Art Clokey, the animator who created Gumby, the claymation star of one of my favorite kids' shows in the 1950's, passed away last Friday (see obituary in the New York Times on January 11, 2010). As I noted in my previous post about the Gumby Show, the program was the first extended use of stop-motion animation on television. As a child, I was enchanted by the primitive-looking animation on the show and the fact that Clokey didn't try to make his characters and sets look realistic but instead celebrated the fact that the characters looked like something a child might have made and the sets consisted of toys and miniature models.
I learned some interesting facts about Clokey's life in the Times obituary that shed additional light on the Gumby Show. When Clokey was 8, his parents divorced and he went to live with his father, who was killed in a car accident the following year. Clokey then briefly rejoined his mother in California, but his mother's new husband didn't want Clokey around, and he was placed in a children's home. When Clokey was 11, his fortunes improved when he was adopted by Joseph Waddell Clokey, a well-known composer of sacred and secular music. Joseph Clokey was apparently a loving father who introduced Art to a new world of books and culture.
After graduating from Miami University in Ohio, Clokey attended Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, intending to become an Episcopal priest. However, he left before graduating and returned to California, planning to make religious films. He entered the University of Southern California, where he studied with the modernist filmmaker Slavko Vorkapich. In 1953, he made a student film titled Gumbasia, in honor of the Disney animated feature Fantasia, in which he used the form of claymation that he was to apply to the Gumby Show two years later.
Clokey's religious interests and apparent lifelong search for enlightenment help to explain the subtle undercurrent of spirituality that runs through the Gumby Show. Clokey also created the Davey and Goliath Show, which was explicitly spiritual and was sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Davey and Goliath was designed to teach children values like charity and tolerance.
The Gumby Show was popular through the 1950's and 60's but was pushed aside when slicker violent cartoons began to draw larger audiences in the 1970's. However, Gumby got a new lease on life in the 1980's, when Eddie Murphy created a raunchy caricature of the character on Saturday Night Live. According to Clokey's family, Clokey loved Eddie Murphy's performance.
We are indebted to Art Clokey for creating a charming and whimsical icon that represents some of the best of what children's television has contributed to our culture.