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Feat of Clay : Pop culture: Who would have thought a stretchy green blob could entertain generation after generation? Don't look now, but lovable Gumby is 40 years old.

August 13, 1993|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Does life begin at 40?

Well, it begins again for Gumby, the blue-green clayboy with a head the shape of Maine and ever-chic bell-bottom legs.

The youthful, relentlessly cheerful, original clay-animation superstar hits the big four-oh in four months, and, along with creator Art Clokey, appears set for yet another comeback.

Hey, he's Gumby, dammit!

His new feature film, "Gumby I," is due out early next year. At Name That Toon, an animation art gallery on Melrose Avenue, Gumby fans are being mesmerized by Gumby World, an exhibit that features many of the characters and props and sets that were used in the two television series that began in 1956 and again 1986.

And though the "Gumby" show isn't in syndication, Eddie Murphy's Gumby sketches, via "Saturday Night Live" reruns on cable, are helping to keep the character alive for another generation.

Not bad for the boy-creature created in 1953, a byproduct of Clokey's "Gumbasia," a four-minute film of colored clay shapes moving to jazz. Not bad for a guy who was producing TV commercials and teaching English and Latin at Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake) in Studio City.

It was while tutoring a student--the son of 20th Century Fox producer San Engel--that Clokey was invited to the studio. He took along "Gumbasia."

"After Sam saw it he said to me, 'That's the most exciting film I have ever seen in my life!' "

Clokey recalls how Engel paced in front of the screen while the film was being rewound so they could see it again: " 'We have to go into business,' Engel announced. 'Can you make little figures out of the clay and tell stories with them?' "

For weeks Clokey molded hundreds of shapes with a homemade cookie cutter and studied different colors before he settled on Gumby: a 7-inch-tall, half-inch-thick slab of clay, bluish-green, white eyes with red pupils, yellow eyebrows, nose and mouth.

"Gumby came from my childhood," Clokey says, adding that he spent rainy summers at his grandparents' Michigan farm where a sticky mud called gumbo seemed to take on a life of its own.

"My father would come home and say he had 'gotten stuck in the gumbo.' In the creek behind my grandfather's farm my friends and I would play in it." Clokey would take gumbo mud baths, build gumbo forts and make gumbo soldiers.

"As a result of my life, a lot of me is in Gumby," he says. Even the bump on Gumby's head was inspired by a photo of Clokey's father that hung in the living room of his grandfather's farmhouse. Clokey's father is 18 in the picture, which shows off a pouffy cowlick on one side of his head.

"That always fascinated me as a child," he says. "It's what I call the bump of wisdom."

Born 71 years ago in Detroit, Clokey grew up poor. At 10 he was abandoned by his mother; she moved to California after marrying another man. Clokey remained with his father, who died a year later in an auto accident. He then left Detroit and moved in with his mother, but found that "because of circumstances I had to leave."

His mother put him up for adoption. At 12 and in the eighth grade, he was adopted by Joseph W. Clokey, a professor of music at Pomona College in Claremont.

"I got to get into an environment of great cultural opportunities," Clokey says. His adoptive father was a nationally known composer. His hobbies were motion pictures and still photography, interests Clokey picked up himself.

The professor--as he often refers to him--"was a renaissance man. I went to the best prep school in the country. I had my college of choice."

During the 1940s Clokey attended Pomona College and Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, where he majored in geology and the classics and spent his free time filming fossil hunts.

He joined the military and flew in several bombing missions during World War II. After the war he enrolled at Hartford Seminary Foundation in Connecticut. He wanted to become an Episcopal priest, but he dropped out a year late, in 1947, because "I realized that I didn't want to be at anyone's beck and call all day."

Clokey then turned to his passion: film. As a graduate student in 1950 he studied cinema at USC, which led to the making of "Gumbasia," a Gumby pilot in 1955 and the NBC series a year later.

During the year of production, Clokey and his staff made thousands of Gumbys, each good for about an hour under the hot lights. It took eight hours to shoot five to 15 seconds of action.

In each of the 99 original six-minute films, Gumby--a gliding green figure with stretchable arms and legs--and other clay characters would pop in and out of various Toyland tomes to tell their stories. Almost always, Gumby, who lived in the book "Down on the Farm," was rescuing someone or solving a problem.

But not even Gumby--who was still going strong in the mid '60s thanks to syndication and toys marketed under Clokey's Gumby Toy Corp.--could solve the personal problems that faced his creator for the next decade.

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