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“The Gumby Show”: America’s Favorite Clayboy is back again on Night Flight!
The 1950’s-era stop-motion character Gumby — sing along with us now, we know you know the words: “He was once a little green slab of clay.… Gumby!” — is our latest addition to Night Flight Plus. Come on over and re-live your favorite TV memories once again with America’s Favorite Clayboy!
The episodes are thematically arranged into the following Gumby-themed compilations: “Crazy Creatures,” “Gumby vs. The Blockheads,” Laboratory Laffs,” “Pilgums and Patriots,” “Prickle’s Predicaments,” “Puppy Dog Tales,” Of Kings and Things,” and “Way Out West.”
A little over sixty years ago, in 1956, Gumby’s creator, Art Clokey — who died in 2010 at age 89 — introduced the little humanoid figure to the world (initially seen during an episode of “The Howdy Doody Show” ) and he’s been a flexible green fixture on American television ever since, periodically coming back to the small screen in the ensuing decades to find a new audience who he hadn’t been introduced to the lovable, bendy little dude.
Clokey originally modeled the slender, green clay Clumby after his father, who was killed in a car accident when Art was just nine years old.
Clokey — born Arthur Charles Farrington in Detroit, Michigan, on October 12, 1921 — had been living with his father, Charles Farrington, at the time, shortly after his parents had divorced.
Clokey never forgot his birth father or the shape of the man’s head, characterized by a short hairstyle that stood up because of a cowlick in front, and the image stayed with him during his difficult childhood — after his mother remarried, her second husband wanted no part in being a stepfather to the young boy and actually made her choose between Art Clokey and him, and because of this, Clokey ended up being sent to an “home for abandoned boys,” where he lived for several years before he was adopted by another family, and he began to use his new adopted name of his new stepfather, Joseph W. Clokey, who was a classical music composer and organist who taught music at Pomona College in Claremont, CA.
Through his new father, he became interested in painting, drawing, and filmmaking, and they also took many trip during the summer, exploring Canada, Alaska, the American West and even Siberia (!), painting and filming with their new camera.
Clokey also became interested in geology at one point, inspired by teacher named Ray Alf who would take Clokey and his best friend on fossil digs in the Mojave Desert and in the Badlands where they dug for dinosaur bones. Many of these early adventures would end up being re-told in future episodes of “The Gumby Show” and “Davey and Goliath.”
During World War II, he helped the U.S. military in North Africa, Italy and France with photo intelligence, and then came back to States and went on to study geology, getting a liberal arts degree from the University of Miami of Ohio, where Joseph Clokey had gone to college.
His life soon began to take a spiritual turn, as well. He began attending the Hartford Seminary with plans to become an Episcopal Priest, and met Ruth Parkander, who was going for her Masters in Religious Education. They married, and moved to Hollywood, CA, in order to make religious films.
His creations — including a later TV show, “Davey and Goliath,” produced in the early 1960s by the United Lutheran Church in order to use religious messages to promote morality themes — were all the result of their creator’s lifelong search for answers, a path that traversed through the hippie counterculture movement and led from one religious belief — the traditional Episcopalian church — to another, Buddhism, and finally to the teachings and guidance of Indian guru Sai Baba.
Clokey began attending classes at USC in Los Angeles, where the head of the Cinema Dept., Slavko Vorkapich, and he began working on a post-graduate degree, but Vorkapich — who considered Art his protégé, and introduced him to his kinesthetic film principles of animation — later resigned from the university to work on his own films (he continued to teach in private classes at his home in Benedict Canyon, California). Vorkapich taught him how to organize the visual aspects of his film’s ideas through moving objects.
Clokey used his experiences thus far in life to land a few jobs in the advertising world, filming short stop-motion pixilated TV commercials, and he also ended up teaching at the Harvard Military Academy (now the Harvard School) in Studio City, a suburb north of Los Angeles, and began tutoring the son of 20th Century Fox producer Sam Engel.
By then Clokey had already produced little live-action animated commercials for Andersen’s Pea Soup, Coca Cola and Budweiser, and he told Engel about the short three-and-a-half minute film he’d also made with abstract geometric and amorphous shapes made from modeling clay are transformed and moved to the rhythms of jazz. Indeed, this was the first time movement and music were joined together purely to purposefully translate one into the other, and by definition was the first music video.
Clokey had made the film is his father’s garage, shooting it using the same kinesthetic style film principals he was learning from Vorkapich.
He called his movie Gumbasia, and the title was derived from his childhood experiences during summer visits to his grandfather’s farm, when he enjoyed playing with the clay and mud mixture called “gumbo.”
Sam was very appreciative of what I was doing for his son. He invited us over to the studio to see some previews of the new films of competitors, and at one time he said ‘Why don’t you bring your little art film. I would like to see it.’ I mentioned it to him one time. So when I brought it over, he showed it in the big Daryl Zanuck projection room. It must have seated 100 people. And they projected it on the big screen. It was really beautiful. It was only 3-1/2 minutes long, like a music video. Clay moving to jazz music. After the first screening of Gumbasia, Sam got up and paced back in forth in front of the screen while they were rewinding it to show it again. He said ‘Art, that is the most exciting film I have ever seen in my life,’ and he said ‘We’ve got to go into business together.’ And I could just see me mingling with all the big stars, like Sophia Loren.”
“In the next sentence he said ‘Can you make little clay figures out of that clay and animate them?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you can pick some stories and make the characters I will finance the pilot film. I want to improve the quality of television for children.’ That was his main concern. He wasn’t thinking of earning money. In fact he gave the whole entire film to me—he didn’t want any piece of the action, he just wanted to get me started on doing something for children of high quality. He wanted me to show the pilot film to Tom Sarnoff at NBC and Hollywood. That was in 1956.”
At the time, the pixilation (sometimes spelled “pixelation”) stop-motion process had not yet felt dated, and it was even being taught at the California Institute of the Arts, or Cal-Arts, by instructors like Thornton Hee (T. Hee) and Jack Hannah, who would help to popularize the filmmaking style, created with a 16mm camera, one frame at a time.
You can read more about the process in this post from 2015.
Clokey began to experiment with clay shapes, getting it to the right density in order to be able to shape it easily and thus duplicate his movements without much trouble.
Clokey may have based the head of Gumby on his late father’s forehead, but he patterned his walk after his infant daughter, who was just learning to walk.
His wife Ruth was the one who suggested that Gumby’s body have the shape of a gingerbread man.
One of the first things everyone notices, young and old, is that Gumby is green, which Clokey considered a racially neutral, universal color. He also thought green represented life itself; it was the symbolic color of chlorophyll, after all, which turns light into energy and provides life. Clokey believed light itself was life, and it was love, and the light-energy-lifeforce are at the very heart of understanding Gumby and all of us, really.
Clokey also gave Gumby a diverse group of friends, too. Everybody remembers his pony pal Pokey, his best friend and sidekick, who Gumby rescues in a western town out in the desert, where Pokey has managed to get his hoof caught in a switch mechanism for two sets of railroad tracks. Gumby memorable throws the switch, just before the train goes by, so that Pokey can escape, and they’ve been great friends ever since.
Despite being friends, it turns out they’re pretty different from each other, and its often Pokey who learns the big lesson in the episode because he’s more skeptical and stubborn that Gumby, less adventurous, somewhat pessimistic at times and just plain cranky now and then too!
Clokey has said that reason he’s orange and black is that they’re both colors of the earth, which together make the color of the rich soil which is the basis for everything grown on Earth.
Here is what Art had to say about how he came up with their two good friends, Prickle & Goo, a little yellow dinosaur/dragon and a very gooey, blue flying mermaid:
“I was a friend of a psychologist in Hollywood. He invited me to go with him up to San Jose to a convention of psychologists. I was interested in psychology at the time. We were in the lecture hall at San Jose State, and one psychologist would get up and make a speech. It was pretty boring for me. But the MC happened to be Alan Watts, the Zen Philosopher of Sausalito. He would crack us up and tell funny stories and get our blood circulating again. And they would put on another psychologist to bore us again.”
“At one of these little humorous intermissions, he said there were two kinds of people in the world, the prickly and the gooey. The prickly are rigid and uptight, analytical, and critical. The gooey are easygoing, flowing in the here and now, friendly and jolly.”
“I said I have got to make two characters to symbolize those two types of people. Then people all over the world will be able to identify with them. So we created the little yellow dinosaur/dragon with his spines, and named him Prickle. Goo is a very gooey, blue, flying mermaid.”
Other characters include the mischievous troublemakers “J” and “G,” known collectively as the Blockheads; Gumby’s parents, Gumbo and Gumba; his little sister Minga; his Mastodon pal Denali; his dog Nopey; a helpful bee known as The Groobee; and his scientific answer man, Professor Kapp.
Clokey’s Gumby cartoon — voiced by Dallas McKennon as “Gumby” — began airing in 1956. The Saturday morning TV series, “The Gumby Show,” went into production for twenty-two episodes, lasting into 1957. They were created at Clokey Films Hollywood Studio.
The very first episode “Gumby on the Moon” picked up where his short film had left off, and featured Gumby doing his funky moonwalk to a jazzy, surreal musical soundtrack.
Clokey workshopped his early scripts for “The Gumby Show” by telling his young daughter morality-rich stories about his creaton while tucking her in at night, and later he rehashed episodes for his younger son during his bedtime.
Although the original “Gumby” episodes went off the air and the Clokey — Art and his wife Ruth moving on to develop “Davey and Goliath” — Gumby did make a comeback, including a new TV series in the 1980s, after a “Saturday Night Live” television skit with actor Eddie Murphy made the character popular again. Murphy, who donned a foam green suit and portrayed Gumby as a cigar-smoking crank, arrogantly boasted, “I’m Gumby, damn it!”
Giving his approval for the skit, Clokey said: “Gumby can laugh at himself.”