It is not unusual that Douglas Nazarian’s office on the 16th floor of the William Donald Schaefer Tower in downtown Baltimore has a barrister’s bookcase, as those double-door glass bookcases are known. What is a surprise are the contents: several rows of PEZ dispensers and other assorted stand-up figures.
His collection can be traced back to Christmas 1992, when he was beginning his first position at a law firm. “My mother unwittingly started this; I don’t think she ever meant to,” said Nazarian, who is currently chairman of the Public Service Commission of Maryland.
Among the items his mother put into his stocking that year was a Miss Piggy PEZ dispenser. He recalled that his brother left his behind, which was a fellow Muppet, Gonzo. So he ended up with two.
“I was living in Baltimore and working in Washington and I had this small office with not a lot of stuff in it,” said Nazarian. “So I put the two PEZ dispensers up on my shelf and those were my tchotchkes.”
A check of the official PEZ North America Website revealed that the candy’s history can be traced to 1927: “PEZ candy was invented as a breath mint in Vienna, Austria. The name PEZ comes from the German word for peppermint ‘pfefferminz,’ taking P from the first letter, E from the middle, and Z from the last letter.”
Before being marketed to kids—and, ultimately, collectors—they were sold in dispensers that looked like cigarette lighters, to help folks kick the habit. PEZ entered the U.S. market in the early 1950s.
When Nazarian changed jobs and began a 12-year tenure in the litigation group at the Baltimore law firm, Hogan & Hartson, that’s when his collection took off.
“I am very proud of the fact that I have never paid more than a $1.50 for any of them,” said Nazarian. Although some in his collection were gifts from colleagues, such as the boxed Snow White Collection and the Star Wars Collection.
Nazarian offered this factoid. “You know, eBay started as a site for PEZ dispenser collectors. But I have never gone to eBay for that purpose.”
He said that he has no idea if any of these is remotely valuable. “They were all bought at convenience stores or gas stations or Target or places like that.” Among his collection are dispensers in the shape of tractor-trailers and fuzzy animal keychain dispensers.
The collection isn’t grouped in any particular order. Nazarian said that he has made the attempt but, invariably, one will get knocked over and “it’s too big a pain” to reorganize.
It does have a natural ebb and flow, however. “We have occasional contests around here and I will donate a PEZ dispenser from my personal collection as a prize,” said Nazarian. In fact, he is well known for his collection by colleagues, former and current.
“This was a completely accidental collection. I never set out to do this. For whatever reason, it stuck in people’s head.” When he was appointed to his current position in 2008, Nazarian said that The Sun called colleagues seeking background info and people remembered that he collected PEZ. That tidbit made the story.
So just what does the Public Service Commission do? Among the matters handled by the commission, which was founded in 1910 to largely regulate railroads, are the supervision and regulation of gas, electric, telephone, water, sewage disposal providers and even taxicab operators in several jurisdictions.
“We are a creature of the General Assembly and over time it has evolved,” said Nazarian, adding that there are five commissioners and each serves for a five-year term, one turning over each year. As for him, his appointment ends in 2013 but the governor may reappoint a commissioner. A 140-member staff handles the vast array of duties.
Nazarian’s background as a litigator for 15 years included experience handling complex corporate cases, city schools, civil rights abuses and telecommunications. He was also partner in charge of Hogan & Hartson’s pro bono practice. Nazarian served as General Counsel to the commission for more than a year before being appointed as chairman.
He grew up in Rochester, New York, and went to Yale for his undergraduate degree, then Duke for his J.D. His wife, Jeanette, grew up in the city of Baltimore and they chose to live in the state as his wife was entering the University of Maryland School of Medicine. They have two daughters, Grace, 10, and Lila, 13, and have made their home in Catonsville for 12 years. He said his car sports a “Life Is Great in 21228” bumper sticker.
The PEZ collection isn’t the only frivolous item to be found in his spacious office—which looks south to the harbor. A plastic basketball hoop is positioned directly across from his desk. Considering the serious work that the commission undertakes, Nazarian’s office is definitely a bit quirky.
“It can be serious, but it’s a fun group of people. We like to keep it a little bit light-hearted,” said Nazarian.
No doubt Miss Piggy would agree.