'Gumby' creator and Los Osos resident Art Clokey dies

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comJanuary 8, 2010 

Correction: The children's show whose proceeds helped fund more Gumby television shows in the late 1960s was called "Davey and Goliath." It was produced in the early 1960s by the United Lutheran Church in America, and later the Lutheran Church in America, a predecessor to today's Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Art Clokey, whose iconic Gumby entertained generations of children, died at his home in Los Osos on Friday morning at the age of 89, according to caretaker Chrisanne Wollett.

Gumby — the slender, green clay character partly modeled after Clokey’s father — was a fixture on television through the decades, starting with an appearance on “The Howdy Doody Show” in 1956.

Through the years, the stop-motion film star made several comebacks, including a new series in the 1980s, after a “Saturday Night Live” television skit with actor Eddie Murphy made the character popular again.

Throughout Gumby’s long run, Gumby toys — most notably, the bendable Gumby itself — have been a staple of toy stores everywhere.

“I didn’t allow merchandising for seven years after it was on the air,” Clokey told The Tribune in 2002, “because I was very idealistic, and I didn’t want parents to think we were trying to exploit their children.”

Despite Gumby’s positive demeanor, his origins stem from tragedy. When Clokey was 9, his father was killed in a car crash. Clokey lived with his mother for a while, but when her second husband made her choose between him and her son, Clokey was sent to an orphanage.

A good family adopted him. But Clokey wouldn’t forget his father, whose head shape — characterized by a cowlick hairdo — would later provide the inspiration for Gumby’s trademark lopsided head.

After studying film at USC, Clokey taught at a private military school, where he tutored the son of Sam Engel, a 20th Century Fox producer. After Engel invited Clokey to the studio, Clokey told Engel about a 3½-minute film he’d made called “Gumbasia,” featuring abstract clay objects changing shapes to jazz music.

“He said, ‘Art, we’ve got to go into business,’ ” Clokey told The Tribune. “I went back and experimented with clay to make a character, and I took into account the density of clay and figured out how the character should be shaped so it would be easy to animate and easy to duplicate.”

While Gumby’s head was modeled after Clokey’s late father, his walk was modeled after his daughter, who was an infant at the time. And it was Clokey’s wife, Ruth, who suggested Gumby’s body have the shape of a gingerbread man.

By the late 1950s, Gumby’s first run was off the air. But the Lutheran Church in America paid Clokey to develop another kid’s show — “Davey and Goliath” — to promote morality themes.

The Clokeys used the proceeds to fund Gumby’s first comeback. The surreal Gumby shows of the 1960s paired well with the psychedelic pop and rock culture that emerged with the so-called British invasion.

Though Gumby toys were hot sellers, Clokey didn’t make a fortune. And by the late 1970s, he was broke, selling his possessions at swap meets to make ends meet.

But in the 1980s, Gumby was back, thanks to Murphy, who donned a foam green suit and portrayed Gumby as a cigar-smoking crank, who arrogantly boasted, “I’m Gumby, damn it!”

“Gumby can laugh at himself,” Clokey said, noting his approval of the skit.

With the popularity of Murphy’s portrayal, Gumby had yet another comeback, marked by more merchandise and a 1980s version of the show. Finally, Clokey was able to make money off his creation.

“It took 40 years,” he said.

Clokey, whose license plates bore a Gumby frame, moved to Los Osos nearly a decade ago. His office at the Los Osos home was filled with Gumby toys.

As Gumby passed the middle-age mark, his resilience once again came through, in DVD releases, commercials and products.

In 2008, he was honored with art shows in New York and San Francisco. “Davey and Goliath” also made a comeback, appearing in Mountain Dew commercials in 2001 and a Hallmark Channel special in 2004.

In the last few years, Clokey’s declining health had prevented him from doing interviews. And when he appeared at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival for a screening of “Gumby Dharma” — a film about Clokey — the animator had to use a wheelchair.

But Clokey’s love for Gumby never swayed.

While making stop motion shows was often time-consuming, Clokey never found it tedious work.

“When you’re doing it, it’s a creative activity, and you don’t notice time,” he said. “It’s so satisfying, and when you see it on screen, you feel like God because you’re bringing life to clay.”

Clokey’s son, Joe, could not be reached for comment Friday. Clokey was preceded in death by his daughter, Ann, and wife, Ruth.

His death comes six months after the death of Dallas McKennon, who was the voice of Gumby.

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