Art Clokey, Creator of Gumby and Pokey, Dies at 88

He also created Davey and Goliath for the Lutherans, too. This was all part of the Sixties for me, growing up.

When I was living in San Rafael, in Marin County in the early Nineties, I was walking down Fourth Street downtown after a Sunday brunch, when I happened upon a small gallery near the Rafael Film Center. This gallery, among other things, were presenting the early scenery from Art Clokey‘s The Adventures of Gumby, the clay animation children’s series. That scenery was now worth thousands of dollars and unfortunately, it was very fragile. Some “walls” were sagging or leaning, and often, they were faded. Of course, I was asked to be careful around them. Some, but not many, had cards made for them, explaining in which episodes they were used.

You see, most of these scenes were made with colored construction paper or painted cardboard, recycled items that could double as doors or windows, glues and very thin wires and wooden sticks–some could have been toothpicks. One of the curators explained to me that Clokey had never thought that his work could later command such prices, and that most of it was thrown away or recycled for other live-action episodes. Now that collectors were by then interested in Gumbyana, I wondered whether and how anyone would pay top dollar for them. They were in such poor condition, in my view, that they would have to be put under glass immediately. How could they be restored? They seem to have lost their meaning, like the pillars and foundations of what was left of ancient Rome. The scenery were merely the ruins of what had been a great creative effort.

More importantly, they were missing the vital elements. A little green clay figure with his little brown pony that would furbish its walls and cabinets and not only make them new but real.

Near the end, Art Clokey posed with fellow animator Stan Lee at Comic Con Santa Monica, undated (Courtesy: Cartoon Flophouse)

Now, I can look at Gumby’s shows on You Tube with amazement at how much was done with so little. And Art Clokey left us yesterday. Damn it.

(I can say that tongue-in-cheek because it was Eddie Murphy playing a middle-aged, embittered has-been Gumby that started his comeback on television once more. I don’t have to talk about his bringing back Buckwheat…that, I think, was a no-no.)

Art Clokey, the creator of the whimsical clay figure Gumby, died in his sleep Friday at his home in Los Osos, Calif., after battling repeated bladder infections, his son Joseph said. He was 88.

Clokey and his wife, Ruth, invented Gumby in the early 1950s at their Covina home shortly after Art had finished film school at USC. After a successful debut on The Howdy Doody Show, Gumby soon became the star of its own hit television show, The Adventures of Gumby, the first to use clay animation on television.

Clokey was born as Arthur Farrington in Detroit in 1921. As a boy, he was already creating mud figures from gumbo, a clayey substance, while living on his grandparents’ Michigan farm. However, when Clokey was 8, his parents divorced and shortly thereafter, his father was killed in an auto accident. The strange ski jump shape of Gumby’s head comes from one of the few surviving photos of his father whose untrimmed hair almost overwhelmed his forehead.

Clokey was sent to live with his mother in California. When his mother married his stepfather, Clokey only stayed with the couple one year and then he was abandoned, because the stepfather forced his mother choose between him or the boy. Clokey lived at a halfway house until he was twelve, when he was taken in and adopted by renowned Pomona College music professor, Joseph Clokey, during the depths of the Great Depression. Though Art attended The Webb School in Claremont, Clokey complemented the boy’s education and expanded his interests, teaching him drawing and painting and how to use a motion picture camera. The Clokeys might vacation in Alaska, Mexico, Siberia or Canada, but Art Clokey also enjoyed the annual fossil hunting expeditions sponsored by his school, and headed by the enthusiastic Ray Alf. The latter influenced Clokey’s placing his hero and his pony on strange, but wonderful adventures.

After serving in World War II, Clokey studied to become an Episcopal priest, but he ran off to marry Ruth Parkender so that they could make religious films in Hollywood. Clokey and his wife taught at a local Southern California private school, while at night, he attended the USC film school with Slavko Vorkapich, a Yugoslav emigré who was an early pioneer in film montage. His efforts resulted in the ground-breaking experimental films, Gumbasia and Mandala. Gumbasia was a three-minute montage of moving, separating, and expanding lumps, figures, and shapes of clay, his favorite medium for creativity, filmed atop a ping-pong table. It was also animation for adults set to bebop jazz.

As Wikipedia tells it, “Gumbasia was created in a style Vorkapich taught called Kinesthetic Film Principles. Described as ‘massaging of the eye cells,’ this technique of camera movements and editing was responsible for much of the Gumby look and feel.” Sam Engel, the president of 20th Century Fox and father of one of Clokey’s students, saw the film and asked Clokey to produce a children’s television show based on the idea. Of course, that show became The Gumby Show and later, The Adventures of Gumby.   There were 233 shorts made in all, less than ten minutes in length, and stretching over 35 years. When Gumby made a comeback in the 1980s, he made guest appearances in a couple of mainstream films, and finally had his own full-length film.

I still see the original shorts from the late Fifties to 1968 as the best of Clokey’s work. I liked how Gumby used to speed about; his going into and out of books, and his confrontations with his nemeses, the Blockheads. Pokey sometimes became bug-eyed at some looming catastrophe, and when the pair were sometimes run over, rendering them flat and liquid, he would claim that he felt so relaxed after the stress of being a solid, walking pony. Hmmmm…

And for myself, as a black child, Gumby had no color (like Bart Simpson, who was immortalized in the black community into a series of “Black Bart” teeshirts that Matt Groening called a high compliment and refused to sue the mostly flea market makers). He was just green, which meant that he was raceless, and a good guy. Even his voice seemed to have no gender. As it turned out, Gumby was voiced by both women and men: Ginny Tyler (a Native American voice actress) and Nancy Wible in the early shows; Dallas McKinnon, during the early Sixties, a voice actor who died last year, at the age of 89; and later by Norma McMillan. McMillan, who also voiced Casper the Friendly Ghost and Davey of Davey and Goliath, died in 2001.

It is said that Clokey, over the years, gave breaks to many animators who later went on to work for Pixar, Disney and other film studios.

Clokey also created clay animation sequences for films, most notably for How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.

His son Joseph said in the Los Angeles Times that his father’s ability through Gumby “to enchant generations of children and adults had a mystical quality to it, […] and reflected his father’s spiritual quest. In the 1970s, Clokey studied Zen Buddhism, traveled to India to study with gurus and experimented with LSD and other drugs, though all of that came long after the creation of Gumby, his son said.”

Divorced from Ruth, who kept the studio going during his travels and quests in the Seventies, Clokey later married Gloria who became the art director on Gumby projects from the 1980s through the 1990s. Gloria, however, precedes him in death. Besides Joseph, who is also an animator, Clokey is survived by a stepdaughter, three grandchildren, one sister, and a half-sister. Until just before his death, Clokey was feted and given many awards for his accomplishments.  Gumby is available now on DVD as well as You Tube.   Gumby has a Facebook fanbase of more than 135,000 members (at last count).  Clokey is remembered with generosity as well as nostalgia, much like another childhood “friend,” Mr. Rogers.    One retrospective documentary appeared on KQED TV two years ago, called Gumby Dharma, directed by Robina Marchesi, which won an Emmy in 2008.  The Sundance Channel sometimes reruns the documentary.

In lieu of flowers, the family wishes contributions made in Gumby’s name to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Clokey was a member of the organization for many years.

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~ by blksista on January 9, 2010.

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