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Winter 2002
Volume 39, No. 2
Issue Home

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www.pomona.edu

PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar

 

From the Archives of Pomona Today, Spring 1986

A Ball of Clay Goes a Long Way

Profile of Pomona alumnus Art Clokey

He was once a little green slab of clay. You should see what Gumby can do today."

Gumby, the slant-headed, bendable buddy whose Magritte-style adventures in toyland have brought him a second flash of stardom in this neoclassical age of television, turns thirty this year. And as his theme song suggests, Gumby’s list of accomplishments is enough to make other baby-boomers green with envy. Since his debut on "The Howdy Doody Show" in 1956, Gumby has helped Daniel Boone protect his fort against marauders, with the lesson that "you don’t have to fight if you know the right trick to peace"; campaigned for president with advice from the incumbents at Mt. Rushmore; and given children and grown-ups a reason to believe in themselves.

 
  Art Clokey and some of his friends.

"Sometimes out in the world kids are put down, and Gumby is too, but they see that Gumby can always spring back," says Art Clokey, Gumby’s creator, who left Pomona to join the Air Force in 1943.

He believes fans identify with Gumby more easily than with Mickey Mouse and other characters, because they "see that Gumby is like them; he’s flexible, soft, and pliable, not rigid and brittle" like a cartoon character.

"There’s something about clay that’s been embedded in our Jungian collective unconscious for thousands of years," Clokey says, "and we’ve found that children react to that. Down deep Gumby is indestructible and immortal; you can’t destroy Gumby, and you can’t destroy a child."

You can’t destroy Gumby’s day-glo yellow smile, either. No matter what mischief his archenemies, the Blockheads, throw in his path Gumby finds a peaceable way through for himself and his totemic pals, Pokey the pony, Prickle, and Goo.

The first audience for Gumby’s wacky adventures was Clokey’s two children. "It just wasn’t in me to present a violent sort of image to them," he says. "I wanted them to identify with something that was innocent, joyful, and fearless, yet very human, like Gumby."

He may have human emotions, but Gumby’s shape is decidedly silly. If the human species had evolved from string beans rather than from apes, Gumby would be the missing link. His shape evolved from clay figures Clokey fashioned for "Gumbasia," an animated motion study he filmed at USC in the early 1950s.

"Gumbasia" and Gumby drew their names from gumbo, which Clokey as a boy had learned to call the muddy goo of dirt roads in Michigan.

Eventually, a movie producer saw "Gumbasia" and asked Clokey to help him "improve television for children." The Gumby shape, developed for that first appearance on "Howdy Doody," was kept simple so it could be duplicated easily. Remembering an old photo of his father with a huge cowlick, Clokey gave Gumby a lopsided point on the left side of his head. Gumby kept his shape slim and virtually unchanged, even that debonair bump, through 130 episodes.

Now Gumby icons are everywhere today, on t-shirts, posters, and trinkets, in reruns, and on videocassettes.

In January 1979, Clokey and his second wife, Gloria, stopped in southern India to meet Satya Sai Baba, a religious leader about whom they had read for five years. They were quickly convinced of his influence. A Gumby doll at his side, Clokey photographed Sai Baba materializing sacred ash in the palm of his hand. "He dropped it right on Gumby," Clokey says. "He does that for special blessings."

When the Clokeys and Gumby returned to Los Angeles, "things started to happen." Gumby shows at colleges and movie theatres, an explosion of Gumby paraphernalia, and offers from production companies proved that Gumby’s adventures, last filmed in the late 1960s, were as fun as music videos and the made-to-merchandise Care Bears.

A full-length film, a biography, and a television series are all in the works. Clokey, who did not become nearly as wealthy as Gumby fans might suspect, hopes to set aside some of the new income for a special tribute to his adoptive father, Joseph Clokey, a Pomona music professor from 1926 to 1939.

Born Arthur Farrington, Clokey was adopted by the professor in 1934 after his father died. He became a devoted son of "Dad Clokey," whose wife died shortly after the adoption. Professor Clokey, a prolific composer of liturgical music, gave Art his first chance to get behind a camera during a trip to Siberia and Alaska in 1934. He later taught at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, from which Art graduated after World War II.

"When the money starts coming in again," Clokey says, "I want to commission recordings of all his works." The money is sure to start coming in soon, because we are learning all over again that "If you’ve got a heart, then Gumby’s a part of you."

—Dennis Rodkin '83