March 25, 2002
-- Art Clokey never had clay actors like Gumby, Pokey, Prickle and Goo in mind when he went to film school. Clokey, who created Gumby 45 years ago, says he can't believe that a clay boy with googly eyes, mitten hands and a lump on his head ended up with his own TV show and top-selling poseable doll.
"I was studying to be a producer and director of films with live people in them -- not clay," Clokey tells Harriet Baskas. She reports on Gumby's roots for Morning Edition
as part of the Present at the Creation
series on American icons.
But with money tight, Clokey decided to make a short film in 1953 starring clay balls, clay cones and other geometric clay shapes that seemed to dance, grow, divide and dart around, Baskas reports. Clokey shot the film in stop-motion animation: he would barely move a piece of clay, shoot a frame of film, stop the camera, then move the clay a tiny bit more. Then he'd repeat the process over and over again -- about 4,000 times.
Clokey added music and called the film Gumbasia
-- a reference to Disney's Fantasia
and to the clay soil in Michigan that Clokey's father called "gumbo" whenever it rained.
The dancing clay shapes became the clay boy Gumby once Clokey showed his film to Sam Engel, whose son Clokey was tutoring. Engel was a Hollywood producer and thought Clokey's clay figures would look great on television.
"He said, 'Art, if you can make little figures out of that clay and animate them... I'll finance a pilot film,'" Clokey says.
Gumby soon began to take shape: Clokey's wife suggested the gingerbread man as inspiration; Clokey's favorite color was green, so Gumby was too; the bell-bottom-shaped legs allowed the character to stay upright; and a lump on one side of Gumby's head was styled like the hairdo of Clokey's dad in an old photo.
Clokey's short films of Gumby first appeared on Howdy Doody
in 1956, but Gumby was spun off into his own weekly network show the following year.
Film historian Michael Frierson says Gumby became hugely popular because "he's a good character, you like him, he's a nice guy" and because, at the time, Clokey's simple low-tech production methods appealed to the audience.
Gumby went into retirement in the late 1960s but made a comeback in the 1980s, when Eddie Murphy played a cranky version of the character on Saturday Night Live
. Murphy's famous "I'm Gumby dammit" line represented the antithesis of the sweet, loveable animated character he was mocking. And that's what made Murphy's Gumby so funny, according to David Sheffield and Barry Blaustein, who wrote the skits for SNL.
"Yeah, Gumby was really sweet, but a lot of performers who are really sweet off stage aren't really that sweet, so we thought Gumby was just one of those guys," Blaustein says.
Gumby remains popular nearly five decades after his creation. Next month, Rhino Home Video plans to release a seven-DVD set of all the Gumby episodes.
is the official Gumby Web site.
Gumby & Friends
, a Japanese site, includes fan photos
hosted The Gumby Show
Art Clokey also created Davey and Goliath
, produced for the Lutheran Church from 1956-73.
The History of Clay Animation
Frequently asked questions
(FAQ) about clay animation.