It was the first week of January 1994 and snow drifted across the Hungarian border into Austria. The mechanical sputter of a small car approaching the rural checkpoint broke the afternoon silence. Peering through binoculars, an armed guard noticed the car’s driver, his face obscured by dark glasses and a long beard. The guard gestured with his leather-gloved hand for the vehicle to stop. Steve Glew, 42, stepped out of the car wearing a long trench coat, a blue velour tracksuit and Nike sneakers. His son Joshua, a college freshman, emerged bleary-eyed from the passenger side. A bulging military sack occupied the backseat.
The smudged stamps inside their passports told the guard of the Americans’ haphazard route across the freshly divided Yugoslavia. Just days earlier the men had arrived in Slovenia by plane from the U.S. with no luggage and thousands of dollars strapped to their bodies. Now they were trying to cross the border into Austria from Hungary, one of Europe’s most beleaguered countries, with a bag full of mysterious cargo. The guard pointed at the sack with the barrel of his semiautomatic rifle.
“Open,” he said in an iron voice. “Schnell.” Quickly.
The Americans refused.
The guard was in no mood for games. Hungary had war at its borders, and Austria had already turned away 1.5 million refugees at gunpoint in the past year. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Vienna was on edge. Steve mopped his brow with a paper towel he carried due to his extreme OCD and flinched when the guard tried to frisk him. When more men appeared, sporting leather caps and mustaches and cradling machine guns, he protested that his son needed an aspirin. Guards ripped open the bag in the backseat, perhaps expecting to find guns or grenades. Instead, hundreds of Pez dispensers spilled onto the snow. The guard inspected one of the four-inch figurines with spring-loaded kickers that spat out perfumed candy bricks. A wide-eyed Santa Claus smiled back at him, giving away nothing.
“Papers,” he barked at the Glews.
Steve mimed a pat-down of his pockets. He had no papers.
The guards gave the Americans a choice: Surrender the undocumented merchandise and enter Austria, or turn back into war-torn Eastern Europe. Even with frayed nerves, an empty gas tank and no cash, Steve knew they had to get their haul back to the States, whatever the risk. He’d gambled every penny he had on this foolish mission, because in the hands of collectors, the colorful plastic cargo was at that moment, gram for gram, more valuable than cocaine or even gold. There was no turning back.
Pez mania didn’t blindside America overnight. The tiny sugar bricks emerged in 1927 as adult breath mints, invented in Austria by Eduard Haas III. The name Pez comes from the German word Pfefferminz—peppermint. In 1948 Haas, a clean freak, introduced the “easy, hygienic dispenser.” In 1952 the Austrian hired Curtis Allina, a former spy who had operated for the Allies inside the Birkenau concentration camp, to bring the product to America. Some of Allina’s later shipments of Pez to New York allegedly contained illicit goods: Cuban cigars. When the mints bombed, the Pez company put Mickey Mouse and Popeye heads on the dispensers and retargeted them at children. Bingo. By the 1990s, baby boomers who’d grown up with Pez had turned the dispensers into collector’s items.
Boosted by a 1992 Seinfeld episode featuring a Tweety Bird dispenser, Pez sales spiked to a record $18 million, and the company made the cover of Forbes magazine. Auctioneers at Christie’s in New York put aside Picassos to sell plastic candy pushers to Pez-heads. Collectors scrambled for rejects and prototypes such as the failed “Make-a-Face” dispenser, worth $3,000 because its small parts were deemed a choking hazard, and the coveted Coko Pez, an ill-advised blackface character. Prices climbed 400 percent, according to Michael Edelman, co-author of The Original Collector’s Price Guide to Pez, as conventions, websites and black-market dealers appeared.
Through it all, Steve Glew reigned as the rebel king of the bootleg Pez market. During more than 70 wild missions to Europe, he persuaded factory workers to sell him priceless dead-stock dispensers and bribed factory bosses to make him kooky rejects, which he then sold for up to $500 each. He fooled customs agents in more than 13 countries as he smuggled 750,000 Pez dispensers into the United States, and he claims to have made a staggering $4 million. But like many who run elaborate criminal enterprises—even those involving Goofy and Miss Piggy—Steve admits he was the architect of his own demise.
“I operated an underground black-market Pez economy for 10 years,” he boasts. “They called me the Pez Outlaw—a man on the run with a giant bull’s-eye on my back.”
Steve Glew’s transformation into the Pez Outlaw began humbly enough in 1991 at a recycling plant in Grand Ledge, Michigan, where he spent his days hunting through trash containers for cereal boxes, salvaging coupons for a free bobblehead or a plastic Ninja Turtle. The bizarre hobby filled the void left by the raging drug addiction that had stolen his teenage years. Fresh out of rehab at 19, he met Kathy, a pretty horse whisperer, and after their third child he promised never to drink again. “We were still living in the last century, with no heating or electricity,” Steve recalls. To feed his family he sold his toy collections at fairs, but as a compulsive addict, his obsession with collecting grew. Industrial mailbags full of plastic toys began to arrive at their small farm, leading Kellogg’s to impose a one-per-household rule.
Steve first noticed Pez while hawking cereal-box toys at the Kane County toy fair outside Chicago. The psychedelic colors and addictive collectibility of the dispensers immediately hooked him. “I learned that Canada got different stock straight from Pez factories in Europe,” he says. Weeks later he began making pilgrimages north to buy boxes of rare Merry Melody Maker dispensers (with built-in whistles) and Disney designs, for mere pennies. In Michigan, Joshua organized the stock and sold it to American collectors via mail order at up to $50 apiece. The Glews could finally afford clothes and food. Steve’s Dumpster-diving days were over.
His operation had also caught the eye of a man who would become his greatest enemy. Scott McWhinnie liked to call himself the “Pezident” of the U.S. Pez corporation. A Harvard MBA and former head of children’s cereal at General Mills, the heavyset executive rode a Harley to the candy factory in Orange, Connecticut. “People imagine it’s little green people running around here and machines going toot, toot but it’s not,” he said in 1991. “There are thousands of collectors, and they all want to talk to me. I have to be very careful.”
McWhinnie learned of Steve’s antics after Steve advertised his big-ticket Pez items in the toy press. McWhinnie claimed that his staff, prompted by the price surge, began stealing products to sell. He erected chain-link fences around his factory’s trash bins to keep collectors out and operated his candy business like the CIA, with no spokesperson or printed material. He despised all unofficial books, websites and conventions. “Collectors didn’t even put a dent in his sales,” explains Chris Jordan of PezCollectors.com. “We were just a pain in his ass.” I spent weeks chasing McWhinnie, now 75 and retired, before he agreed to talk. “Pez is a privately owned company,” he later tells me in a tense interview, “and that means private.”
A 1993 toy convention changed Steve’s life forever. As he tells it, a mysterious woman opened her jacket and showed him a Silver Glow Pez, a Holy Grail for Pez collectors.
She whispered to him in broken English, “There are many more where I come from.”
“Where did you get it?” asked Steve, hypnotized.
“Direct from factory in Slovenia,” she whispered.
“All you need to know is Kolinska.”
Steve had never left North America because of his intense fear of flying, but he agreed to go after being prodded by Joshua. They emptied their savings accounts, ordered emergency passports and on January 2, 1994 soared over the Swiss Alps in a twin-prop plane. “The pilot left the controls to serve drinks, and the turbulence was unreal,” Joshua recalls. His terrified father turned green.
It was worth it. In their minds, the streets of Slovenia would be paved with priceless Pez dispensers. Kolinska turned out to be the name not of a town but of a nondescript packaging facility. Joshua, the teetotaling star of his high school’s drama club and a resident advisor in college, drove them over Ljubljana’s romantic bridges and out of Slovenia’s capital.
It was a rare adventure for the father and son. “Dad would work so long and hard that he often fell asleep and crashed the truck. It was a struggle for him to make enough money for the family,” Joshua says. “He wasn’t an approachable guy.” Kathy had realized years earlier that Joshua had inherited his father’s obsessive nature: The teenager bought M&Ms wholesale and undercut the Boy Scouts’ prices, adding to his college savings.
But Kolinska was not the Pez jackpot the Americans had envisioned. The warehouse owners explained that they had a few pieces for sale, but the real Pez nirvana was a plastics plant in Ormož, Slovenia, where the dispensers were manufactured. The factory bordered Croatia, however, where a war for independence was raging. “You should not go there,” they warned.
Steve couldn’t be dissuaded.
“Which way is it?”
The 100-mile-long freeway to Ormož was one of the most dangerous routes in Europe, and the Glews crisscrossed perilously high bridges and dodged horse-drawn carts. When they arrived in Ormož the industrial smog was so thick they could barely see the two-story building, further obscured by tall pine trees.
A worker led Steve and Joshua across a catwalk suspended above the factory floor. Below them, thermoplastic machines roared and hissed, producing dispensers with a satisfying thump-thump-thump. “The repetition and sheer volume of product was hypnotizing for guys like us,” recalls Joshua. In a secret laboratory a worker smoked a tiny cigarette while hunched over the latest Pez creations. A starstruck Joshua asked for his autograph, and the embarrassed worker said he “felt like Elvis.” They all laughed, and the worker’s code name was born.
“Elvis was a frustrated genius, a wild card who was always doing experiments with Pez,” recalls Steve. “But his bosses in Austria always rejected them. I told him that in America, collectors would go nuts for these experiments.”
In this plastic Valhalla, shelves overflowed with prototypes and a cast of rejected characters. Steve sweated with excitement: The pursuit of Pez had now taken over his life. A leading expert on compulsive-collecting disorders, Mark McKinley describes this behavior as “repetitive acquisition syndrome.” “Extreme collecting is a psychopathological form of collecting,” he says, and it can even result in “breaking laws, hurting people, going to the poorhouse.”
Steve ordered Joshua to fetch the cash from their car, telling him, “Bring it all. Just bring it all.” As Joshua crossed the catwalk, alone and invisible to the workers below, he danced a happy dance all the way over.
Elvis showed Steve a Santa Claus dispenser with a black face. “I nearly fell over,” says Steve. Pez bosses had scrapped the idea, but Steve knew that Black Santa was the Pez de résistance. He bought as many as he could carry, filling a military sack with them and a trove of other plastic treasures.
So when the Austrian guards stopped Steve and Joshua at the Hungarian border and threatened to confiscate the toys, the Glews fled east to Budapest, bringing their Black Santas with them. Back in the U.S. the dispensers sold for hundreds of dollars each, and Steve vowed to return to Europe, next time with serious money.
Two weeks later the Glews infiltrated the Pez head office in Hungary, where the manager looked like Pinocchio’s creator, Mister Geppetto. “He wore a god-awful multicolored suit with orange piping,” remembers Steve. The self-important Austrian met them at a nearby McDonald’s, where Steve slipped him an envelope of cash. Geppetto told them in a cold voice, “You will drive your car straight to the factory in Jánossomorja. Go to the front gate. You will say nothing and present them with this note. Do not tell anyone about this.”
They found Jánossomorja, a tiny town in Hungary near the Austrian border, and looked for the Pez smokestacks. When they presented Geppetto’s note, the guard graciously welcomed them inside. They paid less than a quarter for each rare Thumper the Rabbit and Wile E. Coyote dispenser, worth up to $75 apiece back in the U.S. They learned how to smuggle the dispensers across borders as plastic piping instead of toys so they would show up on airport X-ray machines as a bunch of springs. One trip soon turned into 10, each yielding up to $20,000 in profit. And with his 10 percent of the proceeds, Joshua began to pay his way through college.
In 1995 Geppetto agreed to produce a special run of Silver Glow Pez dispensers, made to celebrate a factory opening. Pez workers in Hungary secretly produced extras, which Steve bought for 28 cents each and then sold for up to $200. “A Pez truck driver was paid to pull over, and we did the deal in the street,” Steve recalls. Through their car window, Joshua snapped photos, and they sped off to the nearest airport.
As Steve and Joshua traversed Eastern Europe, there were miscommunications and misdirections. There was also a real danger of straying into a war zone while listening to Joshua’s Lenny Kravitz tapes; one time they stopped to urinate behind a sign that said ZAGREB, 20 MILES and heard the distant rumble of rockets. Then there was the time they stopped to rest at a former KGB spa. And the night the Glews slept in their car at a truck stop in a Hungarian town that, at nightfall, became a hotbed of prostitution. Angry pimps hammered on the truck windows as father and son took turns guarding their Pez cargo.
On every trip they learned more, and the more visits and the bigger the bribes, the better the Pez dispensers that came their way. In December 1995, Elvis sold them a prototype dispenser made for a Hungarian bubble gum company. At a roadside café in Ormož, Steve made a long-distance call to a Pez broker in New York.
“What have you got, Steve?”
“I got a guy called Bubble Boy. He’s a one-off.”
“That’s right, a kid blowing a bubble. He’s never been seen.”
When Steve landed in America, offers for Bubble Boy had already reached $1,000.
David Welch is the godfather of Pez dealers, selling rare dispensers from glass cabinets and handling them with white gloves. He recalls watching Steve march into a 1996 Pez event dragging a 30-gallon trash bag full of dispensers. Steve wore fluffy pink slippers and a colorful robe to events and threw free dispensers into the crowds. Pez-heads screamed and fought one another to buy his stuff; a team of security guards protected his stall.
“I liked Steve, I really did, but some of the things he did were flat-out illegal,” says Welch. “Let’s suppose the guy on the night shift is a meth-head, and you give him a bag of meth to run you off 10,000 Fred Flintstones with an orange head. He can’t say no.”
“Steve would do the most riotous things,” recalls collector Chris Jordan, who says Steve became a celebrity at conventions. Steve once wore a gorilla costume to host Pez bingo while dancing to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” On another occasion he tipped a bin over a balcony, raining Pez dispensers down on a hotel lobby.
“You got a problem? Throw some Pez money at it,” Steve recalls. “They were happy times. Pez money was crazy-good money.” Joshua impressed friends at college, running an international business on the side. He even took a girlfriend on a Pez mission, wowing her with dinners in countries she never knew existed.
By 1996 the Glews’ Michigan office boasted five full-time staffers. “We’d sold over 2 million Pez dispensers, and I spent half a million dollars just on toys that year,” Steve boasts. “Anything we wanted, we bought.” The Glews drove to conventions in high-powered Jeeps, pulling shiny new horse trailers full of Pez. Steve bought every T-shirt ever printed by Phat Farm and built Kathy a new farmhouse and an imposing horse barn. But collectors say Steve became arrogant, fiercely controlling the market and freezing out rivals. Kathy dragged him to see a doctor, and the diagnosis was bipolar disorder. The doctor suggested medication.
“No way!” Steve cried. “I’ve finally found a use for all my crazy!”
Austrian collector Johann Patek recalls the day Steve Glew arrived at his house uninvited. A quiet man, Patek had spent years grooming Pez factory workers in Eastern Europe and resented the noisy American with a Charles Manson beard who Patek felt was ruining everything. Steve, in turn, resented Patek because the Austrian got to the factories before Steve did and bought all the super-rare Pez dispensers. (Patek still owns the first dispenser ever made.) “Patek was a dick,” Steve says. “He felt I was trespassing on his turf.”
Once, standing at the Austrian’s doorstep, Steve demanded that Patek sell him Pez dispensers and refused to leave. “He is just a grumpy old man,” Patek says today.
Steve was undeterred. “I pursued Patek across Austria in a car chase once,” he says. “We were driving on sidewalks, on the wrong side of the road, whatever, trying to catch him.” A notoriously bad driver, Steve bribed traffic cops with Pez dispensers stuffed with dollars.
The Pez-related chaos in Eastern Europe did not go unnoticed by the Pezident. A furious McWhinnie made a statement about the influx of Black Santas. “We did not make a Black Santa, and this must be the work of someone outside of their factories,” he said on March 8, 1996. During an interview with Richie Belyski, editor of Pez Collectors News, the Pezident pulled a $1,000 Bubble Boy from his pocket. Belyski’s jaw hit the floor. “I’m going to release Bubble Man into the U.S.,” the Pezident announced, effectively squashing the market for the Glews’ black-market Bubble Boys.
“The company was pissed because this guy was a renegade cowboy,” says Welch. “Steve was seen as public enemy number one.” McWhinnie flew to Europe to deal with the problem, and Steve later learned of the Pezident’s “tantrums” at the factories. The Pez Outlaw had to be stopped.
After spending more than $100,000 in bribes, Steve walked around the Ormož factory as if he were the Pezident. That ended one afternoon when he came face-to-face with a mysterious Austrian.
“I know who you are,” the man said darkly. Factory staffers urged Steve to leave. At a nearby café, a tearful worker told him, “Austrian Pez management have bought the factory. We can’t sell to you anymore. Do not ever come here again.” McWhinnie ordered factories to destroy all molds after use to prevent workers from producing extras. At another clandestine meeting in a McDonald’s, Geppetto told Steve with hard eyes, “Go away, and don’t come back.”
Steve and Joshua took a step back in 1997 and used middlemen to fulfill their growing orders. Steve focused on strip-mining Europe of every relic dispenser, becoming the Indiana Jones of Pez. He and Joshua journeyed to Spain, South Africa and Australia in their hunt for the rarest dispensers on the planet. During their travels they met a toy broker who handled wholesale Pez orders for Japan. “German Andre” boasted he could manufacture whatever they wanted.
Steve told Joshua, “We’re gonna go legit.”
Although it would cost every penny they’d made, Steve planned a kooky range of dispensers that he hoped would drive collectors wild and make him millions. He designed an army of orange snowmen, yellow witches and black skeleton dispensers. He ordered psychedelic eye dispensers in funky neon colors, glow-in-the-dark ghosts and a gang of weird Santas. The order involved more than 134,000 Pez dispensers and some two tons of plastic, at a cost of nearly half a million dollars. The Glews took out huge bank loans to cover the costs, and Joshua quit his new job as a stock trader to deal Pez full-time with his father. They planned to order in bulk but sell at realistic prices: $25 for each “mistake” dispenser worth $350.
The broker warned Steve, “My connection says you are a thorn in Pez candy corporations’s side,” but Steve pressed on. His first 40-foot shipping container arrived in Michigan on April 28, 1998. The semitruck driver waited two days while the Glew family formed a human chain to unload the cargo into the barn.
“We’re going to make millions,” Steve promised his wife. “This is the big one.”
Steve’s funky-colored dispensers first appeared at the July Pez convention in Cleveland. Their arrival caused a meltdown among collectors, and the cover of Pez Collectors News screamed: STRANGE DISPENSER COLORS!
The paper listed Steve as the chief suspect and asked, “Were they made in the middle of the night by a factory worker?” The Pezident made a rare statement, claiming the dispensers were fakes: “It’s not in our best interest to flood the market with garbage dispensers.”
By September Steve was spending sleepless nights pacing up and down the barn full of unsold product. Collectors questioned their provenance. Then one morning, Steve wiped down his computer mouse with a paper towel and loaded Pez.com. A new button labeled MISFIT DISPENSERS popped out at him. When Steve clicked, the house rattled with his scream.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Steve says. “Pez got hold of my designs and copied every single one of them. And they were selling them cheap.” The website openly mocked him. “Oops!” it read, “Someone put the wrong colors into the Pez dispenser machine. We need to find loving homes for these poor misfit dispensers or they will end up in the grinder.”
“What is going on?” Steve scrawled in a furious fax to his broker. “I’ve invested too much money for this to happen. We have been cheated!” Paper spooled out of his fax machine with a cryptic reply: “The right hand knows what the left hand is doing.” “As soon as I saw it, I knew we were going to lose everything,” says Joshua. Sales of the Glews’ Pez dispensers stopped dead. Steve reduced the price from $25 to $15, but Pez.com dropped its price to $4.95. Collectors called it a color war.
“In essence, Pez ordered his economic assassination,” says Welch.
McWhinnie neither confirms nor denies the explanation. “I could talk about this guy for two hours, but I won’t,” he barks. “I was protecting copyright laws and customs laws and tax laws. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”
Joshua fired the staffers one by one, and when the office was empty he fired himself. They sold their Jeeps, horse trailers and everything Pez. The bank took Joshua’s dream home and left Steve $250,000 in debt. “We went back to living in the last century, surviving off the land,” Joshua explains over pancakes in a diner near DeWitt, a small town in central Michigan. Today, he’s a beekeeper.
It’s hunting season, and Steve and I are striding through the frozen woodland on his remote farm outside Lansing, Michigan. Today he lives like Howard Hughes, a recluse who will not look in mirrors or speak on the telephone. Steve shakes my hand with a paper towel. At 63, he spends his days writing a scathing blog aimed at terrorizing the Pez corporation. But today Pez treats collectors with respect: In 2011 it opened a $2.5 million visitors center and museum in Connecticut.
“You see that dead tree over there?” Steve asks. “I killed that tree burying Pez dispensers in the ground.” It is bitterly cold and dark, and we are standing beside an open grave. He burned what he couldn’t bury and watched his days as the Pez Outlaw go up in flames.
“I quit talking to everyone,” he says. “I should have known that Pez would destroy me. I just couldn’t get out of my own way.” Kathy is more philosophical. She says the Pez years gave a father and son an adventure. Joshua’s eyes still light up when he recalls racing at 100 miles an hour across Europe’s autobahns. Kathy says it brought them together to fight a common enemy. Today, Pez price guides refer to “Glew variations” when describing Steve’s bootleg dispensers. When the Pezident retired in 2003, collectors celebrated by getting hold of his office carpet. A thousand miles away from Steve Glew, McWhinnie spends his days thrashing at golf balls under the Florida sun.
When I tell him he sent the Glew family back to the dark ages, he pauses for a moment and says, “Real heartbreaker.”
Before I leave Michigan, Steve tells me he has a secret in the basement. It’s a cereal-box museum—10 years of work. Cap’n Crunch’s eyes peek out from behind endless Count Chocula boxes.
“I’m collecting the rarest cereal boxes known to man,” he boasts. He tells me about a 1981 Kellogg’s Banana Frosted Flakes box. The flavor bombed, he says, and consumers felt Tony the Tiger wearing a straw hat was wrong. The box is priceless, Steve says, a wild look in his eyes. He flips off the light.
“I’ll do anything to get it.”
Take a look behind the scenes at how artist Dan Saelinger created this piece exclusively for Playboy Magazine
This Pez piece took approximately 10,000 pez candies, 3 days of construction and 2 quarts of rubber cement. Enjoy.