As collectibles go, PEZ dispenser are small, just 5 inches tall. Still, Scott Karsner is running out of space to store his trove of the candy-filled containers that threaten to overrun his Arnold home.
Karsner boasts nearly 4,000 PEZ dispensers which line the family room walls in wooden racks built by the 37-year-old architect. A sign above the door welcomes all to “Scott’s Pez Collection." Inside are rows of the classic plastic keepsakes — from Gonzo to George Washington and from C-3PO to Colonel Sanders —all lined up and staring out as if poised to come alive, in a Pixar flick, when folks are fast asleep.
There are vintage Pez dispensers from the 1950s, like Popeye and Pinocchio; a Bicentennial set featuring Uncle Sam, Betsy Ross and a bloodied Minuteman; and a heartfelt series honoring the heroes of 9/11 including police, firefighters and K-9 dogs. Front and center is a Tweety Bird dispenser, like the one in the story line of the 1992 Seinfeld television episode which helped bring the fad to the fore.
“That [show] really raised awareness of PEZ collecting,” says Karsner, a serious hobbyist for 10 years. He’s also the youth director at the nearby Asbury United Methodist Church, where his wife, Jennifer, is pastor. A plaque above the mantel in the Karsners’ family room reads, ‘Pez is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.’
His display has overwhelmed guests, who react "with shock and awe if they haven’t been warned that there’s a lot of PEZ in the house,” says Karsner. "Some would call mine an obsession. But we all have the 'inner kid’ in us, and this lets us not get too old.
“If I’m having a bad day, it’s a joy to come into this room, zero in on a favorite dispenser and just hang out. It helps me remain a kid."
Karsner is one of about 5,000 diehard PEZ collectors worldwide, says Shawn Peterson, project manager for the company, which began in 1927. It started in Austria as pocket tins of breath-fresheners for smokers. By the 1950s, the product had morphed into a kids’ candy packaged in character dispensers that, ironically, resembled cigarette lighters. Baby boomers bought in — as did later generations.
Why does PEZ resonate with the public? It’s more about the dispenser than the chalky, tiny brick-shaped confection.
“It’s a simple device and one of the first interactive candies ever,” says Peterson. “With about 1,500 unique heads, it’s relatable for everyone; something will grab your attention and make you smile.”
Hardcore collectors put the number of distinctive containers much higher, perhaps 10,000, given the subtle color variations that range from factory to factory. Not to mention the occasional production snafus.
“I like the ‘error PEZ,’ where they mess up the heads and stems,” Karsner says. “I have a Santa Claus with no face, one of the Mario Brothers with no nose and a Groot [the tree monster in 'Guardians of the Galaxy’] facing backwards in its package.”
While many vintage dispensers sell for between $50 and $100, rare ones may bring thousands of dollars, says Peterson. Recently, a Chicago collector paid $20,000 for one with a lemon head sporting a blue hat and blue glasses — part of a “Crazy Fruit” series in the mid-1970s that was discontinued.
Last year, a Seattle man bought a one-of-a-kind dispenser, also from the 1970s, featuring an 18th-century admiral wearing a powdered wig and cocked hat. It sold for more than $30,000.
Who has the largest collection is anyone’s guess, says Peterson but, in January, “a Michigan man bought out a guy in North Carolina who had six storage units filled with PEZ memorabilia, including 150,000 dispensers.”
His own aggregation is worth about $10,000, says Karsner, who adds about 100 dispensers a year at undisclosed sums. They’ve spilled over into the basement where, by spousal agreement, the PEZ machines hang in racks from the ceiling.
“My wife tolerates them,” he says. “She enjoys that I enjoy them. She used to to roll her eyes when I brought them home, but she’s used to it now.”
Routinely, he scours flea markets and estate sales, thrift shops and the internet for PEZ memorabilia.
“It’s all about the thrill of the hunt, even if that hunt is digital,” says Karsner. “It scratches that itch.”
You’ll spot him at a yard sale by the license plate on his Ford truck. PEZHEAD, it reads.
Sports-related dispensers are a favorite. He has those with helmets of all the major league teams, plus many in soccer, hockey and college football, though not Maryland.
“They [Terps] never asked PEZ for one, despite my contacting the school’s promotions department,” he says. There is a Ravens dispenser on his wall, albeit a rogue product.
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Four years ago, after attending several Pez conventions nationwide, Karsner corralled other area collectors and held the first Maryland Pez Gathering at his home. The annual event drew 30 Pezheads last November. They wear club T-shirts and have their own mascot, a blue crab named Zep [PEZ spelled backwards.]
“It’s a labor of love,” he says of their passion. “We all thrive on sorting and organizing this stuff. Collecting baseball cards never gave me the thrill that Pez has. It helps you calm yourself; it’s a way to decompress.”