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Pezamania attacks Cleveland

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Serious collectors will dispense with the PEZantries this Saturday. - Walter  Novak
Serious collectors will dispense with the PEZantries this Saturday.
If you want a tasty treat, you have to go for the throat. Tilt back the head, attack with your teeth, and surface with a tiny fruit-flavored brick of PEZ candy. Kids have been doing it for generations, and the ones who didn't give it up with age have become avid collectors of the plastic candy dispensers.

"There are so many different elements for everybody who collects," says Jill Cohen, a local collector who organizes the annual Pezamania conference that convenes this weekend in Cleveland. "Kitsch, whimsy, childhood nostalgia. Some of the guys even get into it for the engineering -- how the little thing just pushes up magically."

Magical indeed, and so seemingly American that the average Joe doesn't know the whole thing was started in 1927 by an Austrian who wanted an alternative to smoking. Originally peppermint flavored -- "PEZ" is a contraction of the German word for peppermint -- the candy was kept in small dispensers that looked like cigarette lighters. Once it came to America in 1952, it was retooled as a product for kids. Enter the cartoon character dispensers, fruit flavors, and collectors.

"There's some people who just collect the candy," says Cohen, who owns two area Mr. Bulky candy stores and knows full well that the European market has flavors not available in America. "At one time, they had chlorophyll candy, another time they had anise, now they've got cola candy."

But no matter the fervor, PEZ still doesn't get involved with Cohen's conventions. "They do realize collectors are becoming more and more a factor with their product," she says, having spoken to representatives many times. "Let's just say they don't help me, but they don't hurt me either. I think any marketer would be thrilled if their product went from a commodity to a cult."

That cult has been meeting in Cleveland for 10 years, and has earned the attention of Good Morning America and the Food Network, both of whom covered last year's convention. This year, Wendy "the Snapple Lady" -- a "hard-core" collector -- will attend the convention.

Still, Cohen admits that "a lot of people come just to look, because there is so much variety. Some people come just for the novelty, some come to make fun of us, some see the appeal right away."

Cohen's own fascination started when she plonked down a quarter as a kid in Colonial Williamsburg to take home the Paul Revere dispenser -- now worth over $200. Since then, her candy stores really have driven home the product's collectibility. "When new shipments would come in, I was surprised by how many different things there really are. It's a neat collection to have."

Just watch your teeth when dispensing: One false bite and you're left with mangled and completely uncollectible plastic.

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