He presided over a powerful innovation in marketing that was less about the candy itself than it was about the container it came in — and created a universe of fanatically obsessed collectors.
For nearly three decades after World War II, Mr. Allina was the vice president in charge of United States operations at what is now Pez Candy. In 1955, at his urging, what had been an austerely packaged Austrian confection for adults took on vibrant new life as a children’s product.
That year, the first character dispensers, as they are known in the parlance of Peziana, were issued, giving birth to what is today a highly collectible pop-cultural artifact. Instantly recognizable, the dispensers are slim plastic containers, usually anthropomorphic in design, whose heads — modeled after those of TV characters, cartoon figures or historical personages — flip back to disgorge brick-shaped pieces of candy.
Driven in large part by baby-boomer nostalgia, Pez dispensers are now a staple of eBay and the ubiquitous subject of conventions, Web sites, newsletters, books and even a museum, the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia in Burlingame, Calif. They have been featured in movies; a memorable “Seinfeld” episode (in which Elaine ruins a piano recital by laughing uncontrollably at the sight of a Pez dispenser); and a 2006 documentary, “PEZheads: The Movie,” which explores the Pez-collecting phenomenon.
Today, Pez Candy, based in Orange, Conn., sells tens of thousands of dispensers each year in 80 countries.
A Pez dispenser is a simple little machine: back snaps the head, out pops the candy, and the head flicks shut again with a satisfying click. But oh, the variations, from a spate of licensed characters to those designed by Pez. For serious collectors, the most highly prized dispensers, long discontinued, are elusive objects of desire that can run to thousands of dollars apiece.
Hundreds of different dispensers are extant. (“Hundreds” is a conservative estimate, for collectors count minute alterations in a dispenser’s shape or color as meaningful in ways civilians do not.) They include Popeye Pez, Pokémon Pez and Paul Revere Pez; SpongeBob Pez and Elvis Pez (in several historical variants, from ’50s boyish through ’70s dissipated); Mozart Pez, Hello Kitty Pez and Mickey Mouse Pez.
Precisely whose idea it was to put heads on Pez dispensers — previously headless, unadorned and tastefully Viennese — is the subject of continuing debate among Pez historians. In a telephone interview, David Welch, the author of “Collecting PEZ” (Bubba Scrubba Publications, 1994), said that in researching his book he encountered half a dozen possible candidates, Mr. Allina among them. This much, Mr. Welch said, is certain:
“The idea came from the United States. And for the idea to have come out of the United States and made it to Austria where it could be approved, Allina was the only guy who could have made that happen.”
Curtis Allina was born Aug. 15, 1922, in Prague, and raised in Vienna. Between 1941 and 1945, he and his family, Sephardic Jews, were forced into a series of concentration camps. Mr. Allina emerged at war’s end as his family’s sole survivor in Europe. Making his way to New York, he worked for a commercial meatpacker before joining Pez-Haas, as the company’s United States arm was then known, in 1953.
Pez was invented in 1927 by Eduard Haas III, a Viennese food-products mogul. Small, rectangular and mint-flavored (the name is a contraction of pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint), the candy was marketed to adults as an alternative to smoking. Originally sold in tins, Pez was repackaged in the late 1940s in plain, long-stemmed dispensers meant to suggest cigarette lighters.
Introduced into the United States in the early 1950s, Pez sold fitfully. Then someone thought of remarketing it as a children’s candy, in fruit flavors, packed in whimsical dispensers. It fell to Mr. Allina to persuade the home office in Vienna, by all accounts a conservative outfit that took sober pride in its grown-up mint.
Mr. Allina prevailed, and the first two character dispensers, Santa Claus and a robot known as the Space Trooper, were introduced in 1955. Unlike today’s plain-stemmed, headed-and-footed dispensers, both were full-body figures, completely sculptured from top to toe.
Mr. Allina, who left Pez in 1979, was later an executive of Au’Some Candies.
Mr. Allina’s first marriage, to Hanna Hofmann, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Hannelore; two children from his first marriage, Babette Allina and Johnny Allina; two children from his second marriage, Tanya Carlson and Alexia Allina; and three grandchildren.
His legacy also includes hundreds of Pez-related Web sites, dozens of conferences with names like the Swedish Pez Gathering and the Slovenian Pez Convention, and scores of organizations, from Lone Star Pez (in North Texas) to the Association Française des Collectionneurs de Pez. There is a collector in Oklahoma who owns a Pez-dispenser-encrusted automobile, and thousands of others around the world, it is entirely safe to assume, who dream Pez-infused dreams at night.
Perhaps all this renders moot the question of who came up with the now-familiar dispenser in the first place.
“Whose idea was it? Who the hell knows,” Mr. Welch, the Pez historian, said. “Who was more important in getting it done? Allina.”