- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
In 1982 Eddie Murphy returned the nearly forgotten Gumby character to popularity.
In Murphy’s recurring Saturday Night Live parody skit, once the in-studio TV cameras were switched off, Gumby (Murphy in a green foam suit) returned to his “true” self — an arrogant, demanding, cigar-chomping celebrity.
Whenever executives balked at Gumby’s numerous demands, the clay guy would remind them of his star status by roaring, “I’m GUMBY, dammit!”
“Gumby can laugh at himself,” creator Art Clokey said in approving Murphy’s sendup.
Clokey originated the name after spending childhood summers on his grandparents’ Midwestern farm, where he played with a clay-and-mud mixture that the family called “gumbo.”
It was Ruth Clokey, Art’s wife, who suggested that Gumby’s shape be based on that of the Gingerbread Man. Gumby’s slanted head came from an old photo of Clokey’s father in which his short hairstyle featured a prominent cowlick in front. Clokey felt that the color green was the best choice for Gumby, as it was racially neutral.
The original Gumby was a groundbreaking stop-motion flexible figure created by Clokey in 1953 after he finished film school at the University of Southern California.
Stop-motion animation features objects that are physically manipulated in small increments between photographed frames in order to simulate movement. Gumby’s feet were made wide so he could stand up easily during filming.
Clokey’s debut feature, Gumbasia, was a surreal montage of Gumby images as moving lumps of modeling clay set to jazz music. Created in Clokey’s father’s garage, the 3.5-minute work — basically history’s first music video — was a parody of Walt Disney’s 1940 animated musical Fantasia.
Early in 1955 Clokey showed Gumbasia to movie producer Sam Engel, who was impressed enough to encourage Clokey to develop a short Gumby pilot film for a possible children’s TV series.
When NBC executive Tom Sarnoff saw Clokey’s creation, he requested a second feature. That next work — Gumby on the Moon — was aired later on the Howdy Doody TV show and became such a ratings hit that Sarnoff ordered an entire series, which premiered in 1955 as The Gumby Show.
Gumby, who always possessed an almost mystical ability to charm viewers, soon accumulated a diverse group of clay pals with whom he could share adventures, starting with Pokey, an orange-and-black pony and Gumby’s best friend. At the time, all the TV characters were formed by rolling pins and cookie cutters.
In 1959 the hit show went into syndication, and further episodes were produced in the 1960s. More new characters appeared, including a blue mermaid named Goo and a yellow dinosaur called Prickle. By then, all the characters came from hot clay poured into molds.
Over the years various items of Gumby merchandise have been marketed, including bendable figures, plush dolls, keychains, mugs, a record (Gumby: The Green Album), and a video game (Gumby vs. the Astrobots).
In 1993, in an issue celebrating 40 years of television, TV Guide named Gumby the 1950s’ best cartoon series.
Because he’s GUMBY!
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.