Recent Acquisitions: John F. Kennedy and the Holy Grail of PEZ Dispensers

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Khrushchev and Kennedy at the 1961 Vienna Summit.

Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

The 1961 Vienna Summit was a disaster for President John F. Kennedy. Reeling from a meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy spoke with unprecedented candor to the New York Times columnist James "Scotty" Reston. According to the president, it was clear that the Bay of Pigs led Khrushchev to believe "that anyone who was so young and inexperienced as to get into that mess could be taken. And anyone who got into it and didn't see it through had no guts. So he just beat the hell out of me. I've got a terrible problem."

A problem indeed. Two months after the meeting, Khrushchev closed the East German border and ordered the construction of the Berlin Wall, the greatest symbol of the Cold War. A year later, the countries would have another confrontation, but instead of a two day summit, the Cuban Missile Crisis would last 13 days.

It was one thing for Khrushchev to treat Kennedy like a child, but it was quite another for PEZ to do so.

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The Austrian candymaker welcomed the American president to Vienna, where they produced their mechanical pocket dispenser and dry-straight-edged block candy, with a sweet gift. According to a press release by the company on June 13, 1961, "President Kennedy's famous visit to Vienna, the birth place of America's popular PEZ Candy, would have been incomplete, if the PEZ people had not thought of an attractive surprise for him, his lovely wife and his daughter Caroline." A custom satin-lined case contained a donkey head for Kennedy, gold for Jackie, and Bozo the Clown for Caroline.

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The President would have none of it. According to an inventory of gifts received, which included material for a skirt and a vase, the present from PEZ was the only one rejected. Under description, the document now housed in the archives of the JFK Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts offers the following instructions: "To be returned to the sender with thanks by order of the Secret Service."
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JFK Presidential Library and Museum
Upon the opening of a new display at the company's Visitor Center in Orange, Connecticut last month, PEZ announced that there were only two donkey dispensers in existence, making it one of the rarest in the world.

Gary Doss, owner and curator of the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia, adds that an elephant was also produced alongside the donkey, but "these two PEZ dispensers are beyond 'Holy Grail' status." When he received a phone call in May 2012 from a collector claiming to have a set in pristine condition, an assertion which challenges PEZ's claim that only two donkeys existed, Doss didn't believe him. Send me pictures, he countered, but received no further information until last month, when the seller invited Doss to Delaware to purchase the dispensers, valued around $20,000.

"He said he wanted others to see and enjoy them, and not [have them] locked away in a personal collection," Doss recounted, thankful he would not have to contend with private bidders on eBay. Doss was conveniently en route to the Crayola Crayon Factory Discovery Center in Easton, Pennsylvania to celebrate his elderly mother's birthday. Ordered to arrive with a cashier's check in the early morning hours, the sale took place in a bank parking lot.

"I have seen forgeries and fakes," Doss explained. "These were real. He bought them at an estate auction. He did not have the name of the previous owner, but said he was told they belonged to a retired salesman at PEZ."

The museum will debut the donkey and elephant on November 3, just three days ahead of the 2012 election. All admission fees on November 3-4 will be donated to InnVision Shelter Network, a local nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness.

The Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia is located at 214 California Drive, Burlingame. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $3.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.
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