BURLINGAME – A man who has dedicated much of his life to the acquisition and lavish display of 5-inch plastic candy dispensers that shoot out pellets from a tracheotomy-scar opening probably doesn't give a whit what you might think of such an endeavor.
Still, Gary Doss wanted to make it clear that his love of all things Pez is equal parts entrepreneurial and endearing, not pathological and pathetic.
Standing amid floor-to-ceiling dispensers at his Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, a dazzling array of pop culture touchstones – from fat Elvis to Fred Flintstone, Mary Poppins to Princess Leia – Doss smiled sheepishly and tried to make light of his 20-year curatorial curiosity.
"Yes," he said, "it is one step from hoarding. But look around. They are neatly displayed. You don't have to step over them or anything, you know. There are a lot of people more into Pez than me."
Sensing skepticism, Doss felt the need to elaborate, to tell about the avidity (no, rabidity) of some of the Pez-heads who frequent his sugary shrine.
"Check out our Facebook page," he said. "We had a woman come in last weekend who had a life-size Pez (dispenser) tattoo on the side of her body. We got a picture of it.
"She had the blue letters spelling 'Pez' from her hip to her ribs, the head (of a He-Saur) on the inside of her upper arm, and the Pez candy coming out of her armpit.
"One of commenters said, 'That's got to hurt.' "
Wow, now that is hard-core.
Given such a dedicated following, it's no surprise that in the two decades since Doss, 58, turned his computer store on a busy downtown street into a dispensary (yes, he sells Pez dispensers) of nostalgia as well as cubed, candy-coated sugary snacks, the Pez museum has grown both in items and in stature.
Examples of every Pez dispenser ever manufactured, more than 900 in all, are represented within two small but tidy rooms, as well as Pez posters, vintage Pez- vending machines, Pez apparel and Pez literature and, of course, the candy itself.
Pez has long been an American pop-culture fascination, combining as it does two archetypal products: candy and toys. Though its heyday in this country may have been the Eisenhower-Kennedy years, Pez endures in all the fine establishments – Rite Aid, CVS, Big Lots and, of course, Wal-Mart.
As much as a staple as Pez has been to American baby boomers, its history dates before even the Greatest Generation. The candy was conceived in Vienna in 1927 and marketed strictly as a breath mint. The name, according to the company's website, came from abbreviating the word "pfefferminz," German for peppermint.
The first of the iconic dispensers (originally called "Box Regulars" by company flaks) hit shelves in 1948, shaped to resemble a cigarette lighter to "encourage people to quit smoking," the website states.
By the early 1950s, Pez had a foothold in the United States as the "first interactive candy," meaning the first to have a delivery system. Soon, Popeyes and Santa Clauses and Disney characters were shooting sugary pellets into millions of mouths and helping dentists everywhere buy second homes.
While the nation has become more health conscious, Pez has continued to make profits, according to the company. Perhaps owing to the value of nostalgia, in the past year, Pez opened a visitor center at its Orange, Conn., U.S. headquarters, replete with every dispenser the company has made.
No need to fly cross-county to have a look, though. A drive to the Bay Area will give you all the Pez you can stomach.
Maybe because it is near San Francisco International Airport, Doss' museum has attracted visitors from Europe and Asia, as well as the large domestic Pez-head population. But, while charging just $3 a head for entrance, how does Doss make ends meet in the obscenely high cost-of-living Bay Area?
"Luckily," he said, "there's this thing called the Internet. We do an awful lot of business that way. That's how I make it work. I know that Pez is silly, but we deal with serious collectors all over the world. We got into it early and that helps. Our website opened in 1995."
Doss' Web-savviness was hardly dumb luck. The Pez Museum was, after all, originally the site of his early-'90s computer store. You can still see the business's name stenciled on the front door: "Computer Spectrum."
Doss, back in the day, sold "cutting-edge" Atari STs and Commodore Amigas to early computer adopters and, just for kicks, he decorated the shelves with a dozen or so Pez dispensers from his home collection.
"We got far more people coming in each month looking at Pez, then buying Pez, than we did computers after a while," Doss said. "So, it turned into this. The only credit I ever give myself is that I let it happen. I haven't sold a computer in 17 years. I don't miss it. There's a lot less customer support selling Pez."
True, even though the dispensers are seemingly made from the flimsiest of mass-produced plastic, they hold up well over time. That could be because most collectors don't actively use them to deliver candy; rather, the dispensers become objets d'art.
"No, it's not the candy," Doss said, "although it's not bad. There are a lot of new flavors to enjoy. It's the silliness of it. Pez is almost unequaled in its ability to license such a wide and diverse group of characters. I mean, from 'Star Wars' to 'Hello Kitty' to the three gentlemen from (the reality TV show) 'Orange County Choppers,' that's pretty all-encompassing."
He paused over the "OC Chopper" guys, still pristine in its box.
"They came out four years ago – and they are historic," Doss said. "These are the only Pez made (portraying) living people. They hold that unique Pez honor."
Wait, what about the display in the back room of members of the rock band KISS? Gene Simmons and company are living, right?
"That's been debated," he said, smiling. "I say they are in character, that they are characters. But we can have that debate if you like."
I deferred to Doss' authority. He shrugged and claimed he's far from the grand poobah of Pez.
"I personally know 10 other collectors that have far more than I do," he said. "Most of my Pez were purchased pre-eBay. I hit a lot of garage sales and antique shows. A lot of the very rare Pez I got at Pez conventions. There are eight of them in the U.S. alone."
Head by head, Doss methodically built his collection until it became complete. With one exception, there isn't a single Pez dispenser made that this man does not own. He is justifiably proud showing off the rarities housed in special glass display cases. He points to a "bride and groom" Pez match, suitable to be placed atop a wedding cake.
"That was made for a (Pez) employee back in the '70s," he said. "This Mary Poppins over here is a very rare dispenser, too."
He herded me over to the far wall.
"This is the rarest of all," Doss continued. "It was made in 1972. It is called 'Make a Face,' kind of like a Mr. Potato Head. It was quickly rushed off store shelves because they got very concerned about the little plastic parts and kids swallowing them along with the candy."
So, Pez's loss was collectors' gain.
Doss says "Make a Face" makes big dough among Pez collectors, as does the rare fruit-series. Decades ago, at Pez headquarters in Traun, Austria, prototypes were made of dispensers shaped like a pear, orange, pineapple and lemon. They never were released, perhaps because Pez executives realized kids wouldn't go for such a healthy and nutritious dispenser. In any event, collectors slavered over the few prototypes to be had.
Doss has a pineapple, orange and pear.
A lemon head remains elusive.
"There's just one," he said. "And it's owned by a woman on the East Coast by the name of Dora. She'll probably die with it in her hand. I know somebody who'd give her $5,000 for it on the spot."
For a piece of plastic that cost 20 cents to make?
"Probably not even that much," he said.
THE BURLINGAME MUSEUM OF PEZ MEMORABILIA
214 California Drive, Burlingame
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday
Information: (650) 347-2301;http://www.burlingamepezmuseum.com