the Archives of Pomona Today, Spring 1986
Ball of Clay Goes a Long Way
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,
Gumbys 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 dont 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.
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,
Gumbys 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;
hes flexible, soft, and pliable, not rigid and brittle" like
a cartoon character.
"Theres something about clay thats been embedded in our
Jungian collective unconscious for thousands of years," Clokey says,
"and weve found that children react to that. Down deep Gumby
is indestructible and immortal; you cant destroy Gumby, and you
cant destroy a child."
You cant destroy Gumbys 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 Gumbys wacky adventures was Clokeys
two children. "It just wasnt 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
He may have human emotions, but Gumbys 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
Gumbys 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
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
youve got a heart, then Gumbys a part of you."
Dennis Rodkin '83