SOUTH OGDEN -- Wow, get a load of who's hanging out in Paul Turley's basement.
Hello, Mr. Presley, and you, too, Thomas Jefferson. Pleased to make your acquaintance Princess Jasmine, Captain Jack Sparrow and Dino the dinosaur.
Celebrities, cartoon characters and historical figures alike have taken up residence in one room of this South Ogden house -- and they're PEZ dispensers, every one.
Some are "vintage" models and others are new guys, fresh off the assembly line. Whatever their age, size or claim to fame, Turley is their chief fan and collector who creatively displays the plastic toys on shelves and commercial-style merchandise racks.
Over here's a boxed set of "Wizard of Oz" characters, ready to throw back their heads and pop out PEZ. Over there's a lineup of short, squatty PEZ Minis, sold only in Japan.
Turley knows the names and details of every item in his "shrine to plastic," including whether they have "feet" or not, and whether they come from Europe or the United States.
One of his favorites is a Frankenstein dispenser from the 1960s, a PEZ that Turley remembers owning as a child, but then -- as so often happens -- it was thrown away with the trash.
"I've seen a lot of people who don't look at them like being regular toys, just as something disposable," he says.
Since becoming a serious PEZ collector about 10 years ago, Turley found himself another Frankenstein -- and paid nearly $200 for what once sold as a $1 or $2 toy.
Still on his wish list to add to his roomful of PEZ are Frankie's fellow Universal Studios monsters, Wolf Man and Creature From the Black Lagoon.
"Maybe it makes me feel like I'm still a kid," says this collector, who estimates he has about 800 characters and 1,500 or more dispensers.
Passion for PEZ
Turley's collection began simply enough, with 30 to 45 dispensers he'd bought over the years as gifts for his now 31-year-old son.
When his son moved away from home, he left the dispensers for his dad, who started researching PEZ online and was amazed to discover the tiny plastic candy pushers were collectibles.
"I got hooked," says Turley, whose stash eventually outgrew its first couple of shelves and began filling this basement room.
Now "Got PEZ?" is part of Turley's voice-mail greeting and a "PEZ Collector Place" street sign decorates the fence of his South Ogden home. There were PEZ ornaments on the family Christmas tree and a pink Piglet PEZ was the favorite toy of toddler daughter Amanda, now 10.
"PEZ was her first word, in fact," says Turley's wife, Laurie.
From a set of "Lord of the Rings" characters to the upcoming 2012 Valentine's Day PEZ, Turley goes after all of the new dispensers -- or "currents" -- he can find, and also picks up a few vintage or "regulars" here and there.
Any trip to a discount store like Walmart turns into a quest for PEZ. While Laurie and Amanda, Jessica, 8, and Sam, 4, go shopping for the intended purchases, Turley says, "I take a turn and go down the cash registers, looking down every one of them because that's where the PEZ are."
"The fun is in the hunt," adds Laurie, who says her husband gets a "rush" out of posting his new discoveries in an online forum that he moderates to help other collectors find PEZ.
A star is born
Turley also looks for PEZ at yard sales, flea markets and antique shops. Or sometimes he picks them up from folks who find them tucked away in an old dresser drawer or an attic.
When people tell him they used to have some PEZ, he'll say, "Ask your mom if you really did throw them all away -- because I'll buy them if you didn't."
PEZ were first created in 1927 in Austria as breath mints for smokers, Turley says. The original dispensers resembled cigarette lighters.
The candy's name comes from the first, middle and last letters in the German word for peppermint -- "pfefferminz."
In the 1950s, PEZ were introduced in America and, soon after, the company started marketing its product to children by making fruit-flavored candies and adding various character heads atop the dispensers.
The company's website lists a Full Body Santa, Full Body Robot and Space Gun as the first dispensers and says Popeye was one of the first licensed characters.
The novelty of PEZ appeals to Turley, as well as the way the dispensers are sold. Most folks don't purchase PEZ during a planned trip to a toy store -- they buy them on impulse while waiting in a store checkout line.
"That's sort of what I like about them," Turley says.
Feet or no feet?
Brent Beazer, a collector who runs The International PEZ Museum of Erda in his home near Tooele, is acquainted with Turley through an online PEZ forum (www.pezcommunity.com) that tracks new releases and what stores are selling them.
"He's pretty much in the know," says Beazer, whose own collection started with the gift of a vintage Sylvester the cat. He adds, "I rely on people like Paul and others in the online community to stay on top of things, to see what's coming out and where it's being found."
Although the two have never met in person, Beazer says one day they might -- "I've thought about doing a PEZ gathering in Utah."
PEZ collectors run the gamut, Turley says. Some buy only certain characters; others specialize in dispensers made before 1987, when feet were added to help the toys stand up.
"Some don't care about new ones; if it's got feet on it, they don't even care about it," he says.
Cross-collecting occurs too, Laurie Turley says, meaning that not only PEZ lovers will buy an Elvis dispenser, but so will collectors of Elvis memorabilia.
Over the years, the variety of dispensers -- from Fred Flintstone to "Pirates of the Caribbean" -- reflect what's going on in society.
When America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, Betsy Ross and Daniel Boone became some of the first real people featured on PEZ dispensers, Turley says.
After 9/11, a set of hero figures was crafted that included a firefighter, a police officer, a soldier and a nurse.
"They reflect an upsurge in patriotism," Turley says.
In recent years, the Geico gecko, the Chick-fil-A cow and Chuck E. Cheese have also been immortalized in PEZ.
One rack in Turley's collection features some "boo-boos" in PEZ manufacturing. Look closely and you'll see a Simba "Lion King" character missing one eye, or an Eeyore figure minus one ear.
There are a few "invisible" PEZ -- packages sporting candy but no dispensers -- as well as some "time-altered" models.
"You've got Thomas the Train in a Hello Kitty package, and Batman in a Bratz (package)," Turley says, pointing to the mix-ups hanging on the display.
Toys with pizazz
At 99 cents and up, PEZ dispensers are easy to start collecting, Turley says, although rare items may fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Since the dispensers are inexpensive and don't take up a lot of room, it's a hobby wife Laurie takes in stride. At least her husband isn't buying sports cars or snowmobiles or something. "It could be worse," she quips.
Laurie says the beauty of PEZ is how the dispensers may turn up anywhere, be it in a Christmas stocking or "lost" in the cushions of a sofa.
"Everyone's had one at one time or other in their life," she says.
Turley, an Autoliv employee who makes side impact bags for vehicles, says the hobby is relaxing, and he enjoys trading PEZ and making friends with other collectors.
And at the end of the day, he says, "They're a fun toy. They're toys -- toys and candy, you can't go wrong."
To find out more about Paul Turley's PEZ collection, visit fotopaulpez.com.