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Oklahoma Memories

Gayla Peevey

2011-12-17

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(GaylaPeevey singing) "I want a hippopotamus for Christmas, only a hippopotamus will do. Don't want a doll, no dinky tinker toy, I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy."

That is Gayla Peevey singing her hit song from Christmas 1953. From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

Gayla Peevey was born in 1943 in Oklahoma City. A few years later her family moved to Ponca City then back to Oklahoma City. She began singing as a preschooler in church, and by the time she was in the fourth grade she was appearing regularly on WKY Radio and Channel 4 in Oklahoma City. In 1953 at the age of 10, she began appearing on Saturday Night Revue with Hogey Carmichael, a summer replacement show on the NBC television network. That brought her to the attention of Columbia Records. After she signed a contract, they flew her and her mother to New York for a recording session with Mitch Miller.

"My mother and I were flown to New York, and it was quite exciting because we had not ever been to New York before. Big recording stuidio in New York, Mitch Miller, big full orchestra. (singing) I want a hippopotamus for Christmas, only a hippopotamus will do (stop singing) Is that enough? (laughing and then singing again) Don't want a doll, no dinky tinker toy, I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy. I want a hippopotamus for Christmas, I don't think Santa Claus will mind, do you? [and I put] No crocodiles, no rhinoceruses, and I didn't know if they would like that or not, and Mitch Miller said 'Keep it. Keep it, I like that.' ""

The song was released in time for Christmas 1953. At the same the song was released, the Oklahoma City Zoo director decided that the zoo needed a hippopotamus, and Gayla's song would be perfect to use for a fund raising campaign.

"They started running ads in the paper and telling kids, hey, let's send in your nickels and dimes, and we can raise enough money to buy Gayla a hippo, and it was called the Gayla Peevey Hippo Fund. They were able to buy Matilda and ship her in on Christmas Eve. She came in a crate and I was the first one to peek in and see her, and it was quite exciting.""

The hippo for the Oklahoma City Zoo cost $5,000 including shipping from New York, and on Christmas Eve 1953, Matilda the hippo arrived in Oklahoma City and was taken to the zoo. There Gayla helped introduce Matilda to her new home.

Over the years many believed that Gayla made a fortune with her recording.

"Oh, people really think I'm just raking in the money in royalties and everything. Not! Not true. I wish it was!"

Matilda entertained zoo visitors for more than 40 years before finally passing in the 1990s. Gayla lives in California but comes back to Oklahoma periodically. The interview with Gayla Peevey was provided by Jack Frank for his video OKC A to Z.

Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.

(more of I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas)