Collecting Memories, Connecting with Star Wars, an Interview with RetroBlastingby Todd King, contributing writer
Every Saga has a Beginning
At the age of 4, Michael French's parents went to their friends' house to play cards in the kitchen "in those very '80s chrome pole and wicker breakfast room chairs" but he did not know this visit would be the start of what he calls a "weird journey." They sat him down alone in another room behind a huge TV that was "a front-projection, with color guns" and on a sectional couch, he watched "this movie called Star Wars." An unusually attentive child, Michael sat still for its duration, mesmerized by the story unfolding before him as he took in every detail, storing them forever in the file cabinet of his young mind. These, and many more memories to come, would remain safely stored in near-mint condition.
The journey continues to this day for Michael, and for his wife Melinda, who started a YouTube channel more than eight years ago. Named "RetroBlasting," the channel is devoted to showcasing, discussing, restoring, and reviewing vintage toys and addressing their accompanying pop culture media. While a good deal of their content focuses on Kenner Star Wars action figures and playsets that began in 1978, Michael and Melinda also delve into other nostalgic stuff (that had toylines attached) like Super Friends and many 1980s cartoon and merchandise properties, from G.I. Joe to He-Man to Ghostbusters, even to 1990s touchstones like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and sometimes glancing at modern toys.
If you're a collector of anything, check them out. Their videos are informative and fun, and often dive deep into the stories and mysteries behind toys. For instance, one of their videos explores why Luke Skywalker's original action figure had a yellow lightsaber. Though most of my own toys went missing or were given away over the years, I still needed to feed my nostalgia for them, and RetroBlasting is the perfect fix. Through their content I can virtually reunite with these lost toys, and in turn, perhaps reconnect with some lost memories. For Michael, it's as much about preserving toys as it is about preserving memories. Underneath it all, however, it's about the connection to childhood and piecing together the stories of his life.
It's easy to lose toys over time—it just happens. We misplace all kinds of stuff in our youth. It's sometimes just as easy to lose special memories. Objects of our past are often keys to the doors behind which those memories linger. A great portion of Michael's astounding collection include his original toys from his own childhood. He has kept these with as much care as he has kept his own memories. In my interview with him, he shared many of these memories that were rife with details that only a steel-trap mind like his could keep. He keeps these memories secure and when he shares them, he forms them into complete unbroken stories, like his toys:
"My X-Wing, Y-Wing, and B-Wing are all the ones I had as a kid. They're played with and if you get close to them you can see, you know they've got some rub on the nose where you played with it and you landed it over and over again, you know the stickers aren't perfect-perfect but they're all there, they all still work electronically, I'm able to maintain them. So they're not mint examples that people keep air-canned air dusters on, but they're complete, they're unbroken, and they all have a story."
"I was the kid at 8 years old taking apart my X-Wing Fighter. I was very interested in toys. ... I drew diagrams as a child of the interior workings of X-Wing Fighters." This would aid Michael later in life as he has restored actual X-Wings.
Connecting to "Wormie"
After seeing Star Wars on that big TV, Michael's bond with the toys soon began. Although Chewbacca was his first action figure—the Wookie drove Tonka trucks under dogwood trees in his backyard—and that same action figure proudly stands in his collection today, it was another character with whom Michael felt a real connection.
"Luke Skywalker, as a character, is my guy. I love all the heroes, I love Luke the best. I also love collecting Luke's stuff." As an adolescent in the 1990s, he built his own replica of Luke's lightsaber hilt, cobbled together with pieces and parts gathered everywhere and based it fuzzy photos of the prop; he put in a lot of time and effort because it meant so much to him and nothing like it existed in the real world.
Over time, Michael obtained official lightsaber replicas when they were released, each one as special as the one before.
As with his collecting journey, he didn't stop there. He also got reproductions of Luke's Empire fatigues, including the boots and snowspeeder helmet, and more. To him, "It's about having that connection" to Luke.
As a kid playing with his action figures, many of the adventures he'd make up centered around his hero, Luke. He would replay events not from the movie, but from children's books from the time like Maverick Moon, where Luke saved the day by piloting his X-Wing and stopping a moon from colliding into a planet. "[Playtime] wasn't an exact re-creation of the movie events, because as a child, when you're 5 years old, you can't quite remember movie events as well as you think you do." But he remembered enough about the Skywalker character to frame him as the hero in playtime when he made up his own adventures, often with a common theme:
"My playtime was about rescues… and Jedi Luke was the guy getting clamped to Jabba's throne, he was the guy trying to figure out how to fight his way out… sometimes it was about Rebels on a mission trying to rescue Admiral Ackbar. He was in 'a trap' and he wasn't a fighter-character… I loved others like Lando [in Jabba's guard disguise] because they were true infiltrators that were going to save other people."
Kids often play out their fantasies and desires with their toys. The values Michael would espouse in playtime, with his rescues of defenseless action figure characters, may have reflected feelings in real life within his family as the oldest son. Even though he had a younger brother, that sibling tried by force to take over the role. "I had the whole attitude of, I wasn't that older sibling that picked on younger siblings; I took on the whole, 'I'm supposed to protect my younger siblings, I'm supposed to set an example.'" You could say he saw such an example for himself with Luke. We would see Luke, several times, just drop what he was doing to help his friends, even against all odds—his priority was to protect those he loved in spite of himself. But it wasn't just this heroic and foolhardy side of young Skywalker that drew Michael in, it was a much deeper side of Luke that is often overlooked.
Michael mentions that critics of Star Wars often label Luke as a whiner in his early appearances. His uncle Owen kept him occupied with busy farm work, which Luke hated. Even by The Empire Strikes Back, some people said Luke was arrogant and didn't heed advice from Obi-Wan and Yoda. Even his friend Han dismissed him often throughout the trilogy. Luke was simply not like the others. He had different priorities and loftier goals. It was these traits of Luke that really connected to Michael.
"I've always been a little out of step with everybody else. I'm just that guy that… people and me and groups and joining and all that kind of stuff, it's just not quite there. I want to be a part of things but it doesn't always work out."
We see Luke as a great hero, but we forget that as he began his hero's journey, he was impatient, reluctant, and naive. We got to see him rise to the occasion but he wasn't jaded like Han, he wasn't regal and strong like Leia. There was something more going on that Michael realized years later.
"The moment it came together for me—and I don't think I've ever told this story before—about how to explain my connection to Luke Skywalker to myself was when [I] got to see the deleted scenes from the original Star Wars film with Biggs and Luke and everybody. When I saw the way Luke was in that group setting with his friends on Tatooine, the way they were dismissing him and minimizing him, calling him 'Wormie,' he was the butt of the joke, he was the one nobody believed… he was just different."
The scenes were cut from the final version of the film and they were never put back in, even in the Special Editions. Most of us never saw these scenes but Michael saw them from a Lucasfilm CD-ROM in 1997. It opened his eyes to a fuller view of Luke's characterization portrayed by Mark Hamill. Michael says:
"What I was seeing in Mark Hamill's performance, all those years, without that missing piece… he was playing the whole character with that in context even though it got taken out in post-production. So all of that was informing who Luke Skywalker was."
Michael no longer saw a whiny kid, he saw a person apart from others, not above others, but distinct. He no longer saw an arrogant boy, he saw a person determined in his goals. He saw someone who was like himself who, even though Luke was ignored and tagged as odd, he also had the courage to help others in need.
He may not lift rocks but Michael has a track record for standing his ground as he has shown in his videos taking toy companies to task for their high prices, low stock, mediocre quality, and questionable distribution decisions. Some viewers (and sometimes, trolls) may take issue with his criticisms, but a far greater number of people have come to Michael for collecting advice, to restore their own broken childhood toys, and even for deep questions on the meaning of Star Wars. Although he's felt "on the outside in social circles," he's taken to heart that Luke may have often stood alone, but he inspired others with his convictions and would head out, in spite of the possible consequences, to the rescue.
Michael's love of the characters and stories of Star Wars had always crossed-over to his love of the toys. His connection to Luke drove him to gather pieces of the character but also drove him in his quest of more pieces from the galaxy of action figures and playsets.
It was impossible as a kid to have everything though, naturally. We had to use our imaginations to set the stage for our toys' adventures. Michael had an old blanket with ducks printed on it that would serve as a random terrain generator. Without the Millennium Falcon, a simple Cool Whip bowl transported his heroes. A potted plant made for a good swamp land of Dagobah. Star Wars toys had a quality to them that, like the movies, opened kids' imaginations and the world that George Lucas created prompted kids to get creative.
"That was the beautiful thing about Star Wars toys… an X-Wing can fly anywhere, can do anything, alien figures can be any alien… it was a toyline of endless possibilities and you were not bound by any rules."
However, the actual toys could still add more dynamics and interactivity to playtime. Missing some of these items meant missing out on some tools for building more tactile play scenarios. In childhood, you had to make due with what you had. As an adult, what you missed out on can sometimes stick with you and that can be a driving force for collecting.
"I started with things that, emotionally, I just really wanted that I never could get… My drive started with that, trying to chase childhood unicorns."
That emotional connection added to his journey that started with the movie, continued with a love of a character, moved to fun imaginative playtimes, and finally to second chances to get those missing pieces. These "childhood hangups" were part of the fuel that energized his hunt.
If you ask Michael, "When did you start collecting?" it's not quite the right question. He started receiving some toys in childhood and he never really stopped. He continued to obtain items after others his age had tapped out. He got a Death Star set years after the toys were finished at a church fundraiser for $2.00—but it once belonged to his friend's brother. Later, he was buying items from others in middle school and expressing his love of Empire Strikes Back when everyone dismissed him and told him to go see Batman. At one time he lived in England and a friend had some near-mint figures just sitting in his closet. "Take 'em," he said (Michael did). He just happened to keep finding Star Wars toys and managed to keep everything he got.
The hunt would lead him to track down those "childhood unicorns" but we're not talking about the rare stuff. "Rarity is not what drives me," he says. It's those items he loved or had a connection to, like Luke of course, that had left an open space somewhere in his childhood. He noticed his Luke action figure had different color hair than the one his friend had. Then a small picture on the cardbacks of figures showed the same Luke with an even different shade of locks. He had to find them! (He got 'em) The Jedi Knight Lukes were notorious for paint rubbing off the nose but then, lo and behold, years later as an adult collector, he discovered another version of the same figure that had a plastic molded face with no paint to rub off. He had to find that one! (Got it, luckily two of them). The hunt never really slowed down, there was always more to discover.
In what he calls his "holy grail" find in collecting actually happened in childhood. It's another of his finely-detailed stories that he relives with considerable wonderment in his voice:
"My doctor's office, when I was a child, was right across the street in an area of Nashville from an independent toy store called, Philip's Toy Mart. They were this little bitty Mom 'n' Pop toy store that had been around for years. I don't even know how far back they went. It was the coolest little toy shop; it was like a converted house that had gone retail. And they had just floor-to-ceiling, tight little narrow walkways and aisles and stuff. He had all the hobby stuff, too, like the pewter soldiers and the modeling paint ...
We go into that store after a doctor's visit in '89 and I walk in there and I finally do—instead of going right to the G.I. Joes for once—I finally just start doing some real looking around. Again, he was a toy store, not a used antique store, not a second-hand store, not a comics and collectibles store, this was a toy store. So in '89 he had Bucky O'Hare figures, he had the current G.I. Joe, he had Starting Lineups, he had Cops 'n' Crooks, he had everything that was current.
So, I'm walking through there and I'm looking around, and I'm looking from floor to ceiling, and I'm just enjoying myself. I look up at the top of this shelf… boxed! Right along side one another… Rancor Monster, Jabba's Playset, Twin Pod Cloud Car in an Empire Strikes Back box! And I'm going… (look of absolute disbelief)… the tag on the box [of the Cloud Car] said $9.95… I had [the other two] but I was looking at that Cloud Car and I went… 'Ohhh!'… and I grabbed it and I said, 'Mom can I please…' and she goes, 'Sure.'
I brought that thing up with my allowance money to that counter, and that old man walked over and just looked and he said, 'Where have you been?' Because he had been trying to sell that thing forever. And I said, 'Well I'm here now!' It had been there for eight or nine years.
That Cloud Car is still my childhood one and it is still mint mint mint! It is a prized possession of mine. I know people dog on the Cloud Car but I have a very special encounter with [it]. It was one of those rarefied Empire vehicles that other kids had that I never saw in a store. And I got to buy one. To this day, I cherish that Cloud Car."
Alongside the Cloud Car are hundreds of items in his lighted display cases. Star Wars action figures, vehicles, and playsets are the centerpieces in his collection next to many other toylines that all have special meaning for him. When he looks over the array of colorful items, he says it feels "surreal." Many of the pieces are from his past and are still in his life today. "It's a series of memories from childhood."
When he sees his Bespin Luke figure, he remembers being in the store with his Mom. Boba Fett has a scuff on his shoulder and that reminds him of a stone wall--a favorite playtime spot--in the backyard by the driveway of his childhood home where the figure must have crashed during an adventure. One of his Han Solos was played with so much he's lost most of his paint and looks nearly shirtless. Not every toy has to be mint because the marks and oddities hold meaning.
"I find that to be very comforting… if you are a person who had the privilege as I did of keeping your childhood toys through adulthood, and you have a strong enough memory for the past, any scuff or scratch or quirk of that toy… those are memory capsules."
For Michael, they piece together parts of his own past and even parts of cultural history. Although he never asks for donations, fans of RetroBlasting often gift Michael and Melinda with toys from their own childhoods to add to the RetroBlasting archives. These toys have stories of their own and they stand next to others with different journeys but all ending up here. Surreal is right. Michael will still repair and restore an item when damage from time or sun or dust covers its true nature, but his restorations are never with the intent to erase their idiosyncrasies. It's not about monetary value to him, it's about the value of memories.
"They intrinsically hold onto memories that you may never get back anyway. You're looking at something and you don't remember what happened, but that toy does! That toy is the wax cylinder recording of something that happened on some random summer Tuesday when you were six or seven years old out in the backyard… it's fascinating to me how that works."
This idea makes the toys very special to adults like Michael. Another story from his childhood involves a missing lightsaber to his Obi-Wan Kenobi figure. His dad made a new lightsaber accessory by modifying a piece of wood, like a toothpick, painting it blue, and making it fit in the figure's arm. Later, however, Michael obtained a vintage lightsaber piece and threw away the toothpick. To this day he regrets not keeping the toothpick because of that memory. The blue paint that is still splotched on the Kenobi figure is enough of a trigger to recall that special moment. This is how it is with most all of his Star Wars collection.
"All those toys have a story. They're all special to me in that way. They all have a resonance for me."
Far From Galaxy's Edge
I had to bring up Galaxy's Edge. Neither Michael or I have been there but we've both had help from others to almost "touch" it. A friend of mine went and brought me a pack of Sabacc cards. For Michael, it was all about Luke. Being the Empire devotee he managed to get Luke's lamp prop replica which is the illuminator Yoda takes from Luke's camp. Disney even reproduced Luke's portable food tray from that same scene which Michael just had to have as well.
While he wishes the park had represented a more holistic take on Star Wars to include characters and encounters from all the movies, he remains interested should that happen and keeps an eye out for more movie-related merchandise that may come.
Michael and Melinda continue to work hard on YouTube content with many videos and livestreams planned into the future. The next upcoming "Star Wars Follies"--their series on the awesome and the quirky in the vintage Kenner collection--will be all about the various TIE Fighter vehicles over the years and how they shared some characteristics even over decades of changing construction. Also planned is a thought-piece covering all the recent Disney+ content announcements. There is a lot to look forward to and new memories to create.
Find RetroBlasting on YouTube here and enjoy the entertaining, nostalgic, and informative videos - you're sure to find your favorite vintage toys there and maybe recall some lost memories of your own!