By Eric Levy |
As a child, my favorite show was The Gumby Show. I related to Gumby’s love for knowledge, hopping in and out of educational books. My dream was to meet Gumby’s creator Art Clokey. It took me 30 years to see my dream come true.
I read an article about Clokey’s new claymation feature, The Gumby Movie. Now I had my reason to meet with him. I would write an article about the movie. After hours on the internet, I found Art Clokey’s phone number. I called him and, to my surprise, he answered the phone. We spoke for an hour and he invited me to his home in San Rafael.
It was 1995. I flew to San Francisco and Clokey met me at the airport. He drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to a nondescript neighborhood.
Clokey, a young looking 77-year-old at the time, looked like the guy next door. Inside the house, I followed Clokey to the living room. Hanging on the wall was a 4 x 3 inch black man with a large afro. I asked Clokey who he was.
“He’s the messiah,” Clokey said. “Sathya Sai Baba.”
He told me that he and his wife Gloria met the messiah in India in the late 1970s. “I held out a Gumby doll and he blessed it with a wave of his hand. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, ash began to appear from his fingers. It was sacred ash, and it was placed on Gumby. After that, things began to change for the better both for me and Gumby. When I returned to the U.S., the Gumby revival began.”
“Do you mind if I smoke?” Clokey asked.
I assumed he meant a cigarette, but instead, he began rolling a joint. He took a few tokes and offered me to join him. I gladly accepted and asked him if he was stoned while working on Gumby episodes.
“No, never. But I experimented with LSD, mescaline, peyote, and hashish. It was after the first TV series in 1966 when a psychologist introduced me to the field of expanded consciousness through the use of hallucinogens. He said I could expand my awareness and become a better director. You have to be aware of your feelings to be a good director. But I’m telling you, I swear, I never made any Gumby episodes while under the influence. Well, there was one time when I tried smoking pot while making a Gumby episode. It didn’t work out. Looking at the footage, I saw I inadvertently got my elbow in the frame.”
Clokey told me that he spent the 1970s in the hippie community of Topanga Canyon, California. He went through a painful divorce with his first wife, who had worked with him on Gumby episodes. During the Topanga years, he experienced a tragedy when his 19-year-old daughter died in a car accident. During the proceeding decade, not a piece of clay touched Clokey’s fingers. He wanted to make more Gumby adventures, but he didn’t have the money to do so. Instead, he lived mostly off of Gumby syndication royalties.
His time at Topanga provided a new beginning for Clokey. That’s where he met his second wife, Gloria. She was a bio-energetic therapist at a clothing-optional Personal Growth Center. Her work involved the analysis of people’s personality types by examining their bodies.
“Hey, why am I telling you this part of the story,” Clokey said. “I just heard Gloria come in. She can tell it to you better than I can.”
He led me to the kitchen where Gloria was unpacking groceries she had purchased from a nearby health food store.
Clokey put his arm around me and announced, “Gloria, this is Eric..ah…sorry, what’s your last name?”
“Yes, yes. Eric Levy. We had a really interesting discussion on the phone. I invited him over for the weekend.”
Gloria extended her hand to greet me. It was a firm handshake. “A pleasure to meet you, Eric.”
The three of us sat around the kitchen table. “Do you like wheatgrass?” Clokey asked.
“I never tried it.”
“Oh, it’s great. Very nutritional.”
Gloria placed three shot glasses before us and poured the green liquid into them.
“I’ll go first,” Gloria said. She and Art downed it in a matter of seconds. “Your turn,” Art said.
With trepidation, I slowly poured it into my mouth. Damn. It tasted like turpentine.
“So? What do you think?” Gloria asked. I didn’t answer right away and she added, “It’s strong. It takes getting used to.”
“It’s so healthy. I’m sure you’ll find it at some health food store that sells it in New York.”
“I’ll check it out. Thank you.”
“Gloria, I was just beginning to tell Eric how we met. You can tell the story better than I can.”
“You’re the story master, Art.”
“But you can express it better than I can. You’re on stage.”
Gloria smiled and told me that when they first met “we didn’t hit it off. But then we saw each other again at a social gathering where no one had any clothes on, including us. I read his body and he looked unified.”
Following some other Art and Gloria stories, he asked if I wanted to see where he and his team created Gumby episodes.
I stood up with excitement. Clokey picked up on it, and commented, “I knew that would peak your interest.”
We drove a short way to a former high school building. “This is it, where I shot Gumby films in the nineteen eighties.”
That’s also the location, he told me, where Gumby: The Movie was shot earlier this year.
As we walked to the entrance of the school building, Clokey unlocked the front door and informed me that the animators who worked on the Gumby episodes responded to a classified ad placed in newspapers across the country.
There wasn’t anything to see inside. He took me to the classrooms with ancient-looking wooden desks and blackboards that had seen better days. We squeezed into student-sized seats and I asked Clokey about how the Gumby episodes were created.
“Two words. Trimentional animation. It uses shadow, color and movement to induce sensations of the autonomic nervous system.”
He surprised me when he said that Gumby was also responsible for, among other things, sexual arousal of its viewers. That explains why I had the hots for Gumby’s girlfriend Tara! Thinking about it, she’s not a bad slab of clay.
Gumby and his pals, Clokey went on to explain, are made from plasticine, a dry powder mixed with oil that lasts forever.
Our next stop was at a small outdoor mall. We stopped in front of a door without any sign above it. I gasped upon entering. It was a Gumby museum. “This is the original Gumby,” he said, pointing to the Green Guy who was inside a glass display case. Wow.
After introducing me to Gumby’s friends—Pokey, Prickle, and Goo; his nemeses the Blockheads; his parents Gumbo and Gumba; Minga, his little sister; Professor Kapp, the scientist; Denali, his Mastodon pal; Groobe, the helpful bee; and his dog Nopey.
Clokey told me he was going shopping at a food bank and left me alone in a small screening room. He turned on the projector and there it was—a preview of the Gumby Movie.
It begins with a wide shot of the universe enhanced with Star Wars-type music. It then proceeds to show a snippet of a 1960s Gumby episode displayed on a TV, located on the moon, along with that really cool Gumby song. A blue clay guy is watching the Gumby episode while munching on some popcorn. The camera tilts above the moon and a green plasticine monolith appearing among the stars. An electric charge runs through it, splitting into two pieces—one green and the other orange. The rectangular slabs race through the universe with the Earth as its destination. The slabs end up in Gumbyland, racing into a Gumby store. The orange slab lands in a Gumbasia Clay Set, and turns into Pokey. The green slab continues to a mysterious location. Pokey searches for the slab without any luck. Unbeknownst to him, it had metamorphosed into his friend Gumby.
The little green guy, as he had in the original series, enters the pages of books and when he departs, he brings historical figures with him. It’s Clokey’s wink to us Baby Boomers who grew up with him. Gumby then enters the book “Exotic Dancers of the East,” but for that one, he rushes out without any scantily clad dancers accompanying him.
The film then gets tiresome when we’re introduced to Gumby’s rock band, the Clayboys. We watch as they perform at a benefit concert to save local farms.
That’s when Clokey returned.
He saw that the film had ended and he asked, “You know what the message is?”
“Being a responsible person and the importance of education?”
“Well, yea. That’s true. But the major theme as I view it is, “the world needs Gumby.”
“Well, I certainly it does. That’s why I contacted you.”
“Hey, Eric, you like Indian food?”
Happens to be I did, and we drove a mile down the main road to this second-rate restaurant. He ordered a vegetarian dish and I had chicken tikka masala.
At the conclusion of the meal, instead of leaving the waitress a tip, he gives her a tiny rubber Gumby. She looks confused.
“You know who that is?” Clokey asked.
“People never fail to surprise me,” Clokey commented. She doesn’t know who Gumby is? Isn’t he a 1960s icon?
“Well, you can call him Gumby,” he told the waitress, handing it to her along with some cash. “Keep him. You can have it.”
“Well, thanks. Thanks a lot, sir.”
Clokey drove me to the airport at the conclusion of my weekend visit. Ten years later, he died, but his plasticine creations will live on forever.