For the Love of PEZ

How a nostalgic candy dispenser spawned a collector community in Michigan and allegedly made one DeWitt resident millions of dollars.
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Jim Blaine, founder of the Michigan PEZ Convention, says he owns about 300,000 PEZ dispensers. // Photograph by Brad Ziegler

“If you quote me on anything, quote me on this: It’s not about a plastic toy; it’s about relationships,” says Jim Blaine, founder of the Michigan PEZ Convention, the second largest PEZ convention in the world. Since it launched in 2016, PEZ fans from all over, including Mexico, Germany, and Austria — where PEZ candy was invented nearly 100 years ago — have gathered here in metro Detroit to sell PEZ-related merchandise and build long-lasting friendships.

You remember PEZ, right? They’re the candy dispensers with adorable character heads, from Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to the Simpsons and Barbie, that you bend backward to retrieve small, sugary candy bricks. When you were a child, they likely caught your eye while you waited in the checkout line at Meijer. At PEZ conventions, collectors and dealers can sell and buy PEZ dispensers and art and meet other PEZ fanatics.

The chalky candy — originally just peppermint-flavored — was invented in 1927 as an alternative to smoking. It wasn’t until the ’50s, when PEZ was patented to be sold in the U.S., that the PEZ company began marketing to children. Since then, it has created over 1,500 dispenser designs, and now, 70 million dispensers and 5 billion candies are distributed globally each year.

“It all started because of a girl,” Blaine says of his collection, which he started in 1999 and he estimates now includes around 300,000 dispensers. While he was working at a gas station at 19 or 20, the “girl” (a young woman his age) “would come into the gas station with her younger brother, and he was a little bit of a troublemaker. … I told him if he behaved for his sister, I would give him PEZ.

… I started dating the sister, and I started collecting with him.” Although the relationship ended, Blaine continued collecting and began attending conventions in 2013, traveling to places like Minnesota, Connecticut, and Ohio, home to PEZamania, the largest PEZ convention in the world. This inspired him to create his own convention focused on building relationships and a community.

The Michigan PEZ Convention came about after Blaine found his faith in Jesus Christ in 2014. He says he asked God if giving up PEZ collecting was necessary to glorify his name. “He said, ‘No, if you can continue to do it and glorify my name, then by all means continue,’” Blaine says. “I told my wife I’d love to have a PEZ convention where we can bring people together and not necessarily preach to them but show a community of people love.”

Bubbleman is a character that PEZ retired. He looks like he’s blowing a bubble, hence the name. // Photograph by Brad Ziegler

Since 2016, the number of attendees has increased from 30 to 1,000. Last year’s convention was particularly busy due to the presence of DeWitt resident Steve Glew, the star of Netflix’s documentary The Pez Outlaw and a Michigander who is somewhat of a legend in the PEZ community.

In 1994, the big news was O.J. Simpson’s arrest, Steven Spielberg’s first Oscar win, and the attack on Olympic figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. No one knew about Glew’s travels to a warehouse in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he filled several duffel bags with PEZ dispensers not licensed to be sold in the U.S. However, when he came back to Michigan, he did just that, illegally selling them to hungry collectors for up to $1,000 a pop. “When I’d get home and open that bag, it was diamonds. It was gold,” Glew said in the documentary. Why wasn’t he stopped at the border? Because PEZ USA, the only company allowed to sell PEZ in the U.S., had not registered its trademark with Customs and Border Protection.

He continued doing this until 1998 and claims to have made millions of dollars. However, after a European executive he worked with said his operations had become too risky, and after a failed attempt to sell his own PEZ dispenser designs, he went underground for years, until 2010. He published his story online, hoping to land a book or movie deal. A little over a decade later, he did, and The Pez Outlaw was released on Netflix in 2023.

A prototype of the Bubbleman PEZ dispenser — a character with a green hat that looks like it’s blowing bubbles — was among the thousands Glew smuggled over, and Jon Hicks, the marketing lead at the Michigan PEZ Convention, was later able to get his hands on it for $2,500, adding it to his collection of 4,000 dispensers. “Everybody in the PEZ community knows I love that character,” Hicks says. “So, when that went up for sale, my phone was blowing up with people texting me and calling me.”

However, it’s not all fun and PEZ. Since 2016, the Michigan PEZ Convention has donated $100,000 to Higher Ground at Lake Louise, a Christian summer camp in Boyne Falls, by holding an annual auction. That money is used to send fatherless children to camp to “learn that they have a heavenly father,” Blaine says.

This year’s Michigan PEZ Convention takes place June 20-23 at Delta Hotels by Marriott in Farmington Hills. Tickets start at $65; admission is free to the general public on Saturday. Go to mipezcon.com for more information.


This story originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on June 6.