Nearly 50, Gumby's still clay, still green, with a heart of gold

Pop Culture

August 14, 2005|By Bobby Bryant | Bobby Bryant,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Gumby! He was once a little green slab of clay.

Gumby! You should see what Gumby can do today.

- Lyrics from the 1950s TV series

He's 49 years old and looks like an asparagus with legs. But for humble Gumby, this is the Summer of Love:

In May, an art gallery in the San Francisco region opened an exhibit called "Gumby and Friends." ("Gumby is an icon," the head of the Arts and Cultural Foundation of Antioch, Calif., told the Associated Press.)

In June, New York's Museum of the Moving Image opened a six-month exhibit on Gumby. ("The clay is medium and metaphor," the museum notes.)

And this month, StudioZ, an art gallery and concert house in San Francisco, held a two-day Gumby festival.

What's behind this sudden fit of Gumbiness? A birthday - Gumby's 50th. Technically, it's not until next year - he didn't appear on TV until 1956. But celebrations have begun early. Like Gumby, this anniversary is flexible.

"People love Gumby," says California businessman Joe Clokey, whose father, Art Clokey, created the character. "He's always helping people. He's full of adventure. [Gumby] was a pure expression of creativity and love. That's why he endures. What Gumby represents is love."

The younger Clokey, 43, lives near San Luis Obispo and serves as president of Premavision/Prema Toys, which continues to produce Gumby products and videos. "My full-time job," he says, "is Gumby."

Art Clokey, still in "pretty good health" at 83, no longer does interviews, his son said, but still comes around the studios sometimes to observe new Gumby shows being made - by manipulating clay figures, much as they were made in the 1950s. (Computer animation might be easier, but it's not necessarily better, Joe Clokey says.)

Gumby first popped up on The Howdy Doody Show in 1956 and a year later, got his own TV series. In the 1980s, comedian Eddie Murphy parodied the little green guy on Saturday Night Live by playing Gumby as an aging and bitter entertainer ("I'm Gumby, dammit!").

`Idealistic clayboy'

Who's Gumby today? Look him up in David Mansour's From Abba to Zoom: A Pop-Culture Encyclopedia, and he's listed as an "idealistic green clayboy with tilted, bumped head, bulging eyes and bell-bottom legs." (Did Gumby invent bell-bottom pants? Discuss.)

The closest thing to Gumby in pop culture today, Clokey says, might be cartoon star SpongeBob SquarePants, or maybe the computer-animated films produced by Pixar, such as Toy Story. Like SpongeBob, Clokey says, Gumby is a nice guy whose brand of humor stretches from toddlers to older kids.

"Gumby works," Clokey says. "It just works."

But Gumby is only half the story. The other half is Art Clokey, Gumby's father. The elder Clokey had a rough Depression-era childhood - part of it reads like a Charles Dickens novel. But without it, Gumby might never have been born.

Art Clokey's parents divorced when he was 8 or 9, his son Joe says. Art lived with his father in Michigan.But when Art was about 10, his father was killed in a car crash. Art was sent to California to live with his mother, who had remarried. But her new husband refused to let Art stay with them, according to Joe Clokey.

`His life opened up'

Art was sent to an orphanage. But by the time he was 11, Art was adopted by "a wonderful Renaissance man named Joseph Clokey" who encouraged the boy's interest in art.

"How often do people adopt 11-year-old troubled boys?" Joe Clokey asks. "When he was adopted, his life opened up. ... If that hadn't happened, Gumby probably would have never happened."

The emotional scars from childhood helped Art Clokey channel a children's point of view all his life, his son said. "He kind of stayed an 11-year-old boy."

By the 1950s, Art Clokey was making experimental films in which he would manipulate clay shapes using "stop-motion animation" to make them seem alive. Clokey and his wife conceived Gumby in 1955, Joe Clokey said. The character first appeared on TV's Howdy Doody Show a year later. (Some early Gumbys are to be packaged into a DVD special edition this year.)

Gumby's "tilted, bumped head" came from an old photo of Art Clokey's late father, taken when he was a teen-ager, showing a "huge cowlick" sprouting from one side of his head. "If you superimpose an outline of that portrait over Gumby, you will see that the heads coincide perfectly," Clokey once said.

Baby boomers who grew up with Gumby TV shows and toys got a jolt in the early 1980s when Eddie Murphy began his angry-Gumby spoofs on SNL.

Joe Clokey says his first reaction to Murphy's routine was: That's not Gumby. But on the other hand, it was Murphy, and it was funny.

"My dad got a big kick out of that," Clokey said.

The Gumby family

Supporting characters in various Gumby episodes, from gumbyworld.com:

Pokey: An orange horse who is more skeptical than the trusting Gumby. (Sort of Scully to his Mulder.)

The Blockheads: Dum-dums who usually wind up learning something from Gumby.

Gumbo and Gumba: Gumby's parents.

Prickle: A "little yellow dinosaur with spines," as creator Art Clokey once described him.

Goo: A blue mermaid, designed to be paired with Prickle to demonstrate Clokey's belief that people are either "prickly" or "gooey" - uptight or easygoing.

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