Night Crawler

Pez on Earth

Pez on Earth
They stand at attention in tight, uniform rows -- bright, shiny, and resolute -- their little eyes fixed beneath bushy eyebrows and tiny hats atop bodies without arms or legs to detract from their higher purpose. At last, one is called into service and removed from the ranks. It is a superhero, the kind you might find in DC Comics - black mask, stern, square jaw, bat ears. Without hesitation, the superhero head snaps back, splitting from the body just below the chin until it hangs loosely against the place where its shoulders should be, and a tiny cake of sugar, corn syrup, and hydrogenated palm oils erupts from the slit in its neck. It's strawberry flavored.

As Gary Doss, founder and curator of the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, says, it's very hard not to smile at Pez.

Pez - short for pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint - was invented in 1927 by Eduard Haas III in Vienna as a breath mint for smokers. The original Pez dispensers, called "regulars" by collectors, resembled a simple cigarette lighter that shot candy instead of flame. Then, in 1952, children, fruit flavors, and cartoon heads were added to the equation, leading to the beguiling little slogan: A Treat to Eat in a Puppet That's Neat.

New heads were introduced every year -- bicentennial Pez (Betsy Ross, Daniel Boone), circus Pez (Clown With Collar, Big Top Elephant, Ringmaster), superhero Pez (Bat Girl, Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor), cartoon Pez (Barney Rubble, Papa Smurf, Snoopy, Bambi, Pluto, Mowgli, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Tom & Jerry), kooky zoo Pez (Roar the Lion, Mimic the Monkey, Yappy Dog), monster Pez (Creature From the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, Wolf Man), and on and on .... Holidays became an especially fertile time for Pez characters with Halloween (Pumpkin, Dr. Skull, Mr. Ugly), Easter (Lamb, Fat Ear Easter Bunny, Duck With Flower), and Christmas (Rudolph, Santa, Snowman). That's where it started for a lot of people -- innocently, as children, during family holidays.

"When I was a little girl, my mother gave them to me," says 29-year-old Omaha native Meggan Scavio. "She put them in every Christmas stocking, in every Easter basket, in every Halloween bag ... I could never bring myself to throw them away. You can't just throw them away; they're like crazy little dolls."

Scavio found herself with an abundance of Pez dispensers -- Santa with hat and no eyes, Santa with hat and eyes, Santa with no hat, big pumpkin head, little pumpkin head, chick with hat in soft shell, chick with hat in hard shell, chick with no hat, one-piece witch, three-piece witch - and as every hard-working pack rat in San Francisco knows, if you have more than one, you have the makings of a collection.

Scavio began keeping her eyes open for other characters, and soon her friends were looking, too. Pez became an ideal gift for every occasion: birthday, promotion, breakup. Slowly but surely, one shelf became two, three, four, and five. Folks started calling her Pezhead, not for any physical abnormality (Scavio is a lovely woman with large dark eyes and a rich husky laugh) but because "Pezhead" is the common handle for anyone similarly Pez-possessed (say, anyone who knows that "MIB" means mint in bag, or that "Euro" refers to an international dispenser, or "Club Med Face" indicates a shade darker than the original).

In Scavio's bedroom, tiny eyes peer down from every door ledge and every windowsill; the bed is surrounded. And still, there are more head-tilting exemplars to secure. She thumbs through an early bible by Richard Geary, Pez COLLECTIBLES or Pez COLLECTIBLES II, and dreamily points to a full-page photograph of the very rare Make-A-Face Pez, a sort of Mr. Potato Head-style dispenser that was created in 1972 but quickly withdrawn because of the easily swallowed facial features. Choosing a favorite from her own collection is not easy: She points to a first- and second-issue Star Wars Pez collection, her Pez bubble blowers, flashlights, key chains, removable body parts, whistles, Inspector Clouseau, Jiminy Cricket, Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Captain Hook, Zorro, and settles on the relatively common Smurfette.

"I like her little bangs," says Scavio with uncharacteristic chagrin, "but Long Face Clown is probably my most valuable. It's worth between $30 and $50 by itself. It was a gift."

In the wider world of Pez, Scavio can be considered only mildly obsessed. In 1997, a one-of-a-kind Portuguese regular sold for more than $4,300. Dennis Martin, publisher of The Fliptop PEZervation Society newsletter, sends one of his dispensers around the world on vacations with other enthusiasts who take pictures. There are Web-rings, art cars, and haikus dedicated to Pez. There are wedding planners who rent the Pez Pal Bride and Groom for $200, plus transportation for the owner who attends the reception to keep an eye on the dispensers. There are "Fantasy" Pez designers who contrive and sell Adolf Hitler, Michael Jackson, Kiss, Pee-wee Herman, and Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man dispensers made from a mishmash of heads and body parts. An answer on Jeopardy read, "A hot stock in 1999, this web site began as a place for people to buy and sell Pez dispensers." The question: "What is eBay?"

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