A Tribute To Gumby Creator Art Clokey

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The animator who was the father of the bendable, pop-culture icon known as Gumby, died Friday at his home in California. He was 88.

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of song, "Gumby")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Gumby. He was once...

RAZ: Claymation pioneer, Art Clokey, the creator of "Gumby" and "Davey and Goliath," died yesterday at his home in California. Our producer Petra Mayer has this appreciation.

PETRA MAYER: Everybody knows "Gumby." Even if you didn't grow up watching his adventures on TV, that wedge-shaped green head is a cultural icon.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Gumby")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as Gumby) Oh, boy.

MAYER: In the early 1950s, Art Clokey was teaching school by day and studying film at night. For one project, he set up a fantastic landscape of colored clay on a ping pong table in his stepdad's garage. In over 4,000 carefully posed shots, he made the balls, rods and squiggles of clay dance to some crazy jazz beats.

(Soundbite of music)

MAYER: Clokey called his film "Gumbasia," a sort of mash-up of Disney's "Fantasia" and the gooey mud called gumbo that his stepdad recalled playing with as a child. But why use clay rather than real actors? In a 2002 interview, Clokey said it was just cheaper.

Mr. ART CLOKEY (Animator): It was more economical and easier to do this study film without using people.

MAYER: Necessity was the mother of an invention that ended up changing Clokey's life. He showed "Gumbasia" to Sam Engel, a film producer at Columbia. Engel loved it. He told Clokey:

Mr. CLOKEY: That's the most exciting film I've ever seen in my life. He said, can you make little figures out of that clay? And I want to improve the quality of television for children - he had young children. He said, I'll finance a pilot film if you'll make some children's films with it using clay animation.

MAYER: And so "Gumby" and his orange pal, Pokey, began to take shape. Clokey's wife Ruth suggested a sort of gingerbread man shape. His favorite color was green, so Gumby was green. And that distinctive wedge-shaped head was inspired by Clokey's father, who sported a similar hairdo in an old photo.

(Soundbite of music)

MAYER: "Gumby" began airing as part of "The Howdy Doody Show," and in 1956 he struck out on his own. He stayed in production throughout the 1960s alongside other Clokey shows like the Christian-themed "Davey and Goliath."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Davey and Goliath")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as Goliath) Davey...

MAYER: By the early '80s though, "Gumby's" popularity had begun to fade a little. Until...

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Man: How are you, Gum?

Mr. EDDIE MURPHY (Comedian): (as Gumby) Not Gum, Gumby. I'm Gumby, damn it.

MAYER: Eddie Murphy's cranky cigar-chomping version of Gumby for "Saturday Night Live" sparked a new surge of interest in the little green guy, eventually leading to a revival of the television series, a movie and scores of new bendy toys. Clokey didn't mind Murphy's mockery. He told a newspaper in 2002 that Gumby can laugh at himself.

(Soundbite of music)

MAYER: Art Clokey died Friday at his home in California. He was 88 years old.

Petra Mayer, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) 'Cause he's Gumby, Gumby, Gumby, the magical clay boy.

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