by Jack Mingo
He has a strange bump on his head, googly red eyes and bell-bottom legs. He's green and made of clay and beeswax. His image has sold tens of millions of dollars worth of merchandise. He's not just a kid hero nor simply a badly-animated cartoon character, but a Zen Buddhist spiritual master as well. He's Gumby.
Gumby was the creation of Art Clokey, a former Episcopal seminar student who joined the film program at the University of Southern California for a few years before dropping out when given the opportunity to animate vegetables for soup commercials.
In 1953, Clokey started playing with colorful plasticine clay and film. He laboriously made a four minute animated art film he called "Gumbasia" in honor of Disney's Fantasia which featured geometric shapes rolling and dancing to a jazz score. "Suddenly I saw a kinetic force at work, what I call the Phi Phenomenon, which is an impact on the nervous system brought about by images and the way they're edited," says Clokey.
But Sam Engel saw money. Engel was a film producer at 20th Century-Fox whose teenage son Clokey was tutoring in English and Latin. When he showed Engel his Gumbasia film, Engel said, "That's the most fantastic thing I've ever seen!" and asked if Clokey could come up with some kid films for the emerging medium of TV.
Clokey went home and started experimenting, molding hundreds of shapes in different colors. He found that clay characters didn't last very long under constant handling under the heat of movie lights. Clokey came up with a simple character that could be cut out of clay with a homemade cookie cutter so that it could be replaced every few hours (in 20 seconds of screen time, which can take a day's work to film, a character usually had to be replaced five or more times).
Clokey made his clay character with a protrusion on one side of his head, modeled after a photo he had of his father as a teenager with a huge cowlick hair lump. His friend, American Zen philosopher Alan Watt, suggested that it was the "bump of wisdom that the Buddhists have." In that spirit, Clokey made the new character green with a touch of blue to suggest a field of grass under a blue sky. To provide yin for his character's yang, he created a down-to-earth horse sidekick, colored an earthy orange- brown.
Clokey remembered that his father used to call the sticky, muddy clay around their farm in Michigan "gumbo." Latin teacher Clokey knew that the diminutive of "gumbo" would be "gumby," so that's the name he gave his new blue character. ("That was the first and last significant use I made of my seven years of Latin in school," he observed later.) Based on Watts's observation that there are two kinds of people in the world, the prickly and the gooey, Clokey created two more characters, a dinosaur named Prickle and a teardrop-shaped "what's-it" named Goo. Finally, for Gumby and sidekick Pokey, Clokey created a miniature hang-out called the Zen Cafe.
Clokey started creating a series of 130 surreal six-minute Gumby episodes, He would move his characters a fraction of a millimeter and shoot a movie frame
and do it again and again, 24 times for each second of actual cartoon. He comissioned a theme song from a young musician named Pete Kleinow, who later went on to become steel guitarist for the Flying Burrito Brothers country rock group.
The series was picked up by NBC for the Howdy Doody Show. Gumby proved so popular he was spun off into his own show which was hosted by comedian Pinky Lee.
Gumby started generating a lot of money. The problem was, Clokey wasn't getting much of it. He was paid a straight salary of $200 a week to write and produce the Gumby episodes. (That went up to $350 a week shortly before the Gumby Show was canceled in 1957.)
For eight years, he refused to license the Gumby image for merchandising. "I was a very idealistic person," he says, "and I didn't want to exploit children." That changed after Gumby's show left NBC and Clokey bought all rights back from the network. His Prema (Sanskrit for "universal love") Toy Corporation started manufacturing Gumby dolls and toys in 1964, the year that Gumby found new life in syndication and Clokey started getting rich.
Not long after, however, his personal life fell apart, and so did his fortune. He went through painful and expensive divorce proceedings with his wife of 18 years in 1966, about the time that TV stations began dropping Gumby in favor of newer and slicker kid shows. Clokey invested his last dollars in a new venture--a flexy-faced doll called Moody Rudy-- that bombed. His house went into foreclosure. In 1974, his daughter died in a car crash. Clokey went into heavy therapy and began "looking at various gurus" before adopting the teachings of Indian Swami Muktananda.
Clokey remarried in 1976 and three years later, he and his new wife Gloria traveled to Bangalore, India to visit a guru named Sathya Sai Baba who supposedly had amazingly magical powers. For some reason, Clokey brought a Gumby doll along to their audience with the guru. "I stood there with Gumby and he did this circular motion with his arms," Clokey says. "Out of nowhere he materialized this sacred ash. He plopped it right on top of Gumby. When we came home again, things started to happen." Gumby toy sales began to pick up, and then Eddie Murphy started doing a continuing Gumby skit on Saturday Night Live.. Suddenly, the phone started ringing and Gumby was hip again. Clokey went on a lecture tour and received an $8 million contract with Lorimar for a new Gumby series. He started work on Gumby--the Movie.
"Gumby is a symbol of the spark of divinity in each of us, the basis of the ultimate value of each person. Eddie Murphy instinctively picked up on this when he asserted, 'I'm Gumby, dammit!'" wrote Clokey in 1986. "When people watch Gumby, they get a blissful feeling. Gumby loves you. We love you. That's about all I can say."
Pretty Zen, huh?