Monday, January 11, 2010

Art Clokey, Animator Who Created Gumby, Dies at 88

Art Clokey, the animator who half a century ago created Gumby, that most pliant of pop-cultural figures, died on Friday at his home in Los Osos, Calif. He was 88.

His son, Joe Clokey, said he died in his sleep.

Asparagus green and fashioned from clay, Gumby made his television debut in 1956 on “The Howdy Doody Show.” The next year, he became the star of “The Gumby Show,” in which he embarked on a string of gently quixotic adventures with his supple steed, Pokey. The series was one of the first extended uses of stop-motion animation on television.

Though the 1950s show was fairly short-lived, Gumby reappeared in new series in the 1960s and in the 1980s and continued for years in syndication. He also starred in a feature film, “Gumby: The Movie” (1995), directed by Mr. Clokey.

Gumby is now firmly ensconced in popular culture. He dangles from rearview mirrors, appears in video games and crops up ubiquitously in references in film and on television. Millions of Gumby dolls have submitted to their owners’ manipulations. The character has been satirized, notably by Eddie Murphy, who played him as a cigar-chomping vulgarian — “I’m Gumby, dammit!” — on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1980s.

With his first wife, Ruth, Mr. Clokey also produced “Davey and Goliath,” the adventures of a clay boy and his dog, broadcast in the 1960s and ’70s.

Mr. Clokey was the subject of a documentary film, “Gumby Dharma,” released in 2006.

Arthur Charles Farrington, as Mr. Clokey was first known, was born in Detroit on Oct. 12, 1921. After his parents divorced when he was about 8, he lived with his father; when Art was 9, his father was killed in an automobile accident. Rejoining his mother in California, the boy was banished by her new husband and placed in a children’s home.

At about 11, Art was adopted by Joseph Waddell Clokey, a well-known composer of sacred and secular music. By Art’s later account, Joseph Clokey was a loving father who opened up a world of books and culture.

Art Clokey earned a bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio and later attended Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, intending to become an Episcopal priest. He left before graduating and settled in California, where he and Ruth planned to make religious films.

Entering the University of Southern California, Mr. Clokey studied with the modernist filmmaker Slavko Vorkapich. In 1955, he made a student film, “Gumbasia” — the title was a nod to “Fantasia” — in which clay shapes dance to a jazz soundtrack. (The film is included on the DVD “Gumby Essentials,” released in 2007 by Classic Media.)

Mr. Clokey created Gumby soon afterward. As he often said, Gumby’s asymmetrical head, resembling a rakish pompadour, was a tribute to his biological father’s prominent cowlick.

“The Gumby Show” had an undercurrent of tender, if slightly surreal, spirituality. (A lifelong seeker of enlightenment, Mr. Clokey tried LSD — but only once, under medical supervision and not till long after he created Gumby, his son said in a telephone interview on Sunday.)

“Davey and Goliath” was spiritual by design. Underwritten by what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the series was meant to teach values like charity and tolerance.

Mr. Clokey’s first marriage, to the former Ruth Parkander, ended in divorce; his second wife, Gloria, died in 1998. In addition to his son, Joe, from his first marriage, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Holly Harman; a sister, Arlene Cline; a half-sister, Patricia Anderson; and three grandchildren. A daughter from his first marriage, Ann, died in 1974.

With the rise of slick, titillatingly violent cartoons in the 1970s, Gumby’s popularity waned. According to many published accounts, Mr. Clokey struggled financially. Then along came Mr. Murphy, and suddenly Gumby was everywhere.

Mr. Clokey adored Mr. Murphy’s performance, his son said. But he was also gratified that it was broadcast late at night, when no child was awake to see it.

Gumby's principal sidekick is Pokey, a talking pony voiced by Art Clokey and Dallas McKennonthe Blockheads, a pair of humanoid, red-colored figures with block-shaped heads, who wreak mischief and havoc at all times. The Blockheads were inspired by the Katzenjammer Kids, who were always getting into scrapes and causing discomfort to others.[2] Other characters are Gumby's dog Nopey (who responds to everything with a gloomy "nope"); and Prickle, a yellow creature often mistaken for a dinosaur but who was proved to actually be a dragon in the installment titled "The Big City" where he breathed fire at the vicious dog of a man trying to mug Gumby for a recently purchased guitar. Prickle often declares himself as a detective, sporting a pipe and a hat in the likeness of Sherlock Holmes. Also featured are Goo, a flying blue mermaid who spits blue goo-balls and can change her physical shape at will; Gumby's mother Gumba; Gumby's father Gumbo; his sister Minga; Denali (a mastodon); Tilly (a hen); King Ott; and Professor Kapp. at different times, and his nemeses are

Origins of Gumby

Gumby was created by Art Clokey while a student of Slavko Vorkapich at the University of Southern California. Clokey and his wife, Ruth (née Ruth Parkander), invented Gumby in the early 1950s at their Covina home shortly after Art finished film school at USC. Clokey's first animated film was a 1953 three-minute short called Gumbasia, a surreal montage of moving and expanding lumps of clay set to music in a parody of Disney's Fantasia.[3] 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. In 1955 Clokey showed Gumbasia to movie producer Sam Engel, who encouraged him to develop his technique by adding figures. Of the three pilot episodes of Gumby, the first was done by Clokey on his own, and the next two were done for NBC and shown on The Howdy Doody Show to test audience reaction. The second 15-minute pilot, "Gumby Goes to the Moon", was initially rejected by NBC executive Thomas Warren Sarnoff. The third Gumby episode, "Robot Rumpus", made a successful debut on the Howdy Doody Show in August 1956. Gumby was an NBC series starting in 1957.[4] [5]

Gumby was inspired by a suggestion from Clokey's wife Ruth that he base his character on the Gingerbread man. Gumby was green simply because that was Clokey's favorite color. Gumby's legs and feet were made wide for pragmatic reasons: they ensured the clay character would stand up during stop-motion filming. The famous slanted shape of Gumby's head was based on the hair style of Clokey's father in an old photograph.[6]

Female performers (among them Ginny Tyler and Nancy Wible) supplied Gumby's voice during the initial episodes. New episodes were added from 1961 to 1963, at which time Dallas McKennon became the voice of Gumby. Production continued through 1966-1968, by which time Norma MacMillan voiced Gumby.

The Lorimar-Telepictures Years

Mr. Stuff gives Gumby all the goodies he can hold in "Grub Grabber Gumby."

By the 1980s, the original Gumby shorts had enjoyed a revival, both on television and home video. This led to a new incarnation of the series for television syndication by Lorimar-Telepictures in 1988 that included new characters such as Gumby's sister Minga, Tilly the chicken, and Denali the mastodon. Dallas McKennon returned as the voice of Gumby in new adventures that would take Gumby and his pals beyond their toyland-type setting and establish themselves as a rock band.

In addition to the new episodes, the classic 1955-59 and 1961-68 shorts were re-run as part of the series, but with newly recorded soundtracks, including new voices and synthesized musical scores (Clokey's rights to use the original Capitol Records production tracks could not be renewed at the time, due to legal issues.)

Art Clokey reportedly gave many movie industry talents their first break in the business. A number of the clay animators who worked on the new series went on to work for Pixar, Disney and other studios.

The movie and beyond

Screenshot of the video game, Gumby vs. the Astrobots.

In 1987, the character appeared in The Puppetoon Movie. In 1995, Clokey's production company produced an independently released theatrical film, Gumby I (aka Gumby: The Movie), marking the clay character's first feature-length adventure. In it, the villainous Blockheads replace Gumby and his band with robots and kidnap their dog, Lowbelly. The movie featured in-joke homages to such sci-fi classics as Star Wars, The Terminator, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Starting in 1992, Cartoon Network aired re-runs of Gumby episodes.

The Library of Congress had Gumby as a spokescharacter from 1994 to 1995, due to a common sequence in his shows where Gumby walks into a book, and then experiences the world inside the book as a tangible place. By the end of the decade, Gumby and Pokey had appeared in commercials for Cheerios cereal, most notably Frosted Cheerios.

Although no new animated Gumby material is planned for the foreseeable future, most of the episodes (with a few exceptions) of the two series are available on home video and DVD.

In August 2005, the first video game featuring Gumby, Gumby vs. the Astrobots, was released by Namco for the Game Boy Advance. In it, Gumby must rescue Pokey, Prickle and Goo after they are captured by the Blockheads and their cohorts, the Astrobots. Also in the summer of 2005, an event produced by TheDeepArchives/TDA Animation was held in New York. The exhibit featured props, storyboards and script pages from various Gumby shorts over the past 50 years, as well as toys and other memorabilia that had appeared during Gumby's "career," including a reproduction of Eddie Murphy's Saturday Night Live Gumby costume. The centerpiece of the show was an actual complete set used in the production of a TV commercial for Gumby vs. the Astrobots.

In San Francisco, California, Studio Z held "Gumby's 50th Birthday Party" with Gumby creator Art Clokey. The bands Smash Mouth and Remoter played at the party, hosted by comedian Kevin Meaney. The party/comedy tribute was written by comedy writer and stage director Martin Olson and Gumby's creative director and composer Robert F. Thompson. It was produced by Missing Link Media Ventures and Clokey Productions.

In 2006, The Center for Puppetry Arts, Atlanta, Georgia, hosted the most comprehensive Clokey/Gumby exhibition to date. Entitled "Gumby: Art Clokey - The First Fifty Years," the exhibition was curated by writer/animator David Scheve, and featured over one hundred puppets and many of the original sets from the 1980s television series, as well as the 1990s full length theatrical film. The exhibition ran from August 2006 until March 2007.

Bob Burden wrote the Gumby comic series with art by Rick Geary, colors by Steve Oliff and Lance Borde, edited by Mel Smith and published by Wildcard Ink. The first issue dated July 2006. It won an honor for Best Publication for a Younger Audience at the 2007 Eisner Awards.

The Gumby images and toys are registered trademarks of Prema Toy Company. Premavision owns the distribution rights to the Gumby cartoons (having been reverted from previous distributor Warner Bros. Television), and has licensed the rights to Classic Media.

On March 16, 2007, YouTube announced that all Gumby episodes would appear in their full-length form on its site, digitally remastered and with their original soundtracks. This deal also extended to other video sites, including AOL.[7]

In March 2007, KQED-TV broadcast an hour-long documentary "Gumby Dharma" as part of their ""Truly CA series.[8]

On January 8, 2010, creator Art Clokey died of natural causes at his home in Los Osos, CA.

Toys and merchandise

Early versions of bendable figures:
Pokey & Gumby

Various Gumby merchandise has been produced over the years, the most prominent item being bendable figures. Several single packs and multi-figure sets by Jesco, as well as a 50th anniversary collection, have been made of the Gumby characters. Also included in the Gumby merchandise catalog are plush dolls, keychains, mugs, a 1988 Colorforms color foams set, a 1995 Trendmasters playset, and a Kubricks set by Medicom.

A tribute album, Gumby, was released in 1989 by Buena Vista records.

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