Distinguishing a collector of classic toys from a fan of classic toys is easy:
A classic toy collector will coo over a prize acquisition and preserve it on a shelf in its mint-in-box condition. A classic toy fan will pop the packaging open and quickly dig into some serious retro play.
By that definition, then, Cliff Reese, 37, of Collegeville, Pa., is clearly a toy fan rather than a toy collector.
He not only maintains a strong affection for the toys of his 1980s youth - merchandise tied to entertainment franchises such as Star Wars, G.I. Joe and He-Man - he also shares his passion through a YouTube series, Retro Toy Review. The posts (they're more like short tribute films) combine a little bit of pop culture history with a dash of nostalgia and a huge measure of fun, as Reese puts action figures, play-sets and vehicles through their paces.
"I don't necessarily want a toy to be sealed-in-box, but I want it to be with the box," Reese explains. "There's a deep-seated joy in opening a new toy that hasn't been used. So I want to recreate that feeling. Opening this stuff and actually playing with it is the best part: Putting the stickers on and assembling the toy like a model. Because you know," he jokes, "that with these toys, there was always ‘some assembly required.' But it's all part of reliving that experience."
Reese is eagerly anticipating this weekend's Retro Con at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center. He'll be on the hunt for the next item to feature in his ongoing video toy story, joining the ranks of past episodes on the Star Wars Micro Collection Death Star Escape and the Captain Power "Power On" Energizer.
"I get a kick out of the toy lines that weren't successful. They're fun to review, to look at why they failed." Reese says. "I reviewed one of the Sectaurs, a 1985 set of humanoid-insect action figures. Parents probably didn't want to buy them for their kids because they were so ugly. But as an adult," admits Reese, "I think they're really cool because they're so weird."
Retro Con is a full day of activities, displays, selling tables, panel discussions, trivia contests and a raffle to win a Ghostbusters Proton Pack replica prop. Actor Neil Ross will be onsite; he was the voice of Shipwreck on G.I. Joe and Springer on Transformers. Retro Con closes with a big-screen showing of the hit Back to the Future at the Regal Theater adjacent to the Expo Center, where a DeLorean time machine replica will be on display.
As with other Con-type shows, this weekend's Oaks , Pa., event also includes costume contests, one for kids under 14 and one for adults. Reese, a self-described "behind the scenes" kind of guy, won't be dressing up as a Decepticon or Stormtrooper, but he'll enjoy the efforts of others.
One of the reasons Reese finds these lines of toys so appealing is that they capture the spark and innovation of some of entertainment's most iconic stories of film and T.V. They also represent a bygone era of play. In the years since their heyday, toys and games have evolved into handheld challenges available on smartphones or elaborate big-screen systems. Back then, Reese asserts, they were driven much more by creativity.
"You had to really pretend to have fun with these things. They were very interactive. You had to pick up one of the Jawas and march him around yourself, or he's just going to sit there," he says. "You had to create your own world and use the play sets and the vehicles and the guys and live out a story on your carpeted floor.
"The adventure didn't end when your battery levels ran low. You could play as far as your imagination would take you. Or your dad came and yelled at you to clean it up, it's dinnertime. Or the vacuum would suck up the little pieces," he laughs.
If the call to recreate the playdates of your childhood bring to mind the idea of a sleepover, the hotels and accommodations listed on the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau website will welcome you warmly.
They won't even mind if you decide to wear footie pajamas.