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It's more than a candy treat. It's more than cute dispensers. To collectors Pez is a Holy Grail. : Sweet Desire


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

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

But when it came to displaying all those teeny candy bricks and their pop-top containers, there was one thing Oreck hadn't counted on.

"Oh my God," she screeched recently. "Ants!"

Call 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 the auction house Christie's to mount its first-ever Pez sale in New York last month--100 dispensers, with an estimated total value of $4,000-$6,000, sold out for $7,500.

"It went through the roof," gushed 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 like 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.

"It seemed to me that Pez and Picassos didn't mesh very well and that's what they're known for," she says. "I didn't give them anything really good, thinking their crowd would go, 'Pez. How cute,' and move on. And it ended up being phenomenal, way beyond what I expected."

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.

"Pez collectors are very, very passionate," says Luke. "They'll go to any length to obtain Pez . . . A day would not go by in the week before the sale that we wouldn't receive 20 to 30 phone calls that were Pez-related, and that's a big percentage."

"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."

Oreck, a 40-year-old nurse, says things got kind of nasty at a Culver City 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, pfefferminz . An old Pez promotional booklet said the candies "gave the passionate nonsmoker that freshness of breath that years afterward was to be proclaimed as an essential factor of the impeccably turned-out person . . . the novelty became a much-sucked fashionable sweet."

Not quite sucked enough, however, to weather the shortages of World War II, which 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."

The Pez company concerned itself with more than one's lungs. The patent said the dispenser had to be operable with just one hand, "not only for persons having only one hand but also persons who often have only one hand free (for example motor-vehicle drivers), or whose occupation causes their hands to become smeared with dirt."

In 1952, Pez arrived on American 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, Ct., 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.

"It's more than a candy," McWhinnie says. "It's more than a dispenser. It's a phenomenon. I don't entirely understand it."

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