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Art Clokey dies at 88; creator of Gumby

The filmmaker's work enchanted generations of children.

January 09, 2010|By Jason Felch

Art Clokey, the creator of the whimsical clay figure Gumby, died in his sleep Friday at his home in Los Osos, Calif., after battling repeated bladder infections, his son Joseph said. He was 88.

Clokey and his wife, Ruth, invented Gumby in the early 1950s at their Covina home shortly after Art had finished film school at USC. After a successful debut on "The Howdy Doody Show," Gumby soon became the star of its own hit television show, "The Adventures of Gumby," the first to use clay animation on television.

After an initial run in the 1950s, Gumby enjoyed comebacks in the 1960s as a bendable children's toy, in the 1980s after comedian Eddie Murphy parodied the kindly Gumby as a crass, cigar-in-the-mouth character in a skit for "Saturday Night Live" and again in the '90s with the release of "Gumby the Movie."

Today, Gumby is a cultural icon recognized around the world. It has more than 134,000 fans on Facebook.

As successive generations discovered the curious green character, Gumby’s success came to define Clokey's life, with its theme song reflecting Clokey's simple message of love: "If you've got a heart, then Gumby's a part of you."

"The fact is that most people don't know his name, but everybody knows Gumby," said friend and animator David Scheve. "To have your life work touch so many people around the world is an amazing thing."

Clokey was born Arthur Farrington in Detroit in October 1921 and grew up making mud figures on his grandparents' Michigan farm. "He always had this in him," his son, Joseph, recalled Friday.

At age 8, Clokey's life took a tragic turn when his father was killed in a car accident soon after his parents divorced. The unusual shape of Gumby's head would eventually be modeled after one of the few surviving photos of Clokey's father, which shows him with a large wave of hair protruding from the right side of his head.

After moving to California, Clokey was abandoned by his mother and her new husband and lived in a halfway house near Hollywood until age 11, when he was adopted by Joseph W. Clokey. The renowned music teacher and composer at Pomona College taught him to draw, paint and shoot film and took him on journeys to Mexico and Canada.

Art Clokey attended the Webb School in Claremont, whose annual fossil hunting expeditions also inspired a taste for adventure that stayed with him. "That's why 'The Adventures of Gumby' were so adventurous," his son said.

Clokey served in World War II, conducting photo reconnaissance over North Africa and France. Back in Hartford, Conn., after the war, he was studying to be an Episcopal minister when he met Ruth Parkander, the daughter of a minister. The two married and moved to California to pursue their true passion: filmmaking.

During the day, the Clokeys taught at the Harvard School for Boys in Studio City, now Harvard-Westlake. At night, Art Clokey studied film at USC under Slavko Vorkapich, a pioneer of modern montage techniques.

Clokey's 1953 experimental film, "Gumbasia," used stop-motion clay animation set to a lively jazz tempo. It became the inspiration for the subsequent Gumby TV show when Sam Engel, the president of 20th Century Fox and father of one of Clokey's students, saw the film and asked Clokey to produce a children's television show based on the idea.

In the 1960s, Clokey created and produced the Christian TV series "Davey and Goliath" and the credits for several feature films, including "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini."

Gumby's ability to enchant generations of children and adults had a mystical quality to it, said his son, and reflected his father's spiritual quest. In the 1970s, Clokey studied Zen Buddhism, traveled to India to study with gurus and experimented with LSD and other drugs, though all of that came long after the creation of Gumby, his son said.

His second wife, Gloria, whom he married in 1976, was art director on Gumby projects in the 1980s and '90s. She died in 1998.

Besides his son Joseph, Clokey is survived by his stepdaughter, Holly Harman of Mendocino County; three grandchildren, Shasta, Sequoia and Sage Clokey; his sister, Arlene Cline of Phoenix; and his half-sister, Patricia Anderson of Atlanta.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests contributions in Gumby's name to the Natural Resources Defense Council, of which Art Clokey was a longtime member.

"Gumby was green because my dad cared about the environment," his son said.

jason.felch@latimes.com

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