Museum of Pez Memorabilia
The Museum of Pez Memorabilia is small -- a storefront with two rooms open to the public, display cases and racks loaded with the popular candy dispensers. But you'll also find the World's Largest Pez Dispenser at the museum -- we hope (more on that later). And there's a section, added in 2004, of classic toys.
Gary and Nancy Doss, who have been collecting Pez dispensers for over twenty years, are surprised how it has taken over their lives. Originally the owners of a computer retail and repair business, they set up their personal Pez collection as a diversion for customers. Word spread, and collectors started calling from all over in search of dispensers. The computers eventually got squeezed out. Today, the couple can barely pull themselves away from piles of shipping boxes that help feed the giant global Pez collectors market.
The collection, behind glass displays, includes all 550+ characters Pez ever made (they first attached heads on their novel candy dispensers in 1958).
Gary or a family member conducts a brief tour to help visitors understand what they're seeing -- the rows of tiny heads can be intimidating. He chronicles the early history of the Pez company, and shows various product successes and failures over the years. One case displays plastic toy guns, spring-loaded to fire Pez pellets across a room. Gary points out one of his current favorites -- a psychedelic hand clutching an eye, from 1968.
Does Pez candy go bad? Not according to our Pez expert, who guesses the shelf life to be at least 25 years. Perhaps we'd find a storage vault full of Pez down in the old Congressional nuclear war bunker....
According to Gary, the rarest Pez product is the "Make A Face" Pez from the 1970s -- sort of a Mr. Potato Head, with attachable parts. Taken off the market quickly due to concerns about the swallowing habits of small children, it's now worth $5,000 (in the package). The museum boasts other rarities: a Mary Poppins and a "Sparefroh" -- a pixie-ish promotion for an Austrian bank "Zentralsparkasse".
Though the Pez company controls all decisions on characters manufactured, there is a collectors market for handmade "fantasy Pez" depictions of Elvis, the Pillsbury doughboy, and others. Gary displays several, including a Harry Potter and a Phantom of the Opera.
After a little severe arm-twisting, Gary goes into a back room and returns with the dreaded Hitler Pez dispenser. Der Fuhrer was created by some guy and sold by mail, until the Pez lawyers cracked down (aside from protection of their intellectual property, Pez, originally from Austria, thought this might not be best for their brand image, Gary said). To create the abomination, it looks like the counterfeiter bought generic cartoon-headed Pez and hand-painted the signature black mustache and hair. About 80 were sold before Pez company lawyers shut the creator down. Gary said "there are still fifty of these floating around."
Gary will show the Hitler Pez to polite guests, but it will never be put on display. However, he points out a misshapen blob in the Star Wars section -- a custom-made fantasy Jabba the Hut. "He's sort of evil like Hitler," Gary offers in consolation.
World's Biggest Dispenser of Pez
A couple of years ago, Gary decided to generate some extra buzz for the museum by creating the World's Biggest Pez Dispenser. Working with a friend, he created a 7-ft. 10-in. tall replica of the Pez snowman character(a design chosen because it was easier to make than other Pez characters). It took about 6 months, and was put on display in 2007. Guinness World Records declared he had the "World's Biggest Pez Dispenser," and that's when trouble started. A legal challenge came from the company's headquarters in Linz, Austria, demanding that he destroy the big snowman.
Doss has had a distant relationship with the Pez company. A couple of years after he opened, their "first reaction was we couldn't call ourselves the Pez Museum. So we changed the name to the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia, and that seemed to satisfy them."
When we visited Gary in mid-July 2009 to catch up, his phone was ringing constantly with calls of support from Pez Museum fans. Gary said "From the emails I've been getting, most of the reaction from everybody has been, 'Why are they upset with the world's biggest fan?'" His is "a store that sells nothing but their product." The company also expects Doss to turn over any profits he's ever made from the museum since it opened, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News.
Gary says he's hired a lawyer and they will do their best to defend the World's Biggest Dispenser of Pez -- which he believes is a work of art.
Update: *The museum now has an even rarer Pez dispenser, a donkey-head model made for -- and rejected by -- President Kennedy. Only three are known to exist. And the company that makes Pez has built its own World's Biggest Pez Dispenser for its visitor center in Orange, Connecticut, so the one in Burlingame is now the Second Biggest.