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Little green guy Gumby launches comeback

Five decades after Gumby first captured America's imagination, the little green guy and his friends are starring in a new art exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the television icon’s creation.
Cartoonist Art Clokey demonstrates the flexibility of his creation, Gumby, in San Rafael, Calif., in May, 1995.Lacy Atkins / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Five decades after Gumby first captured the nation’s imagination, the little green guy and his chums are starring in a new art exhibit — the first in a series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the television icon’s creation and launch his comeback.

“Gumby and Friends: The First 50 Years” attracted fans of all ages at Saturday’s opening at the historic Lynn House Gallery in Antioch, about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco. Creator Art Clokey, now 83, signed Gumby figurines at the two-story exhibit, which featured photographs, toys and other memorabilia.

'A cultural icon'
“Gumby is an icon,” said Diane Gibson-Gray, 49, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Foundation of Antioch, which is sponsoring the monthlong exhibit. “He’s a cultural icon that many of us grew up with. And there’s another wave coming. There’s a whole new generation that’s going to embrace and love Gumby as much as I did.”

The Antioch exhibit is the first event planned this year to commemorate the 50 years since Clokey made a short art film called “Gumbasia,” featuring clay animation set to jazz music, that inspired the beloved television series that debuted a year later in 1956.

Over the next four decades, Clokey, along with his first wife and later his second wife, produced 223 episodes chronicling the adventures of wide-eyed Gumby, horse Pokey and other pals as they traveled to the moon, the Wild West and Toyland.

In mid-June, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City will open a six-month exhibit about Gumby and creator Clokey. Later that month, Clokey’s family will celebrate Gumby’s 50 years at a birthday extravaganza in San Francisco, said Joe Clokey, 43, who now runs the family’s Gumby business, Premavision/Clokey Productions.

The first Gumby video game and a DVD of Gumby shows from the 1980s are scheduled for release this summer. And the family hopes a documentary film about Art Clokey’s life will be broadcast on television.

Joe Clokey, who owns a company that produces educational videos, said his father asked him to take over the Gumby business six years ago and bring the gingerbread-shaped hero back to children.

“My dad wanted Gumby back on TV,” said Joe Clokey, who lives just outside San Luis Obispo near his father. “He did Gumby because he loves children. He wants children to have something of value on TV.”

The Gumby story can be traced back to the creator’s troubled childhood, his son said. After Art Clokey’s father died when he was 10 years old, he moved from Michigan to California to live with his mother. But his new stepfather did not want anything to do with him, and his mother agreed to send Clokey to an orphanage.

“It was really hard for my dad psychologically,” said Joe Clokey. “That’s one of the reasons why he stayed an 11-year-old boy for so many years.”

'What's good for the kids'
Happily, Art Clokey was adopted by a well-known musician, Joseph Clokey, who encouraged Art’s creativity and artistic interests. After college, he joined a seminary to become an Episcopalian priest, but soon met his first wife, Ruth.

The couple decided to move to Southern California to join the film business. Besides Gumby, they also created the clay animation series “Davey and Goliath.”

Animators who worked on the Gumby series have gone on to work for Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks and director Tim Burton. Joe Clokey said animators are developing new episodes of Gumby as well as a new movie.

“The goal has always been about what’s good for kids and what’s fun for kids,” Clokey said. “If you’ve got a heart, then Gumby’s a part of you. That’s what it’s all about.”