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Savoring Pez's sweet history

A visit to what may be the world's only museum dedicated to Pez.

One recent Pez legend is that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar originally started the site as a way to help his girlfriend sell her collection of Pez dispensers. To commemorate that history, Pez has issued a collection of colored eBay dispensers.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

BURLINGAME, Calif.--If it wasn't for Pez, the theory goes, there would be no eBay.

It might surprise you, but urban legend has it that entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar decided to start his fledgling auction site to give his girlfriend a venue for selling off her collection of Pez dispensers.

Well, it's hard to know what the truth is. But I can tell you (since I spent Wednesday here at what may well be the world's only Pez museum), that there is definitely a set of eBay-branded Pez dispensers. Even some museum walk-ins think of Omidyar as the most famous collector of the iconic candy toys.

That there is even such a thing as a Pez museum in the Bay Area was news to me. But after discovering it on Geek Entertainment TV recently, I knew I had to pay a visit to this suburb about 16 miles south of San Francisco.

The museum, officially known as the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, is run by husband-and-wife team Gary and Nancy Doss, and it's a paean to those little plastic gizmos with the heads which, when pushed backward, spring-load a piece of candy.

Pez Museum

Since the modern Pez dispenser was introduced to a sugar-hungry world in 1950, there have been a total of 692 different models. They range in value from, well, nothing to $5,000 or more. (Click here for more photos.)

When I asked Gary Doss what his collection--more than 1,000 dispensers, including the complete set--was worth, he said, cryptically, "There's a Lexus parked back here."

Well, I wondered, how does one come to own and publicly show off a Lexus' worth of Pez dispensers?

Doss explained that he and his wife started out running a computer store, selling various Commodore and Amiga models. After a while, they decided it would be fun to showcase their Pez collection in the shop and maybe make a little bit of side cash in the process by selling some of them.

"In 12 months, Pez took over," Doss said. "Every month, we sold less and less computers, and more and more Pez. We haven't sold a computer in 12 years."

Earlier this year, Guinness awarded certification for the world's largest Pez dispenser to Gary Doss, co-founder of the Pez museum in Burlingame, Calif. It's a 7-foot, 10-inch homemade replica of one of the most recognizable Pez dispensers. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

These days, the museum--really, it's a very small space thanks to the diminutive size of the display pieces--is awash in color. Everywhere you look, there's red, yellow, blue, and green. There's Elvis Pez, Asterix Pez, Peanuts Pez, Frankenstein Pez, and a whole lot of Star Wars Pez.

There's even the Guinness-certified largest Pez dispenser in the world.

If you ever wondered where the name "Pez" came from in the first place, the museum has the answer. It turns out the word is actually an abbreviation of "pfefferminz," the German word for peppermint, the original flavor of the candy made then and now by an Austrian company, and the only one offered in its early years.

In fact, from 1927 to 1950, Pez were only available in little tins. They were the Altoids of their day.

In 1950, the Pez company began selling small plastic dispensers for the candy. For the first eight years, they were missing the heads we're now so familiar with, but in 1958 the company came out with the first three: Mickey Mouse, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Popeye.

Thus began a long-standing tradition of marketing tie-ins involving Pez dispensers. Over the years, subjects have included Frankenstein, various Star Wars characters, Donald Duck, and now celebrities like Elvis and the characters from the TV show American Chopper.

In fact, Doss told me, the American Chopper series represents the only Pez dispensers featuring likenesses of living human beings. Why the Pez company would choose these folks for that honor is beyond me. Doss didn't know either.

As I was visiting, a 60-ish couple from Pasadena, Calif., walked in and joined my tour. They seemed impressed with what they were seeing and appeared to remember many of the Pez milestones Doss pointed out, including the eBay connection.

I asked them what they thought of the museum.

"Only in America," responded the husband, Tom Savio, "even though it's Austrian. I think it's quite amazing how you start with nondescript candy in Austria and you end up with eBay."

In any case, I was quite impressed with the prices Doss said he'd paid for some of his Pez dispensers, topped off by the $3,000 he'd forked over for a simple little circa-1974 pineapple head that had completed his collection.

In fact, he said, some of the dispensers were far more valuable than one of the museum's prized possessions, the big "Pez" sign that used to hang outside the Pez company's Vienna headquarters.

This giant Pez sign was originally from the actual Pez factory in Austria. But when the Pez company moved buildings, the sign went up for sale on eBay. Gary Doss bought it for $1,500. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Doss explained that the company had moved headquarters not long ago and that in the process, the sign had ended up on eBay. He parted with $1,500 and the sign was his.

"I can tell you I've paid more for a Pez dispenser," he said.

Nowadays, Doss said, Pez issues about four new dispensers every 60 days. Most are movie tie-ins, and of those, many arrive long before the films hit theaters.

Doss said Pez has particularly strong ties with Disney.

All that, of course, is explained by the strong visceral reactions so many people seem to have to Pez dispensers: like the Savios, most people can remember specific dispensers from throughout their lives.

That's why people of all ages come to visit the museum, he said, even though it's all just about a bunch of candy and its delivery system.

"Grandparents and parents want to see the Pez that they grew up with," Doss said, "but the kids want to get the new Pez now (to eat). So there's something for every generation."