Gumby began as a vision in Art Clokey's mind. A vision of a little green slab of clay which comes to life in a world of it's own. Clokey had made his first little clay figures as a youth on his grandparents' farm in Michigan. After modeling the figures, he would blow them away with a toy cannon that propelled pencils and marbles. This early interest transitioned into sketching, sculpting, and eventually movie making.
After Art Clokey moved with his family to California, he began studying at the Hartford Seminary to become an Episcopal minister. Clokey soon began filming class trips for school and experimented making his own movies. His first commercial film was done for the Anderson Split Pea Soup Company. This first success led to work for Coca-Cola, and a desire to further pursue film-making.
Art Clokey left the seminary after his first year and enrolled at USC, where he studied cinema under the well-known Yugoslavian montage artist, Slavko Borkevich. Clokey learned various principles of cinema, which, when combined with his early interest in clay, resulted in the 1953 student film, Gumbasia. The four-minute film was named in honor of Disney's Fantasia and featured geometric shapes rolling and dancing to a jazz score. Gumbasia could be called one of the first music videos.
After earning a teaching degree from USC, Art began work at the Harvard Military Academy, a school attended by the children of Hollywood executives like Frank Capra, Darryl Zanuck and Sam Engel. Through his tutelage of Sam Engel's son, Clokey was invited to screen Gumbasia at the Twentieth Century Fox studios. Engel was so impressed that he offered to finance a pilot film from Clokey. Engel took the film to Tom Sarnoff at NBC-TV in 1956, and soon Gumby films were featured on NBC's Howdy Doody show.
Art Clokey would move his characters a fraction of a millimeter at a time, then shoot a movie frame, then do it again and again, 24 times for each second of actual cartoon. NBC's desire for high quality children's series on television prompted them to finance The Gumby Show, which premiered on March 16, 1957. The music came from the music library of Capitol Records. The later theme song, from 1966, came from a young musician named Pete Kleinow, who later went on to become steel guitarist for the Flying Burrito Brothers country rock group. Art Clokey supplied most of the voices in the original shorts Later voices included Dick Beals, who turned 30 on the day The Gumby Show made it's NBC-TV debut.
Gumby was produced under the direction of stop-motion film-maker Raymond Peck. The series was originally hosted by Bob Nicholson, who had been featured as Clarabelle the Clown on Howdy Doody (replacing Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan) and later became a successful game show producer. Nicholson portrayed Scotty McKee, the proprietor of McKee's Fun Shop, where Gumby resided. Comedian Pinky Lee replaced Nicholson as host in the fall of 1957.
Lee resided in the Fun Forest with his puppet pals, Wooly the Rabbit and Filbert the Frog. A live audience of children watched as the hyperactive Lee sang, danced and read letters from home viewers. Sponsored by Tootsie Roll candies, Gumby generated a lot of money for NBC, but Clokey wasn't getting much of it. He was paid a straight salary of $200 a week to write and produce the Gumby episodes. His salary soon went up to $350 a week, but a heart attack forced Pinky Lee to slow down his pace and the series was cancelled on November 16, 1957.
After Gumby left the network, Clokey bought back all the rights to the characters. The original Gumby shorts entered syndication, with newly produced episodes added in 1962, 1966-67 and 1988.
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