Like many in the Honeycomb Kids generation, I didn’t properly appreciate children’s television icon Gumby until Eddie Murphy parodied him on Saturday Night Live. This sparked a revival. Watching Gumby episodes in the company of other merry young adults reframed my previously held view of him as a relic from a time when TV was boring. Turns out that Gumby and his equine sidekick Pokey were actually pretty funny, weird-in-a-good-way, and far more soulful than the witless flat animation jamming the airwaves of my 70s childhood.
Then, in 2006, the Museum of the Moving Image had an exhibit devoted to the work of Art Clokey, father of Gumby.
I decided to take the kids, gambling that they might respond to Gumby as I did now, not the way I did when I was their age. Their screen time was pretty limited back then, and as a result, they’d avidly watch just about anything.
The first video we encountered was Gumbasia, the experimental, character-free, stop motion riff above that Clokey made as a student at USC. It was produced in 1953 and released in 1955.
Not exactly what I’d been priming the children to expect on the subway ride over.
“That’s Gumby?” they cried in dismay. “That cube?”
No. But those morphing cubes and squiggles did give birth to an empire, after producer and president of the Motion Picture Producers Association, Sam Engel, offered to bankroll a pilot, declaring Gumbasia the most exciting film he’d ever seen in his life. Clokey was teaching English at the Harvard Military Academy. Engel’s sole wish was to improve the quality of children’s television programming. He asked Clokey if he could “make little clay figures out of that clay and animate them.”
Clokey did just that, with Engel bankrolling the pilot, “Gumby on the Moon.” The producer was so pleased with the result, he refused to take a cut when Gumby was given a seven year contract at NBC.
Imagine a Cinderella story like that happening today!
If this small morsel of Gumby history leaves you craving more, book your flight for the inaugural Gumby Fest in Glendora, California, where Gumby grew to maturity in “an unassuming industrial building.”
You can find Gumbasia in the Animation section of our collection of 675 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns.
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Ayun Halliday is the author of seven books, and creator of the award winning East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday
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