It seems almost irreverent to ask, but where did Gumby come from?
The clay that became Gumby was first seen in a 1953 experimental movie created by Al Clokey, who studied film making at USC. Clokey was from Michigan, where the clay-ey soil was referred to as gumbo, and he called that 4-minute film Gumbasia. You can find it on YouTube, but the colors on this version at the KQED site are vivid and fresh.
A bit later, Clokey was tutoring the son of a 20th Century Fox producer named Sam Engel. He got the chance to show Engel the film. Engel loved it and asked Clokey to develop clay characters for a possible TV show.
Art’s wife Ruth was a key player in this; KQED credits her with creating the original Gumby. NBC got interested and signed Clokey, first to make short Gumby segments for The Howdy Doody Hour, then to produce The Adventures of Gumby starting in 1957. The show ran on Saturday mornings, right after Howdy Doody. With a lead-in like that, how could Gumby fail?
Gumby lived in a book called Down on the Farm, and he could jump into other books too. Sometimes his parents, Gumbo and Gumba were in the show. In other episodes, he could travel into outer space with Pokey the Pony, his best friend. Clokey himself voice the pony most of the time.
Whatever Ruth’s influence, Art Clokey said often that he modeled the figure after his father, who died when Clokey was a child; Clokey’s Dad really did have a poufy cowlick on one side of his head, as you can see. This picture ran in several blogs and newspapers after Clokey’s death in 2010 (He was 88).
Gumby is green because Clokey was fond of Walt Whitman’s The Leaves of Grass, a book of poetry. So Gumby is green like shoot of new grass–but not pure green; Gumby has a bit of blue from the clear sky in him.
Clokey–whom few remember, although his creation is an icon–was born Arthur Farrington and raised on his grandparents’ farm in Michigan. He was 8 or 9 when his father died. Mom was already in California, so young Art was sent to her, but she abandoned him–probably for the second time, since she’d left him in Michigan years before.
He ended up in a half-way house until he was 11, then his life took a turn for the better. Art was adopted by Joseph W. Clokey, a professor at Pomona College in Claremont and a composer of some renown. Art traveled widely with his new dad, got a great education, and grew up to be a hard-working, talented, philosophical man.
He studied for the ministry–which is where he met Ruth, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. He served in World War II then went to film school at USC–at night. By day, he tutored students in Studio City, which is where he met Engle–so now we’re caught up. Clokey began making stop-action cartoons for children starring Gumby.
It weren’t easy.
On the practical side, Gumby’s clay was mixed with beeswax to keep him from cracking. Even so, Gumby melted quickly under the studio lights, so Clokey and his assistants needed to have up to 100 Gumbys ready to go for each day’s shooting. Like other claymation shows that came along later, the process was slow: 8 hours of work could result in 20 seconds of finished film. Most half-hour episodes took six weeks to shoot.
As for Gumby’s very sunny, kind, and downright guileless personality, that probably came from the Clokeys. Ruth was raised in a religious home, active in her church, and wanted to make the world a better place for children. Art planned to be a minister, and after the Gumby craze calmed down he got into Eastern mysticism, studying Zen Buddhism and traveling to India to meet teachers.
Most Boomers remember another clay-charactered show that the Clokeys produced for the Lutheran Church, a religious television series: Davey and Goliath. It ran from 1960 to 1975. The Clokeys divorced in 1966, and Ruth Clokey–who became Ruth Goodell–continued to produce Davey and Goliath until 1975.
As for Gumby, Art Clokey was downright philosophical about his greatest success, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1984: “Children identify with clay, just clay itself, not just Gumby. They have a gut reaction to clay because clay is like us: We’re always changing. Especially in childhood, you change very rapidly. Your shape is very plastic and spiritually you’re plastic—anybody of consequence can influence you.”
In another interview he said, “Gumby is a symbol of the spark of divinity in each of us, the basis of the ultimate value of each person.”
He was once a little green slab of clay
You should see what Gumby can do today
He can walk into any book, with his pony pal Pokey, too
If you’ve got a heart, then Gumby’s a part of you.
That song was written by Sneaky Pete Kleinow, a steel guitarist with the original Flying Burrito Brothers.
Gumby went off the air in 1969 but was never forgotten. The green clay guy got hot again in the 80s. Eddie Murphy played an old, embittered Gumby on Saturday Night Live (watch it here), and the animated TV show was revived in the late 80s, followed by a movie. Gumby is now part of our cultural history, and everyone recognizes him.
Gumby’s original fans have grandkids now, and those kids are watching Spongebob and Transformers and TMNT . . . but pull up an episode of Gumby on your iPad, and they’ll love it.