The Pez Guy
Enter the eye-popping world of Steve Baker's candy-colored obsession.
Thursday, February 22, 2001
Once I recover from the initial shock, I ask Baker, "Where''s the gun?"
Taking a plastic bag down from a wall of plastic bags, which mostly contain plastic, Baker displays one of his prized possessions. "Shoots up to 25 feet or so," he brags. Twenty-five feet. Pretty impressive for a candy catapult. My old G.I. Joe projectile-launching cannons only shot about 10 feet.
"These are pretty rare," Baker instructs. "They were pulled from the market shortly after release."
He shows me an advertisement for a similar product, a ray gun that shot Pez. The ad shows two kids, at about a six-foot range, shooting candies into each other''s mouths. Not surprisingly, the ray gun also was pulled from markets due to safety concerns.
"Someone on eBay had the gun in all five colors," says Baker enviously. "The collection sold as a set for about $5000."
Steve Baker has one of the largest Pez collections in California. Right now, he owns 565 different dispensers. That''s not counting the seeming tons of additional paraphernalia that''s showcased in the room. Pens, candies, packaging, a Bic lighter, Popsicles and three different price guides. All Pez.
Baker''s not alone in his obsession. Pez pages are the third most popular Internet destination, after pornography and UFO sites. "If only you could develop a pornographic alien Pez, then you''d have something," jokes the collector.
Oddly enough, something like that probably exists, though not a factory model. An entire subculture uses clay and other materials to created unauthorized, underground designs known as fantasy Pez. Some of these homemade items sell on the Internet alongside the rare and the vintage (meaning pre-1987, before Pez dispensers sprouted feet). "Sometimes you see a Betty Boop or Elvis, even though the company never designed or released either," says Baker. "There''s a lot of pornographic Pez."
Baker doesn''t collect the fantasy designs himself. In fact, the title at the top of his Web site--www.geocities.com/pezanada--is "Fantasy-Free Pez Page." Further down the homepage is a picture of his pride and joy, the 1979 Marvel Heroes set, including the Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Spiderman. The crown jewel of Baker''s collection is the Thor dispenser. It''s notable mainly for the majestic plastic wings that sprout from Thor''s helmet. Incredibly fragile, undamaged Thor dispensers are very rare. Baker''s version is intact and, according to one price guide, worth about $400.
Legends and Lore
Not that Baker would ever sell any members of his collection. "The most frequent questions I get asked is, ''Is your collection for sale?'' No! I''m more interested in preservation, in getting my collection seen."
He''s taken a major step towards doing that with his Web site. Sporting photos of a large portion of his collection, the site is a virtual fantasyland of Pez-aphilia. Since its creation in June 2000, Baker says that he''s had about 1700 hits, averaging about 20 a day lately.
"My goal is to be a source of information for people. Everybody had Pez. Unless you were raised by Neanderthals, you had Pez. I want someone who finds a drawerful of Pez stuff to be able to go on my site or email me [firstname.lastname@example.org] to find out about it," says Baker.
"I do a lot of international trading," he adds. Part of the reason for this lies in the way the Pez company is set up. Different factories are located all over the world and the U.S. And no two factories make the same product.
"You can only get the Smurfs in Canada," says Baker. "And even among U.S. factories, the stuff moves at a snail''s pace. Spiderman was put out in the east six months ago, and we still haven''t seen it here in California."
Pez exchanges usually don''t involve money, but trades. And regional products that may seem plentiful can be especially valuable when dealing with collectors from other lands.
"I stocked up on Jack-in-the-Box dispensers because that''s a regional chain, and people out east and in other countries can''t get them," says Baker. "Jack-in-the-Box is hot in Europe. Star Wars, too, because the packaging is different overseas." Baker, of course, has the foreign and U.S. Star Wars versions.
While Baker may never dream of selling his collection, many people do. In fact, eBay was created in order to auction off a Pez collection.
Some especially rare products, like the ray guns, sell for very high prices. Other famous Pez are so rare that they can''t even be found on the Internet. In fact, no one is sure whether they exist.
Baker says, "Legend has it that Mr. Hass, the Pez founder, was good friends with the Kennedy family and made JFK dispensers during his presidency." However, there never has been a confirmed sighting of the elusive toys. "The Kennedys are definitely the mythical unicorn of the Pez world. Personally, I think the Warren Commission got ''em."
Despite his obsession with all things Pez, Baker does find the time to carry on a relatively normal life. He spends time gardening, he plays in two different bands (including Piper Maru) and he is married ("My wife actually encouraged me to start collecting Pez," he says--she collects sci-fi and comic books).
But Baker''s main interest remains Pez.
"I want to be known as the Pez guy," he says. "I like to help people with their collections. I offer my relatives'' kids a free music lesson for each Pez they bring that I don''t have. In return, I help them with their collecting. A lot of times they''ll be missing one piece from a set and I''ll give it to them."
As for the room, Baker says, "It''s just great to watch the jaw-dropping effect of a pile of Pez. People just revert to their childhood when they walk in here."
Collecting remains his primary obsession. "I''m trying to get one of eve- rything," he says. "It''s getting a lot harder now. You''d be surprised at how hard even some of the new ones are to get."
But his vintage dispensers remain his pride and joy. "If there was a fire, I''d grab this rack first," he says, indicating one row of about 20 dispensers.
He picks out a duck holding a bouquet. "If I was going to get a tattoo, I''d get one of the ducks with flowers. They just always represented Pez to me."
I look at the Pez dispenser. He''s right, it would make an awesome tattoo.