Thursday 29 April 2010

Museum Piece / Museum Pez

To every thing there is a season, according to Pete Seeger. I'd add that to every collectable item there is (somewhere) a museum.

That's certainly true for Pez, the confectionery that's known for its novelty dispensers fashioned in the shapes of famous people or characters. There is indeed a museum devoted to Pez!

More of that in a minute; but first, here's a Pez profile I prepared earlier...


Unfamiliar with Pez? It consists of a plastic dispenser which pops out tiny brick-shaped sweets. The long shaft of the dispenser is topped by a colourful head, often a character from TV or film.

And they’re very, very collectable. Users of eBay will bid hundreds of dollars for rare Pez dispensers. Other sites offer the rare Arithmetic Pez for over US$500. And a set of the original Bride and Groom Pez dispensers will set you back about US$3000. That’s a lot of money for a humble plastic novelty item.

Melbourne collector Sue Ann Barber stumbled across the hobby some years ago. “When I first started collecting they were a cheap, colourful item that was readily available, and few other people seemed to collect them. Now I know otherwise.”

Although Pez is a big hit in the USA, it was created in Austria in 1927. A devilishly clever Viennese businessman, Eduard Haas, created a new peppermint sweet. The name came from the German word for peppermint: pfefferminz. Taking the first, middle and last letters of that word, Haas came up with Pez.

To start with, it was a humble breath mint which Haas thought might sell as an alternative to smoking. The sweets were carried around in pocket tins, but after World War II Pez started popping out of the plastic dispenser. It took another decade for heads to be added to the rectangular plastic stems. To break into the American market, Pez dispensers had colourful heads placed on them, and they were sold to children.

The experiment was a great success, and over the years hundreds of different heads have been manufactured. In 1987, a finishing touch was added as the dispensers gained small “feet” at the other end of their bodies. Naturally, as some heads went out of production they became rarer. All the elements of a collecting craze were there: a variety of items, some rare, mixed with the nostalgia of childhood. A collectable was born.

Some strange but true facts about Pez:

- An Elvis Presley Pez dispenser appeared in the film The Client, leading to numerous enquiries from collectors. Unfortunately, it was merely a model made especially for the movie, and collectors yearned for an Elvis Pez for decades until the company finally produced a set of three Elvises in 2007.

- Some die-hard Pez fans have made customised Pez dispensers by fashioning heads and attaching them to the Pez stems. One enterprising fan, for example, made KISS Pez dispensers by repainting old Wonder Woman ones.

- The Merry Music Makers series featured Pez dispensers with heads that whistled when blown into.

- The original dispenser, without a head, looked like a cigarette lighter because it flipped up at the top.

- The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Pez dispensers came in two varieties: with angry faces and happy faces. Because their stems also came in seven colours, there are 56 TMNT dispensers to collect.

- The two biggest-selling Pez dispensers of all time featured Santa and Mickey Mouse.

- When a dispenser has a darker skin colour than another of the same type, collectors refer to the difference as a “Club Med Face”.

- Pez Body Parts are sets of costumes, hands and feet which snap onto the Pez stem, giving the head a body to go with it.

- The highest winning eBay bid for a standard format Pez dispenser was US$6575 in 2002. This was topped by the US$11,211 paid for a transparent 1950s “space gun” Pez dispenser in 2005... which was later alleged to be a fake. Many other Pez have been sold for four-figure sums.

A number of Pez items other than the dispensers have been produced. Among these are balloons, bracelets, clocks, greeting cards and even a steel die-cast delivery truck and bank.

The oddest Pez-related item ever devised? “Probably the Pez teddy bear,” says Barber. “I only ever saw photos of it, as it never got made. Not sure if it was meant to dispense Pez, as I'd hate to think where they came out from! Otherwise, the lip balm. Isn't the whole point of Pez to dispense candy rather than soothe your lips?”

Making things even more challenging for collectors, there are differences between Pez in different countries. Enter the Internet, which revolutionised and reinvigorated Pez collecting by putting geographically dispersed collectors in touch with each other.

Meanwhile, Pez Candy Inc still churns out new Pez dispensers each year. One day, someone might even pay attention to the actual sweets within the dispensers. Do you know they know longer make Pez in one of its original flavours, chlorophyll? Shocking.


And now... the museum. The Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia is located in San Francisco, USA, located between the San Fran International Airport and the San Mateo Bridge, right next to the Burlingame train station.

Unrecognised by Pez Candy Inc, the museum has had stormy relations with the confectionery giant, having been sued by it in 2009. However, it's still in operation, both selling Pez dispensers and exhibiting an impressive array of Pez memorabilia from decades past. Happy dispensing!

(Note: The Hello Kitty-themed dispenser pictured above is courtesy of photographer Deborah Austin, via Wikimedia Commons)

Friday 23 April 2010

Cafes of Melbourne 4: Southern Exposure

Here's the final part of the online Melbourne cafe guide I wrote a few years ago, which I've reproduced here with a few tweaks and updates.

This week, I head south to inspect the cafes between Melbourne's city centre and Port Phillip Bay...

Europa Cake Shop
81 Acland St, St Kilda
+61 3 9534 2156

Cakes, cakes and more cakes. This cafe serves up lots of cakes. Did I mention it has cakes?

They’re worth a mention, because this is the best of the famous cake shops that line Acland Street. It's hard to miss, with its mouth-watering window displays of home-made sweet delicacies.

Europa, run by a Polish-descended family, carries on the Central European cake tradition, and also stocks a range of chocolates from that part of the world. More unusual items in the window include poppyseed cake, rum-soaked spongecake, and novelties like chocolate-dipped baklava (OK, so that’s sorta southern European).

But its best cake must be the cherry strudel - not too sweet, and packed with fruit. Europa also serves the usual savoury items you’d expect a cafe to dish up, like pies, dips, and bacon and eggs for breakfast. But let’s face it, you come here for the coffee and cakes.

Summary: This is the best of the European-style cake shops on Acland Street, with great cakes and coffee to match.

Albert Park Deli
129 Dundas Pl, Albert Park
+61 3 9699 9594

The bayside suburb of Albert Park has maintained a village feel, despite its proximity to the central business district. Unlike other inner suburbs, Albert Park never went through the usual cycle of riches to rags, and back to riches again – this was always a well-heeled location. The result is a pleasant collection of Victorian dwellings and shopfronts, with plenty of trees and the odd bit of art deco thrown in for variety.

Fitting in with these genteel surrounds, the Albert Park Deli feels “just so”, a tastefully designed mix of cafe and food store, with shelves of gourmet goodies opposite a display counter bulging with tempting salads, baguettes and other savouries.

These include tasty items such as coriander tabouli, lima bean salad, Moroccan lemon vegetables, beef stroganoff and vegetarian moussaka. The coffees are good stuff, and there’s a range of quality herbal teas for those cutting back on the caffeine.

Summary: This cafe and food store provides classy food and drink in a genteel setting.

Caffe Panette
144 Cecil St, South Melbourne
+61 3 9690 2803

The South Melbourne Market is a legacy of an earlier age, its sprawling shed-like structure housing food shops of every type imaginable. So you might imagine that a cafe opposite the market would be in for some stiff competition.

Not a bit of it. Panette actually does well from market shoppers resting after a hard morning’s haggling. And it’s an attractive place to take a break. Its corner location and broad footpaths mean plenty of room for umbrella-shaded tables, and space to put down shopping bags.

Inside, it’s a classic Italian-style cafe, with polished floorboards, wooden shelves lined with bottles, and a line of cushioned barstools at the window.

The menu is a treat, especially at breakfast with its classy variants of familiar dishes: ham hocks and haricot beans in a rich tomato sauce, for example. Lunch presents stylish pastas and salads, along with specials like a chicken, leek and potato pie.

Summary: The perfect cafe at which to rest after a shopping session at the South Melbourne Market.

Note: As this article was researched some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current coffee situation before travelling to Melbourne.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Cafes of Melbourne 3: East by Southeast

Here's part three of the Melbourne cafe guide I wrote a few years ago.

It's since been removed from the website it was written for, but I've reproduced and updated it here for your coffee-drinking needs.

This week, I visit cafes of the inner east and southeast...

George Street Cafe
65 George St, East Melbourne
+61 3 9419 5805

The George Street Café is housed in a simple shopfront among the glamorous mansions of East Melbourne. The building has been a food outlet since the 1860s, the current occupant being preceded by a general store.

East Melburnians are fiercely loyal to the cafe, sited away from the major roads that bypass the leafy enclave. It’s very much a local hangout, with suited businessmen grabbing a coffee before the rigours of the corporate day, and elderly ladies popping in mid-morning to pick up a jar of home-made preserves.

For such a swish suburb, it’s a surprisingly unpretentious place, with reasonably-priced straightforward cafe fare and the occasional stand-out: smoked salmon omelette for breakfast, for example, or dahl for lunch. With its earth tones and pleasant views onto the elm-lined streets, this is how a neighbourhood cafe should be – quiet, unhurried, friendly and a good place to read the newspaper.

Summary: This down-to-earth neighbourhood cafe in a quiet location is the ideal place to while away some lazy hours over coffee and a newspaper.

167 Swan St, Richmond
+61 3 9428 7300

Swan Street is a bit daggy, but in a nice way. Its bustling streetscape is anchored by the bulky Dimmey’s building at one end, and at the other end is Timbale, a veteran of the street’s cafe scene and a survivor from an earlier, more retro age.

One wall is plastered with posters for upcoming gigs around town, and a poster of Austin Powers’ nemesis Dr Evil. A secret-ish upstairs area feels like your Nanna’s old living room, strewn with comfy chairs and sofas from the swinging '70s. Lunch is an offering of focaccias, salads, pasta and burgers, with specials such as an antipasto plate, or penne with blue cheese, rocket and semi-dried tomatoes.

Summary: Take a trip back in time to a cafe with good food and coffee, and comfy retro sofas.

481 Chapel St, South Yarra
+61 3 9826 6442

You might well say “Meet me at the Kazbar”, as this cool cafe and eatery is well located in the heart of South Yarra’s shopping strip, near the Jam Factory centre and its cinemas. This is a more colourful place than its rivals on the north side of the Yarra - orange tones contrast pleasantly with greens and pinks, giving the place a cheerful but sophisticated feel.

Work by local artists adorns the walls, and there are sofas behind the tables for those who want to chill out with a coffee. Breakfast includes Scandinavian scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, along with a suggested “kick start” to the day in the form of a Stoli and grapefruit.

Lunch and dinner offerings include pasta, salads, soups and specials such as a marinated calamari salad with zucchini, pine nuts and raisins. And there’s seating on the street for those who want to see and be seen by Chapel Street’s fashion cognoscenti.

Summary: Join the “beautiful people” of South Yarra at this colourful cafe in the heart of fashion land.

218 Chapel St, Prahran
+61 3 9510 8693

“All the world’s a stage”, wrote William Shakespeare. Though he was associated with quite a different Globe, he would approve of this vibey cafe in the centre of Prahran, with its cast of interesting characters in its diverse clientele. Its corner location and outdoor seating also gives plenty of scope for observing the theatre of Chapel Street.

This café is filled with light, via its floor-to-ceiling windows and the blond wood used for floorboards and tables. Beneath a bar topped with globes of various sizes, enormous cakes entice. However, breakfast is where Globe really shines, with multiple options based on a range of national cuisines.

There are Italian, French and Spanish brekky options, but the star turn must be the Laotion breakfast, an omelette with dill, spring onion, bean shoots, rice and chilli sauce. Meals later in the day might include Thai fishcakes, tofu burger or Szechuan spiced porterhouse.

Summary: This is a café for global food, world’s best coffee and international-level people watching.

133 Chapel St, Windsor
+61 3 9529 1198

They say elephants never forget. This might explain Tusk’s name, as it’s a memorable part of the Chapel Street cafe scene. The interior is soothing, with its wooden floors and bar, retro copper lampshades and giant tropical sunset poster along one wall.

It’s outdoors that Tusk really comes into its own, with a large exterior dining area beneath the shade of two trees. One of them even sprouts up within a square table arranged around its circumference, allowing you to get back to nature in the middle of this busy shopping precinct.

Breakfast here is a selection of the usual favourites, along with the “Tusk Breakfast” of seared chorizo sausage, caramelised onion, mushrooms and scrambled eggs on muffins. Lunch and dinner include items like risotto al funghi, tandoori grilled chicken fillets and a “grazing plate” covered with chipolata sausage, lamb, saganaki, dips, olives, capsicum and Turkish bread.

Summary: Grab an outdoor table beneath the trees, order a coffee or a bit of good cafe food, and watch the world go by.

Note: As this article was researched some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current coffee situation before travelling to Melbourne.

Friday 2 April 2010

Having a Laugh? Melbourne International Comedy Festival Venues Reviewed

Every year in March-April, central Melbourne falls under the mirthful influence of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

It's a phenomenally successful arts event, with hundreds of shows spread across dozens of venues, from rooms holding a few dozen seats to large auditoriums that can seat thousands.

As a result of the numbers that attend, there's a lively atmosphere in the city centre over the three and a half weeks that the festival runs, especially in the area around the grand Melbourne Town Hall on Swanston Street.

The lights behind the clock face in the building's tower are changed to multiple colours, comedians are out in force leafleting on the street, and a bonhomous crowd of punters mills around the giant blackboard under the Town Hall's portico to examine the huge list of shows on each night.

I've been reviewing Comedy Festival shows for over a decade now, first for my own performing arts website Stage Left, then from 2006 in the pages of The Age, Melbourne's daily broadsheet newspaper.

There's no point in me outlining the best shows I've seen this year here, as you can read my reviews at the comedy section of The Age's website. So instead, I'm going to review the venues I've visited so far during this Comedy Festival, and add a bar tip for each:

1. Melbourne Town Hall
The Comedy Festival hub, this 1870 building exudes style and class, with multiple performance venues within its vast interior. Some are rooms usually used for events, such as the attractive top-floor Supper Room, with its skylight ceiling and hundreds of seats. Others are temporary spaces that convert well to a mid-sized venue of 100 or more seats, such as the Powder Room or Cloak Room.

Try as I might to avoid it, however, I usually end up seeing several shows (often good shows, I hasten to add!) in the tiny, airless, charm-challenged 45-seat Lunch Room in the bowels of the building. Presumably it really is a lunch room outside April; I wonder where the council gnomes eat their lunch while the festival is on?

My nearest favourite bar: Cabinet, 11 Rainbow Alley (off Little Collins Street).

[For more about the Town Hall's history, download my Melbourne Historical iPhone app]

2. The Athenaeum
Just around the corner from the Town Hall on Collins Street, this venerable (though much-modified) venue was established here just a few years after Melbourne was founded in 1835. As was once memorably pointed out by an onstage comedian (sorry, I've forgotten which one), its auditorium looks exactly like that in The Muppet Show.

The seats are tiny and the legroom makes Qantas look generous, but the place is brimming over with character. Although it's a large space, it was cleverly designed so that wherever you sit, you never feel far from the performer.

My nearest favourite bar: Tony Starr's Kitten Club, 267 Little Collins Street.

[For more about the Athenaeum's history, download my Melbourne Historical iPhone app] 

3. Victoria Hotel
Established in 1880 during the prosperous "Marvellous Melbourne" era, this hotel has long been a budget accommodation choice located in the centre of things. You don't get much sense of its age - its fittings are fairly modern and unremarkable - but it does house three venues at Comedy Festival time.

It'd be a handy place to stay if you're flying into Melbourne for the festival. If you're seeing a show in Vic's Bar, note the seats at the rear are sturdier and more comfortable than the ones at the front.

My nearest favourite bar: Gin Palace, 10 Russell Place (off Little Collins Street).

4. The Bosco

This temporary but atmospheric venue in City Square opposite the Town Hall is one of the vintage tents that have become so popular in Melbourne in recent years. It was constructed in the Netherlands in 1909, and used by a travelling circus for 50 years. Nowadays it's owned by a theatre impresario, and is regularly shipped around the world to appear at festivals.

This is a particularly great venue to see a musical comedy act in. Tip: the back row is the most comfortable, as it's the only one with back support (ie you can lean back onto the tent's timber wall).

My nearest favourite bar: Three Below, 3 City Square, Swanston Street.

5. Portland Hotel
A pub on the corner of Russell and Little Collins Streets, the Portland serves decent food and has the great virtue of brewing its own beer on site (try the Highwayman red ale). Its Comedy Festival venues vary in size, down to the diminutive 30-seat Locker Room.

The comedian in this approximately 3x7-metre venue can't bound on stage from behind the curtain, because there's nothing behind the curtain but solid wall. Good for a feeling of intimacy with the performer, and works best with the "nice guy" type of comedian who isn't too shouty.

My nearest favourite bar: Canary Club, 6 Melbourne Place (off Russell Street).

6. Forum Theatre
Once a grand 1920s cinema, this ornate building was clearly designed by a madman. The architecture is thoroughly engaging, an eclectic mix of Moroccan, Greek, Roman and whatever else he felt like chucking in at the time (not forgetting the "sky" ceiling with its little illuminated stars).

The downstairs venue used to be the cinema stalls, and is now a big space hosting live music acts outside Comedy Festival time; the upstairs is usually used as a cinema (having been the original cinema's dress circle). There are also some curious little additional venues, such as the Ladies' Lounge, which is crammed into a small but charming room off the mezzanine.

My nearest favourite bar: Misty, 3 Hosier Lane (off Flinders Street).

[For more about the Forum's history, download my Melbourne Historical iPhone app] 

7. Tuxedo Cat
The ultimate in a grunge comedy space, this temporary comedy club is located in a hastily repainted basement off Flinders Lane. You descend through a forbidding concrete corridor to get there, only to discover a hyper-cool venue with beanbags, a bar, and red velvet hanging off the walls.

You can't avoid getting hot and sweaty during a show in the neighbouring performance area, but a beer can assist with that; and the edgy, distressed feel of the venue provides a great down-to-earth vibe.

My nearest favourite bar: Robot, 12 Bligh Place (off Flinders Lane).

In the end, of course, the venue is far less important than the show you're seeing there. But you have to admit, Melbourne's Comedy Festival venues are interesting characters in their own right.