He once was a little green clump of clay…until Art Clokey '39 turned him into Gumby! Since 1955, Gumby has been a familiar presence on television and in pop culture; he was even featured in a 1995 film: Gumby: The Movie.
Art Clokey '39, best known as the creator of Gumby, died on January 8, 2010 at his home in Los Osos, California. He was 88. Born in Detroit in 1921, Art's childhood was worthy of a Dickens melodrama: his parents divorced when he was eight, his father died two years later, and at the age of ten, he ended up in a foster home after his stepfather refused to accept him. Fortunately, Art's life took a turn for the better two years later, when he was adopted by distinguished music professor and composer Joseph W. Clokey. Art and "Dad Clokey" traveled throughout Mexico, Canada, and Siberia, cultivating Art's love of music, painting, and motion picture photography.
In 1934, Art enrolled as a day student at Webb, which became his second home. "Mrs. Webb, the headmaster's wife, would try to take care of us boys who didn't have mothers," he recalled. Art became friends with the Webbs' son, Bill Webb '39, and with Raymond Alf, joining them for some of the very first Peccary Trips in 1937 and 1938. "I would take along a little 8mm movie camera and record them," Art recalled. "Those trips were a little piece of heaven.
After graduating from Ohio's Miami University after the war, Art returned to California, where he studied with film scholar Slavko Vorkapic in USC's graduate cinema program. Art became fascinated with Vorkapic's "kinesthetic" film techniques: using filmed images to create a visceral sense of motion. While still a graduate student, Art used those techniques to create a series of stop-motion animated commercials for Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch.
In 1953, Art shot a short stop-motion film called "Gumbasia," animating abstract clay shapes to a jazz score. He later showed the film to Hollywood producer Sam Engel, who suggested that Art develop "little figures out of clay" as characters. Engel agreed to finance the pilot for a children's television series, which became Gumby. Art credited Gumby's green hue to Ray Alf's lectures on the importance of chlorophyll to all life on Earth. "Green was a magic color," he said.
Gumby debuted on The Howdy Doody Show in 1956, and went on to his own series in 1957. Art was later able to buy back the rights from NBC, and produced new episodes from 1966 to 1968. He also developed another stop-motion series, Davey and Goliath, and launched his own toy company to market Gumby merchandise. The Gumby character enjoyed a revival in the eighties, leading to a new TV series and a 1995 feature film. He remains an international icon.
Art, who spent many years studying Zen Buddhism, saw Gumby as a "primordial symbol of the human condition," explaining, "We begin in the mud, and we just go out and up." He also said that each Gumby story was "an act of love for children."
In 2011, to celebrate what would have been Art's 90th birthday, a special google doodle was created.