Gumby: The Resurrection of Clay Animation
Gumbasia: The Journey of Art Clokey
Clay animation was, by no means, a new creation in the 1950’s. It had been around almost as long as film itself, at least as far back as 1908 when Thomas Edison’s studio experimented with it. But after cel animation had cemented itself as the primary form of animation, clay was largely tossed aside. However, one man has often been credited for resurrection clay animation and bringing it to the forefront of pop culture: Art Clokey.
Clokey’s interest in animation is partly attributed to his adopted father, classical music organist Joseph W. Clokey, who tutored him in the arts at a young age. Art Clokey initially got into the field of animation by doing commercials for Andersen’s Pea Soup, which led to him doing ads for Coca-Cola and Budweiser. In an effort to better refine his craft, in 1953 at the age of 22, Art Clokey went to the University of Southern California, where he was tutored by Serbian-American film director Slavko Vorkapic.
The result of his time at USC was a 3 minute short entitled “Gumbasia”, a surreal parody of Disney’s Fantasia with multi-colored clay balls building and tearing themselves down in various strange shapes set to jazz music.
Clokey began to shop the short around, hoping to land a deal at a Hollywood studio to make a clay animated feature film. He eventually met with producer Sam Engel at 20th Century Fox; After showing Engel the short, he paced around a bit and decided he was impressed enough to hire Clokey. However, he didn’t want Clokey for films, but rather to improve the quality of TV shows aimed at children. Clokey and his wife Ruth, who had an infant daughter at the time, agreed that television needed better programming for kids, and thus Clokey began work on a pilot.
January 2 - August 20, 1988
One thing that had been suggested to Clokey for a potential series was the one thing Gumbasia was missing: A clearly defined cast of characters. Clokey designed his star character first: Gumby. Gumby was green in tone, which Clokey had specifically chosen as he felt it was a racially neutral color. His body shape was inspired by the traditional appearance of the fairy tale Gingerbread Man, with long wide legs so he would stay upright during animation. The slanted shape of the top of his head was based on a photo of Clokey’s biological father, Charles Farrington, where his hair stuck up on one side. The name itself, “Gumby”, was derived from a nickname for what Art Clokey’s family used to call the muddy clay on his grandparents’ farm, “gumbo”.
Howdy Do(ody) to Gumby
The pilot episode, entitled “Gumby on the Moon”, introduces Gumby as a curious boy who finds a spaceship. He lets his curiosity get the better of him and activates the ship, sending him flying to the moon, becoming stranded when the spaceship explodes. He soon encounters triangular moon creatures, while his father Gumbo attempts to (and eventually does) rescue Gumby. With Sam Engel’s help, Art Clokey pitched the show to Tom Sarnoff, son of NBC founder David Sarnoff.
The pilot was then tested on the Howdy Doody Show, and was a hit with kids. NBC gave Clokey’s new Hollywood studio, Clokey Films, the greenlight to produce 22 eleven-minute episodes, airing as “The Gumby Show”.
The Gumby Show: Gumby of the 50's and 60's
The series centers around the adventures of Gumby and his orange pony sidekick Pokey (whom Gumby meets in the third episode, “The Lost Little Pony”) as they explore the world around them. Much of the time, they reside within a toy store, where they can travel within inanimate objects such as books and records, which take them to other worlds and other time periods in history. Occasionally they are joined by the yellow dinosaur detective Prickle and the blue shape-shifting mermaid Goo. Their fun is often disrupted by the Blockheads, two red square-headed troublemakers based on the comic characters The Katzenjammer Kids (an early 20th century comic strip about two boys who’d cause mischief at the discomfort of others).
The voices for some of the characters would widely change over the years, with no less than four voice actors credited to Gumby alone during in the 50’s and 60’s; The most famous and longest lasting was Dallas McKennon. Art Clokey himself voiced Pokey for the majority of his appearances.
The series did well for NBC, running from 1955 to 1957, after which Gumby went into syndication in 1959. As popularity remained strong through syndication, Gumby was revived in 1962 for 87 new episodes. The animation of the 60’s shorts are somewhat different; whereas the character models in the 50’s Gumby shorts were made using rolling pins and cookie cutters, the 60’s models were created using poured molds, which led to more consistency at the sacrifice of looser character movement. A heavier emphasis was placed upon Gumby’s time travel adventures as he went everywhere from the prehistoric to the American Revolution.
These shorts were produced until 1968; By the late 60’s and especially into the 70’s, Gumby’s popularity had waned. He was starting to become a product of the previous generation of kids, and wasn’t making the impact he once had.
Gumby Adventures: Gumby of the 80's and 90's
Gumby’s revival in the 80’s was thanks largely to two factors. One was due to Saturday Night Live; Eddie Murphy, who was a cast member from 1980 to 1984, did a recurring sketch where he played a foul-mouthed Gumby, which was by far one of his most popular contributions to the show. The other was the launch of the Disney Channel, which played Gumby shorts in late night slots to audiences who either had never seen the series before or were former child viewers now watching it with their own kids. This sowed the seeds for an all-new Gumby series, entitled “Gumby Adventures”, to debut by the end of the decade.
Gumby Adventures, which consisted of 33 half-hour episodes with three segments each (as well as five standalone shorts), was produced by Art Clokey’s Premavision studio and premiered in syndication in 1988. These new episodes brought along a gimmick, in that Gumby and his friends were now part of a musical band. The revived series also added two new characters to the mix: Gumby’s sister Minga and their mastodon pal Denail.
Many of the animators who worked on the 80’s Gumby episodes would go on to work at Disney on stop-motion films such as “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James & the Giant Peach”.
Gumby: The Movie
This revival culminated in “Gumby: The Movie”, released on October 9, 1995 (though it was completed in 1992). The plot centers around Gumby's band and their journey to rescue Gumby’s dog Lowbelly from the Blockheads, eventually encountering clones of themselves.
Sadly, however, this film was a colossal failure, due in large part to the extremely limited theatrical run (of only 21 theaters) that resulted in only earning $57,100 against a $2.8 Million budget. The film was also heavily criticized for being “out of touch” with 90’s audiences, considered “quaint” and “old-fashioned” compared to The Nightmare Before Christmas two years earlier.
Gumby Lives On
Art Clokey resurrected clay animation to the public eye and managed to make it a legitimate animation technique. Many would follow in his footsteps, such as Will Vinton (California Raisins) and Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit). Art Clokey passed away not too long ago in 2010, but Gumby lives on, continuing to hold a place in the collective hearts of decades of children young and old.
Clokey did have similar lasting success of a different sort with his other series, Davey & Goliath, which he produced for the Lutheran Church. But that is one storybook that will be explored another time.
© 2015 Josh Measimer