(Courtesy of the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia)
There are more than 800 pez dispensers on display in the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia.
Along a quiet street in Burlingame, Calif., you can find a small hole in the wall museum dedicated to the pursuit of Pez. The tour covers two rooms, each the size of a walk-in closet, crammed chock full of those colorful plastic heads — 800 of them.
Joyce Lee drove about an hour to get here, because this is Pez heaven.
"It's really cool, with all these collections of Pez," she says, laughing. "Who doesn't like Pez, right?"
Well, turns out that just because Pez is popular, doesn't mean you can't have a fight over it. According to the store's owner, Gary Doss, Pez Candy Inc. wants to shut him down.
"We're here promoting their product. We're embracing their product as a fun collectible, and we've been doing it for 14 years," he says.
Doss says this is not the first time he and Pez have crossed dispensers. When he first opened the place, Pez made him change the name from the "Pez Museum" to the mouthful it now is — "the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia." Doss calls it harassment.
"It's as if we're making something here and putting their name on it. That's not what we're doing," he says.
But Pez Candy Inc. says that's exactly what the museum is doing. If it was just selling all things Pez, that'd be fine, they say. But, they add, you can't sell things that aren't official merchandise, like Pez T-shirts the museum printed up. And you can't use that 7-foot-tall Pez dispenser the museum made, that stands just inside the front door.
Alan Behr is the lawyer for Pez in Connecticut. He says it's not really a giant Pez dispenser because Pez doesn't make a giant dispenser.
"It's only Pez if we say it's Pez. The same way you will not see a Mickey Mouse in the United States made by anybody but Disney," he explains. "It's only Mickey Mouse if Disney says it's Mickey Mouse. Otherwise, it's an infringement. You have to control what is core to your brand."
Behr and Pez CEO Joe Vittoria say Pez is a sweet company. That it has been supportive of the store and museum in Burlingame, but it's not supportive of trademark infringement. And the thing to understand is, Pez — which started as a candy company in Austria in the 1950s — is now a worldwide moneymaker. Pez collectors sometimes pay thousands of dollars for a single, tiny plastic dispenser. There are Pez conventions and Pez clubs. Pez has become iconic.
It even became the storyline for a Seinfeld episode. In it, Elaine makes a scene by giggling uncontrollably while looking at a Pez dispenser.
So Pez is not just a toy. It's a phenomenon. And maybe the final proof of its lofty status in American culture is that it's ending up in court.
David Gorn reports for member station KQED in San Francisco.