It all began in 1996 when Ann Respress was working as a claims specialist for Aetna in Columbus, Ohio. A whimsical and comical spirit, she had no idea that a silly challenge made with a friend would turn into a 15-year obsession.
One day, as a joke, a coworker gave Respress a PEZ candy dispenser featuring Peter, the company’s clown mascot. (Respress is not a fan of clowns!) After opening the packaging, the women noticed a sheet of paper inside that included a list of collectible dispensers. “We just got a wild hair,” she says. “We thought, ‘Oh, let’s just buy all of them on the sheet…’ It was kind of a joke, but we liked them, and it kind of got in our blood… We started lining them up at work, and it just grew and grew.”
Soon she began buying anything and everything PEZ-related, from key chains, clocks and whistles to bubble blowers, flashlights, costumes and more. She estimates that she owns nearly a thousand PEZ dispensers and hundreds of other items affiliated with the Austrian candy company.
A Peoria native, Respress moved back to her hometown in the late ‘90s, collection in tow, and continued accumulating so much swag that in 2002 she turned one of her spare bedrooms into a PEZ showroom. “It was like my shrine,” she jokes. “[People thought] I’m mad, insane. But you know, then, they want to look at all of them.”
Besides scouting out local grocery stores, Respress found many of her vintage and rare PEZ collectibles online, including some limited-edition and European dispensers that can’t be found in the states. She also picked up many pieces at conventions she and her friend have attended throughout the Midwest—adventures she recalls fondly. “We’d buy all this PEZ stuff… lay down in the grass and surround ourselves [with it], and take our picture,” she laughs. “That was the highlight of our PEZ convention trips.”
While she stopped actively collecting a few years ago and has put most of her items into storage, Respress remains thankful for all the amusing experiences she had as a “PEZhead.”
“I think I used to love them so much because it just became such a silly thing that my girlfriend and I started doing… People would laugh at us, and we thought it was funny, so it just became one of those things we did together,” she explains. “But it got to the point where I thought, ‘Okay, I’m done buying these!’ There’s too many to keep up with, really. There’s so many.”
Currently in the process of appraising her collection, Respress hopes to sell most of her PEZ items in the future. She is now focused on her newest obsession: birds. a&s