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Christmas for Nerds …

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I was in a toy store doing some last minute Christmas shopping the other night when I came across a Creepy Crawlers® playset. Many people have distinct recollections of the most cherished toys from their youth: For me, the Creepy Crawler set surpassed every other childhood possession.

Back in the 60s, every Primary School had one or two boys who’s prevailing interest was not sports, or cars, or girls, or juvenile delinquency, or any of the other subjects that are generally of interest to young males. No, these kids were interested in “monsters”: Specifically – monster movies. I was one such kid. Although it might seem bizarre to imagine it now, kids like me were numerous enough back then to engender an entire industry to cater to our fascination with all things monstrous.

There were monster magazines like “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, whose title I can barely recollect now and maintain a straight face. I probably owned 50 different issues of this magazine at one point in my life. Today, you might ask what kind of content the publishers used to fill up an entirely new magazine each month. Looking back, I can see that the writing (and I use the term loosely) didn’t matter in the least. In each issue, the editor would recycle the same studio produced still photographs from countless, low-budget horror films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Unbelievably, I couldn’t wait for each new issue; scrupulously hoarding my pitiful allowance so I could buy essentially the same magazine with a new cover over and over again.

There were also monster models. If you asked a kid today to define a “model”, I suspect he might tell you that it’s spreadsheet that you make during the design phase for a new computer program. Back when I was a youngster, though, every kid knew that a “model” was a pasteboard box full of slate-gray, injection-molded plastic parts. In order to build these models, you needed to break each piece out of the interconnected tree that held the whole thing together. Then you needed to assemble the parts using an acetone based “airplane” glue THAT ACTUALLY CAUSED THE PLASTIC TO MELT ON CONTACT. A few years down the road, this kind of glue would be criminalized, and acquire about the same reputation for toxicity as enriched uranium. When I was a kid, however, this glue was regarded as an acceptable substance for kids to “play” with – probably in much the same way that an eighteenth century kid would have played with a discarded glob of mercury.

But I digress: Although the majority of model kits that were marketed in those days were comprised of car replicas, there was a small but well-known niche market for “monster” models. Just like the aforementioned monster magazines, these model kits generally depicted some famous scene from one of the Universal Studios classic horror films of the 1940s. Even better, some of these kits employed a special characteristic that was regarded at the time as a wondrous technological achievement: Some of the plastic parts ACTUALLY GLOWED IN THE DARK! This otherworldly glow pushed the spookiness factor right into the stratosphere! Needless to say, I was the proud owner of ALL of these kits, sometimes in multiple versions. I’m embarrassed to confess that I can still get a lump in my throat by logging on to Ebay and looking at some of the vintage monster model kits that are available there.

Of course, the over-riding factor in the life of every monster-obsessed kid in those days was monster movies. Monster movies were what made all of the magazines and model kits and other ancillary junk possible. The really pathetic part is that these movies didn’t even represent the state of the art for the time period. As previously mentioned, the movies that we loved so much inevitably consisted of creaky old Universal Studios films from the 40s, or low-budget science fiction “B” movies from the 50s. The thing that these movies all had in common was their wide availability on late-night weekend TV of that era.

Remember, this was a time when a typical small town TV household might have received six (!!!) channels. In those days, no matter where you lived, there was sure to be some kind of programming beginning at or near midnight every Friday or Saturday evening whose content consisted of horror movie reruns. In my own town, this program went by the moniker of Chiller Theater. It was hosted by an unknown staff member of the local TV affiliate – quite possibly the same guy who read the weather forecast – disguised in ludicrously bad “monster makeup”. Needless to say, we were completely enthralled by this character, going so far as to join his fan club and send him earnest letters seeking his opinion on some subtle thematic aspect of a movie with a title like “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”.

Chiller Theater was the undisputed weekly highlight of my Elementary School career. More often than not, I arranged for a sleepover with one of my similarly monster obsessed and hopelessly nerdy friends. These days, most parents seem to feel that they must supervise every waking moment of their children’s lives. In those unenlightened times, however, our parents were unabashedly pleased about any distraction that would get us kids out of their hair for a couple of hours. Consequently, we were usually left alone to stay up as late as we liked and consume anything edible on the premises.

All of this brings me back to the Creepy Crawler playset that was the original impetus for this essay. Just in case some younger readers are unfamiliar with this classic toy, I’ll provide a description: Creepy Crawlers consisted of a set of steel molds that came in themed sets and were impressed with various spooky objects, such as bugs, or skeletons, or even shrunken heads. In addition to the molds, the set contained a large bottle of sickly smelling, viscous liquid that went by the remarkably appropriate name of Plastigoop®. The object of the Creepy Crawler kit was to squeeze the molds full of Plastigoop in order to create gruesome, rubbery monster toys and other accessories. But here’s the kicker: The liquid Plastigoop wouldn’t turn solid unless the material was subjected to extremely high heat; and the final component of the Creepy Crawler set was a device that supplied just such a heat source. Yes, this marvelous toy – presumably targeted at a primary school demographic judging from the cherubic tots pictured on the box front – contained a miniature hotplate!

Although this hotplate may have been small – containing a recessed opening just large enough to accept one of the aforementioned molds – it was undoubtedly just as powerful as a full sized cooking appliance! An entire generation of children can attest to its ability to ignite a piece of scrap paper, or cause an instantaneous and incredibly painful burn. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve long afternoons sprawled luxuriously across the living room floor with my Creepy Crawler playset, the 450 degree surface of the hotplate only a few centimeters away from my Mom’s hyperflammable, 3-inch rayon shag carpeting. Alas, on those afternoons I was creating Creepy Crawlers with reckless abandon, not considering that my supply of Plastigoop was limited, and that a single refill bottle of this remarkable substance cost almost as much as the entire Creepy Crawler kit (Is it possible that we were witnessing the birth of the ink jet printer industry business model?).

Mattel issued the first Creepy Crawler set in 1964. In 1966, they released a specialty set called The Fright Factory. This was Manna from Heaven for a monster-obsessed kid like me.

As you’ve probably guessed, Creepy Crawler playsets are still manufactured and sold today. Needless to say, the Plastigoop has been reformulated to “cook” at a much lower temperature, and the open-faced hotplate has been replaced by a fully enclosed mechanism that is powered by a pathetic 40-watt light bulb. Sadly, this device provides practically no opportunity for burning down your house.

Back in the 60s, kids considered these toys to be extremely high tech, embodying elements of modern chemistry, and using some of the most advanced plastics of the era. Today, however, most kids would rightly regard the modern version of these kits as hopelessly primitive and outdated. In truth, the majority of the Creepy Crawlers playsets sold today are probably more useful for satisfying some adult’s sense of nostalgia than providing entertainment for a Nintendo-savy, modern day kid.

Copyright 2010 by Pat Moening

Written by mainecartoons

January 2, 2010 at 8:06 pm