The name “ARCO” is most synonymous with a chain of cheap gas stations, but you’ve probably owned some of their toys, too. Though the company managed to score some big licenses (everything from Disney to The Chipmunks), it was arguably more famous for its fantasy and sci-fi toys, which ran the gamut from medieval monsters to futuristic astronauts.
ARCO’s wares were most commonly found at pharmacies and bric-a-brac stores. Most of their toys had a “generic” feel, right down to the thinness of the cardboard backers. These were modest toys meant to be sold in places where expectations were lower.
That’s partially how ARCO built its name. A kid might’ve ignored their stranger offerings at a Toys “R” Us store — after all, nobody’s gonna pick Unknown Monster #26 over some dude who had his own cartoon series and cross-promotion with Wheat Thins — but in pharmacies and discount shops, they were virtual oases in deserts of picture frames and aerosol cans.
During the early ‘80s, ARCO put out a wide variety of “spooky” toys, which are now impossibly rare and fetch far more money than plastic cans full of rubber worms ever should. Justifying the demand is the fact that they’re the most genuine and weirdly sweet of all spooky toys. Remember that spread of hardcore classic shit under Ralphie’s Christmas tree? If he was into ghosts and goblins, it would’ve been all ARCO.
Take their collection of Creepy-Crawly Things, for instance. This was a line of five cent rubber creatures made more extravagant by the addition of thematic containers. The various monsters would’ve barely passed as vending machine toys individually, but putting them in such neat containers made the Creepy-Crawly Things line glow like a radioactive bug light that somehow attracted small, disaffected children.
The Creepy-Crawly Things series consisted of three distinct sets, beginning with the Bag ‘O’ Bugs.
Given the size of the container, I was surprised by the sheer volume of creatures. They poured out of that bag as if it was a clown car. For a second I felt like the stupid kid from Halloween III.
These types of rubber bugs were common in their time, but you rarely see them anymore. Unrealistically detailed and feeling like stale jelly — that’s how I like my rubber bugs.
My favorite is the praying mantis, which I would’ve used as a phony pet. In my neighborhood, catching a praying mantis was as good as catching a leprechaun, and we’d treat them as well as cats or dogs. This was mainly because they were amazing, but also because there was a longstanding rumor about praying mantises being illegal to kill.
(I’m serious! There’s even a Snopes entry about it!)
Next we have the Barrel ‘O’ Worms, which overachieves with a killer assortment of colors and worm types. Overall, they look not dissimilar from the fake worms one might find at a bait shop. As someone who used to raid his father’s tackle box for fake bugs to play with, this delights me.
Question, though. Why didn’t they call this CAN ‘O’ Worms? It was right there.
Whatever the title, it’s a bit of a fudge. You could argue that a few of them are intended to be sandworms, but I see more similarities with centipedes. No complaints, though. I like the diversity!
Last but not least, the Crypt ‘O’ Creatures, which I’m guessing was the most popular of the trio, since it promised wilder creatures AND came with a plastic coffin.
The sad truth is that it’s actually the weakest of the three, because there’s no way to open the “crypt” without first removing the cool wrapper. Since no kid was gonna do what I did — carefully cut the tape with an X-Acto knife — I’m sure most labels were simply torn off and tossed. What good is a Crypt ‘O’ Creatures if it doesn’t say “Crypt ‘O’ Creatures” on it?
Bright side: There’s a sweet variety of monsters in this one, from bats to lizards to cobras. They’re like warmup enemies from old Nintendo games. Course, kids with any level of ingenuity probably noticed the bigger draw of this set: The ability to put one of their “real” action figures in a scale-appropriate casket!
Imagine it: Destro’s funeral on your bedroom floor!
I’ve written hundreds of articles about old toys. Naturally, the ones that performed best were about wildly popular lines that expanded into everything from TV shows to feature films.
I don’t expect these 800 words about ARCO’s hella obscure Creepy-Crawly Things to be very successful ones, and yet I’m proud to pay tribute to the line. With He-Man, you kind of had to play He-Man. With buckets of bugs, you just made up your own games. ARCO couldn’t put that on the packages, but that’s what made these toys so awesome.