make and distribute PEZ brand perfumes and bath products.

"We're not looking at candy [scents] — at least not at this point," fragrance entrepreneur Frank Buttacavoli told last year. "We're looking at quality fragrances you'd be proud to wear."

Buttacavoli mixes fragrances for such as Perry Ellis and Fred Hayman Beverly Hills. Why the move? "Everybody knows the name PEZ," he said. Besides, his son is a collector.

But some aficionados fear the new PEZ products just don't measure up to the old ones. "The heads are larger, and not as well articulated," says Ronni Berger, a New Yorker who attended Pez-a-Mania. She cherishes a Little Orphan Annie and Snow White among the many dozens of dispensers in her collection — displayed on wooden racks in her apartment.

But that doesn't really deter Berger, who also collects refrigerator magnets and Coca-Cola memorabilia. "What can I say? PEZ is an American classic … You don't start out collecting anything. You get four, five, six dispensers, and they're just so aesthetically pleasing. I wouldn't think of letting them go."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.