New book dispenses details on iconic PEZ
ORANGE >> Just like many other kids in America, Shawn Peterson received PEZ dispensers in his Easter basket and Christmas stocking growing up in Kansas.
But his passion for PEZ dispensers didn’t take hold until 1990 when, at age 20, he was browsing at a flea market in Kansas City, saw a few dispensers for sale, and was drawn to the colors and characters.
He bought them, then returned for more, noting in hindsight, “I thought they were neat.”
Today, 26 years later, PEZ is his life’s work.
What Peterson hadn’t imagined at that flea market was that some day he’d come up with the concept of the PEZ Visitor Center and leave Kansas to sell the idea to the PEZ company.
He also hadn’t imagined that his vast collection accumulated from throughout the world would actually be the display at that visitor center or that he would make a second career at the company as direct to consumer business manager, his title today.
“To get to share something you love so much and have a passion for with so many people” has been “satisfying,” he said. “This is turning out to be my life’s work.”
Now, Peterson has also written a book about the history of the iconic company for which he works: “PEZ: From Austrian Invention to American Icon.”
In addition to the vast knowledge base he already had, Peterson gathered information for the book over the last six years while working for the company — he found a lot of historical data, records — and compiled the book over the winter.
“There was a wealth of information here,” he said.
The book is a departure from the three collector’s guides he’s written. It tells the story of the product’s evolution, from its origin in Austria in 1927 and its introduction in America during the early 1950s.
PEZ was originally marketed in Europe as an upscale adult product — a mint that was an alternative to smoking. The product was a huge success.
But when it was brought to America in the 1950s in mint and lemon flavors, the product didn’t sell well because there was no demand for smoking alternatives, according to the book.
To boost sales here, the brand was redefined as a candy — with added fruit flavoring — and in 1955 the first full-body dispensers were marketed in the forms of Santa and a robot.
But it still had a way to go in sales, so the company worked out some design and function glitches, introduced more three-dimensional characters, and PEZ went on to soar and become the pop culture phenomenon it is today.
David Cadden, a professor emeritus at Quinnipiac University’s School of Business, said it is that combination of design simplicity and the ability to slightly adapt the design to take advantage of pop culture trends that has give the PEZ brand its staying power.
“They are able to keep the same basic design, even though they are constantly changing the heads at the top of dispenser,” Cadden said. “I also think it is a product that recalls a simpler time, a memory of youth, especially for baby boomers. As adults, those people want to share the PEZ experience with their children.”
The book is full of fascinating details presented in a readable way that will appeal to collectors as well as the public’s general interest, Peterson said.
Peterson was “a lucky individual” because he got a job out of high school at Hallmark Corp., headquartered in Kansas City, he said. He worked his way through the ranks, and for a long time was part of a traveling art studio for children.
But then there were employee cuts. He managed to stay with the company by finding another position, but he saw the fragility of the situation and wanted more control of his destiny, so when the time was right, he met with PEZ’s new CEO in Orange and proposed the concept of a visitor center modeled after many he had seen back home and in other places: You show how the product is being made, put up a special display and sell merchandise.
The company was interested, but needed a couple of years. Then in 2009, he got the call that PEZ was ready to proceed. Peterson said it felt good to be able to leave Hallmark on his own terms after 20 years.
Peterson started at PEZ as project manager for the visitor center and two years later, in December 2011, it opened.
“The question was: ‘If you build it, will they come?’ The answer seems to be a resounding ‘yes,’” he said.
During summer, it’s not unusual to move 500 people through the center in a day. There is an average of 70,000 to 75,000 people a year and in 2015, according to a locator pin board, there were visitors from all 50 states and 50 countries.
Peterson said “99 and a half percent” of the items on display are his collection.
While Peterson has been assembling his collection for 26 years, the hobby has inspired other generations — both young and old — to collect pieces of PEZ history.
Fourteen-year-old Jamie Horton, of Northampton, Mass., began collecting PEZ dispensers as a child. Jamie now has more than 20 dispensers in his collection, which is mainly composed of his favorite “Star Wars” characters, including a jumbo Darth Vader, he said.
But after visiting the PEZ Visitor Center Friday, Jamie said his favorite is the world’s largest working dispenser, in the building’s entrance.
According to his mother, Nicole Horton, the family made the nearly 90-mile trek from Northampton after learning about the center online. While the center was not the family’s only stop in the state, it is one that applied to all ages, she said.
“We are really enjoying ourselves. It’s something a little bit different. Both an 11- and 14-year-old are enjoying it, which is sometimes a challenge.”
For many families like the Hortons, Peterson said the PEZ Visitor Center may not have been their trip destination, but the families are pouring in along the way and they’re “making a memory.”
“I want to feel they enjoyed it,” he said of guests.
He wants the colorful trip through PEZ history to be fun, and so when he hires workers, it’s more about their personalities, he said, because, “anyone can ring a cash register.”
Peterson said he encourages employees to chat with customers and ask, “Did you guys enjoy your visit?” The center has a vast gift shop.
He also loves sharing the collection with so many — and because he works for the company, he is known as the only professional PEZ collector in the world. He said it’s not known how many PEZ collectors there are across the globe, but his search for pieces through the years — much of it before Google — has taken him throughout the country and the world. PEZ is sold in more than 80 countries, according to its website.
Ross Chanofski and Kayla Bautista, both of Rockland County, New York, made the journey to the center after hearing about the establishment from a friend who visited three months earlier. Chanofski, who collected the pop culture icon as a child, said while the center introduced him to the different types of PEZ dispensers since it was introduced in America in the 1950s, it also evoked feelings of nostalgia.
Before Peterson’s collection was showcased at the visitor center, his PEZ dispensers were on display in his basement.
“Unless you knew me or you were coming over the house to fix something, you didn’t see it,” Peterson said.
While most people have seen hundreds of PEZ dispensers in stores throughout the years in hundreds of character forms, the magnitude of what’s been produced through years just can’t be appreciated until a trip to the center.
Just about every popular movie or television character of each decade is represented by PEZ dispensers — Disney characters, ‘Star Wars,’ Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, comic book characters, superheroes, sports teams.
For 3-year-old Milena Zor — who has more than 40 PEZ dispensers in her collection — Anna from the animated film “Frozen” and Hello Kitty are her favorites, she said. Every month, Milena, her mother, Lori Kelly, and her sister, Cayley Kelly, visit the center.
“We come once every month and we watch the PEZ get made. (Milena) wants to keep on coming. We watch the PEZ get made, and then we fill a whole bucket with PEZ and go home and fill every single container,” Lori Kelly said.
In addition to Hello Kitty and the “Frozen” characters, there is a PEZ set of U.S. presidents on display; a “Lord of the Rings” set; a Scrooge McDuck dispenser signed by the Disney artist who pens the ducks; a Darth Vader limited edition dispenser signed by the actor who wore the costume in the movie; a special silver-and-gold-plated “Star Wars” gift made for Lucas film executives; a Colonel Sanders prototype; a ladybug made of Swarovski crystal; a bride and groom set from 1978 still in its original packages; a Captain America with a spinning shield; an Ironman with light-up eyes.
The company now carries its own popular line of Emoji PEZ dispensers and is always making new three-dimensional characters according to what’s hot.
Peterson said hard-to-find dispensers can go for thousands of dollars. There was a set of fruit put out long ago — an orange, a pear and a pineapple — the same number of each, but today the pineapple is rare, and would probably sell for more than $3,000, while the orange goes for $200 and the pear for $800. No one knows why the numbers wound up that way, Peterson said.
Peterson said his collection isn’t the biggest in world, but it is the most well-rounded, with not only dispensers but other PEZ-related items and memorabilia, including old-time store racks, promotional items, lunch boxes, thermoses, collector storage tins, advertisements of old.
There is one rare PEZ set he would love to have in his collection: a set made for President John F. Kennedy and his family from the president of Austria. The set was sent to the Kennedys, but sent back as “return to sender,” likely because it contained candy and that presented a safety concern, he said.
The set contains three dispensers: a donkey to represent the Democratic Party, another intended for Jacqueline Kennedy, and a Bozo the Clown for Caroline Kennedy. Three of the dispensers have been located in the world — in separate collections — but there is evidence in the factory mold that more than one set was made. But that’s where the trail ends and it remains a mystery.
Peterson has described the set as the “Holy Grail” for collectors and tells the whole back story in the new book. The book, which sells for $24.99, is available at most places where books are sold, online at arcadiapublishing.com and at PEZ Visitor Center, 35 Prindle Hill Road.
Of his PEZ passion becoming his career, Peterson said, “When you get to do essentially what you love, the worst day is not so bad.”
Register reporters Luther Turmelle and Sam Norton contributed to this story.