Get your Gumby going

Art Clokey's darkness, like real darkness, descends, arriving not from beneath but above, the landscapes he created for Gumby, Pokey and - above the toy cars, trucks, jeeps, piano, xylophones and his perennial favorite - the sturdy red fire engine. The darkness through and across clouds of cotton, roiling into animated rainstorms, hurricanes and floods, accentuating the bold, and inspired use of real water, and sometimes real fire (clay pirates need something to light their cannons) in stop-motion animation surroundings.

In the private, sometimes completely abstract animated films he lensed without Gumby, Pokey, or any of his other fondly-remembered animated creatures, the camera pans over and sideways through foreboding landscapes, stark shapes and color contrasts. Beneath Gumby's gaiety lies loss.

The Northwest Film Forum's "Gumby 50th Anniversary Celebration" comes with a documentary, "Gumby Dharma," directed by the late Robina Marchesi. The film doesn't skimp on the details, even as Marchesi presents them in a matter-of-fact manner, usually through Clokey's far-ranging ramblings. Art Clokey began life as Arthur Farrington in the Detroit area. Eight-years old when the stock market crashed, he watched his father and mother take in a boarder, a local policeman, to their extra bedroom.

Shortly thereafter, Dad left town to attend a religious conference. In his absence, Mom carried on with the policeman. Mr. Farrington returned to town to find a divorce in order. It is the first and harshest, though far from the last, commingling of faith and strife on Art Clokey's timeline.

His suddenly-single father took Art in while Mom and the policeman took Art's sister and headed for California. Twelve months later, Dad died in a car smash. Art packed his backs for SoCal, to find that his stepfather didn't want him around. Mom signed off on packing him off to a home for abandoned boys. Art's son Joe, who with his beard and Greek fisherman's cap looks more like a missing Beach Boy, says that in a sense his father never got any older after that trauma. He retained the vistas, and the wide-eyed horror, in the heart of the small child.

Seattle-area resident Bill Webb met Clokey at the school run by Webb's father, around the time prominent musician Joseph Clokey adopted Art and gave him his own last name.

"We would doodle," recalls Webb of the eight grade class (all of three students), "but he produced outstanding portraits of teachers and students." They took geology field trips and brought back fossils, forming the start a "formidable" museum collection still displayed at the school today. This inspired, it's fair to assume, the expedition character of many Gumby episodes, although Joseph Clokey also took his new son on long and exotic trips.

In the Army, Art studied photography and cinematography. At USC, Clokey discovered Slavko Vorkapitch, who believed you could use certain frequencies of color to profoundly impact people viscerally and even render them sick to their stomachs. Webb found him estranged from USC, teaching Latin at a girls' school, and proudly takes credit for plunking Clokey back on the artistic path: "I told him it was a waste of his talents to be teaching Latin to those little girls."

Clokey remembered the Michigan mud he played with that the men called "gumbo," and shot an abstract, animated clay film, "Gumbasia," on a ping-pong table in his stepfather's garage. He recalls that Joseph Clokey obligingly parked the car outside until the film wrapped. Mesmerizing in its cosmic flow and geometric dances, "Gumbasia" smacked the viewer in the eyeball, though in wholly pleasant fashion.

Clokey showed it to Hollywood producer Sam Engel, whose son he tutored. Engel commanded the projectionist to show it again, and spent the entire rewind time calling it the "most amazing" film he'd ever seen. Would Clokey help improve children's television by creating some animated characters? Sure, said Clokey, if he got some money. And maybe meet one of Engel's stars, Sophia Loren.

"Gumby" aired on NBC in 1956 and 1957. Al Eggleston, now a Vashon Island resident, served as Clokey's art director, starting with Clokey's animated commercials. "We had to make up a prop candy bar that just said, 'Candy Bar' and not Hershey, because Hershey wasn't paying for the commercials." He built mountains, hills, lakes, Wild West prairies, and prehistoric jungles for Clokey, though he says the most difficult construction lay behind the camera-a 12-foot aluminum dolly constructed for Gumby's trip to the moon. He got a lot of credit, says Eggleston, but "in truth, Art would tell me what he wanted...Art would come up with an idea and say, 'Can we do this?' I was 34, 35 and thought I could do just about anything."

Gumby didn't last on NBC, for which Bill Webb blames their theoretical partner, "Buffalo Bob" Smith and "Howdy Doody," saying Smith had them on "right after the fruit frost warnings," and preferred them there.

But Clokey thrived in other settings, eventually producing a full-length movie, and a Christian series for TV, "Davey and Goliath." Clokey only stuck around for a few "Davey and Goliath"s, though. Convinced he was robbed of script credit, he grabbed the Lutheran Church liaison "by the tie or the lapel, I don't quite remember which," and demanded satisfaction. He didn't get it. His first wife, ever-placating, became the new go-between.

Now 85 years old, Clokey still fumbles and grumbles towards enlightenment, his subconscious effervescing all the way.

"Gumby 50th Anniversary" and "Gumby Dharma" play October 20-26 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave.

Call 267-5380 for showtimes and information. Joe Clokey, Al Eggleston and Bill Webb join the audience for a special presentation on opening night.

[[In-content Ad]]