Pez Collectors Meet

The sugar in the air. The flip-top dispensers. The tart rectangular candies. This, undoubtedly, is Pez country.

You don't have to tell the Pez-heads. Hundreds of people who love the candy and the colorful, collectible dispensers it comes in are flocking here from as far away as Austria and Japan.

The mother ship, in this case, is Pez Candy Inc. And the occasion is this weekend's first-ever gathering of Pez aficionados in the town where the treats are manufactured.

"They'll be all over the lawn with telephoto lenses. They'll be with their noses up against the back window," said Scott McWhinnie, the "Pezident" of Pez Candy. "They'll be picking through the garbage looking for old dispensers."

Convention organizer Richard Belyski said Pez-heads are mostly baby boomers trying to relive their childhood. "Everybody remembers them as a kid. We're people from all walks of life, doctors, lawyers," said Belyski, 41, a police officer in Glen Cove, N.Y.

PEZ lovers will tell you their favorite treat is not just a hard, fruit-flavored candy. It's an American icon that spans generations.

Most of the mystique focuses on the different character dispensers, from Mickey Mouse to Fred Flintstone and Spiderman to Kermit the Frog.

Like many of his brethren, Johann Patek, 42, who flew in from Vienna, Austria, for the convention, has so many dispensers he has lost count.

"I don't know. I cannot explain," he said.

John Laspina, 45, of Middletown, N.J., admits he spent $850 or more for a single dispenser, the "psychedelic eye" created in the '60s. He has five of them.

"When I was a kid, between Sunday school and church, I used to run to fill up my Pez," said Laspina, a faraway look in his eyes.

David Welch, 37, of Murphysboro, Ill., also had his first experience with Pez as a child and has since become an authority, having written two books, "Pictorial Guide to Plastic Candy Dispensers" and the seminal "Collecting PEZ."

He specializes in historical dispensers. The originals look like cigarette lighters, which is fitting, since Austrian Eduard Haas invented Pez in 1927 as a mint for smokers. The name was derived from the German word for peppermint, pfefferminz.

Pez didn't arrive in America until 1952. About 3 billion are consumed annually in the United States.

A 12-Pez pack has 35 calories and no nutritional value whatsoever, but McWhinnie insisted there are candies that are worse for you.

"We don't have a lot of dental problems with Pez," he said. "Pez don't stick to your teeth. They dissolve."

Written by Brigitte Greenberg ©1999 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed