ST. PETERSBURG — For almost 20 years, his obsession has been tattooed on his back, visible only to his wife and friends and family.
Now it's on public display.
Anthony Casale, 38, of Lutz built an exhibit for the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library centered on the most well-known character in the Transformers franchise: Optimus Prime.
"He's a protector, a guardian, a hero. He's such a selfless character," he said. "This is the character that everyone looks to. He's the one that everyone trusts."
The character has been a role model to Casale since he was a kid in the 1980s. His exhibit traces the character's journey and showcases the many ways Optimus Prime has been represented.
The library, at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, will display Casale's exhibit through Aug. 3.
Visitors can peer into eight glass cases filled with collectibles. They can find his favorite Optimus Prime, the original "Generation 1." They can search for the one carrying a 5-year-old Pepsi bottle and the one that looks like Mickey Mouse. They can read the letters from three voice actors who played the character and agreed to write about what Optimus Prime means to them.
Since March, Casale spent 50 hours making labels, typing plot summaries, and buying and borrowing toys to fill the small holes in his collection.
His wife of four years doesn't mind.
"I have no small amount of pride in him for doing this," said Regina Casale, 29.
The couple met as undergrads while studying theater at USF. After graduation, Anthony did some acting, and for the last 11 years he has worked as a server at the Melting Pot in Tampa. He went back to USF two years ago for a master's degree in library and information science.
His exhibit began as a class project. One of his teachers asked students to archive a collection, so he took inventory of his Transformers toys.
His teacher, Jim Schnur, a special collections librarian, helped Casale display some of the toys in the library last summer.
That exhibit was a success, Schnur said, so this year Casale built another with a narrower focus.
Most exhibits celebrate historic figures or are tied to current events, Schnur said. The Optimus Prime display doesn't.
It offers people a chance to relive their childhoods, he said, or to escape to a world of fantasy.
"I'm not looking to convert anyone," Casale said, but he would love to see a parent and child come to the exhibit together, connect with the Transformers toys they grew up with and bond over their shared experiences.
He has collected about 900 items, he said, worth $10,000 or more. They are packed away in a walk-in closet, except for some items he displays in a tall, narrow glass case in the living room.
How does his wife feel about it? A costumer and vintage clothing collector, Regina said she keeps sewing machines, clothes and fabric scattered around the couple's home.
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"If he can deal with that," she said, "I can deal with a few Transformers toys lying around."
But by few, she said, she means a thousand.
Do people think he's weird? "If they do," Anthony said, "they don't tell me."
Regina certainly doesn't.
A couple of weeks ago, she combined the couple's hobbies. She ordered vintage curtains and bed sheets in Transformers patterns and made herself a dress.
"I wore it all day on his birthday," she said. "He was pretty speechless."
Alli Langley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.