Curtis Allina, the man whose fanciful packaging changed the face of Pez candy dispensers, died of heart failure Dec. 15 at his home in Olympia, Wash., according to his son, Johnny. He was 87.Allina was born in 1922 in Prague, and raised in Vienna, Austria in a family of Sephardic Jews. He and his entire family were interned in a series of concentration camps and he was the only member from the European branch of his family to survive.

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%Allina moved to New York after World War II and eventually took a job as vice president of U.S. operations at the Austria-based candy company. At the time, the peppermint candy -- named Pez for the German word for "peppermint," "Pfefferminz" -- was sold in Altoids-style tins and marketed as an adult candy. Before the war, a cigarette lighter-shaped dispenser had been invented by Oscar Uxa, meant to evoke the candy's purpose as an alternative to smoking.

Turning an Adult Candy Into a Collector's Item

Allina may or may not have sparked the idea of putting heads on the dispensers, but it's certain he led the development of an entirely new target audience for the candies: children. David Welch, author of the book Collecting Pez, is considered the foremost scholar on Pez company history. He told us that, while several other people have come forward to insist it way they who initially came up with the concept for a head whose mouth projected the candy bricks, it was surely Allina who made it happen.

The company's candy had fallen flat with adults in the U.S. Together the company's U.S. division devised a plan: add fruit flavors and make the dispensers more fun. Allina brought the idea to the management in Vienna, and convinced them to take a chance on the toy dispensers. The first two, Santa Claus and a robot called the Space Trooper, were fully-sculpted characters, as opposed to the simple heads on a plain footing that are manufactured today. The two dispensers sold well, and a collector's item was born.

Today Pez dispensers are so popular that they have their own category on eBay with, as of this writing, more than 2,500 listings ranging in price from a few dollars to over $1,000. One, a Hungarian Maharaja Pez dispenser, is being offered for $854; Goofy and Mickey Mouse versions are among some of the most valuable. Today, tens of thousands of dispensers are sold every year worldwide.

Allina left Pez in 1979, and worked for Au'Some Candies for many years afterward. He is survived by his second wife, Hannelore; four children, Babette Allina, Johnny Allina, Tanya Carlson, and Alexia Allina; and three grandchildren.

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