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Heroes are home at last

ST. PETERSBURG An avid collector makes up for a Transformer-deprived childhood.

By NICK JOHNSON
Published July 1, 2007


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photo
[Martha Rial | Times]
Tony Balchen has collected about 300 Transformers from the original toy line. He wears his passion on his clothing - and his skin.

"I wasn't allowed to have them as a kid, so when I became an adult, I became obsessed with it."

, Tony Balchen, Transformer collector

The highly anticipated Transformers movie will hit theaters around the nation on Tuesday, much to the delight of giant-robot fans young and old.

One fan has been waiting for more than 20 years for that day, with the tattoos and action figures to prove it, about $20, 000 worth.

Tony Balchen in Northwest St. Petersburg has an entire corner of his living room devoted to the miniature versions of these robots in disguise. About 200 of the robots that transform into cars and a variety of other machines are on display there.

"Transformer corner" as he calls it is the result of 12 years of collecting, thousands of dollars spent, countless hours clocked searching for the toys on eBay and one very understanding girlfriend.

"It's a good hobby because he likes it, but it's a lot of money, " said Danielle Muscarello, his girlfriend of more than two years.

She has been a good sport about his obsession, but has to keep him in line sometimes when it comes to his Transformer budget. "He spends way too much, and he's always on eBay."

Balchen also gets flak from his 10-year-old daughter, Kelsey. "Just because she doesn't think a grown man should collect toys, " he said.

The toys are testament of Balchen's Transformer-deprived childhood. To his father, a devout Jehovah's Witness, toy robots with guns equated violence and were deemed off limits.

"I wasn't allowed to have them as a kid, so when I became an adult, I became obsessed with it, " Balchen confessed.

These futuristic robots that transform from cars, jets and even boom boxes were born in the early 1980s. They came from Japan as one of the first simultaneous releases of cartoons and action figures, the beginning of a marketing phenomenon that still has Balchen in its grips.

"We would watch the show every day, and then we would talk about the show every day at school. I couldn't have them, which would drive me crazy, " he said, recounting his middle school days.

Balchen would try to save up his lunch money to buy one from a friend in hopes of sneaking it home, but didn't manage to get his hands on one until after he had moved out of his parents' house.

Balchen, 33, finally bought his first Transformer 12 years ago for $200 at a hobby shop. It was Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots who fight alongside mankind to defeat the evil Decepticons.

Since that day Balchen has amassed nearly the complete collection of Transformers from the original toy line, about 300 of them. He has paid anywhere from $100 to $1, 500 apiece for the toys that originally retailed for less than $10.

He also sports both Autobot and Decepticon tattoos on his upper arms.

Prices for the action figures have skyrocketed in recent years as more 30-somethings try to recapture a piece of their childhood. Balchen said there are online forums devoted to the topic and that he has met a number of friends through the Web, mostly via eBay. "It's a pretty tight little community, " he said. "Everybody seems to know everybody one way or another."

He now estimates his collection to be worth about $20, 000. Balchen, who pays the bills by running a landscaping business, said he isn't in it for the money and would never consider parting with his collection.

"I would collect welfare before I sell, " he said. "There's no way."

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

[Last modified June 30, 2007, 23:14:49]


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