Want a hippo for Christ­mas? The story of a girl who got one

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

All a cute, curly haired 10-year-old girl named Gayla Peevey wanted for Christ­mas in 1953 was a hip­popota­mus. And amaz­ingly enough, af­ter "I Want a Hip­popota­mus For Christ­mas" be­came the big­gest hit song of that hol­i­day sea­son, she ac­tu­ally got one, a 700-pound baby named Matilda. She promptly do­nated it to the Ok­la­homa City Zoo, where it lived to be nearly 50, a ripe old age for hip­pos. As for Peevey's song, it may never die. "That one just re­ally took off, and it's still go­ing strong, stronger than ever. Six­tythree years later! Hard to be­lieve," Peevey, an ebul­lient wo­man of 73, says dur­ing a re­cent phone in­ter­view from her San Diego-area home.

So much so that it's used as a cell phone ring­tone these days, in­cluded on hol­i­day or­na­ments and Christ­mas cards, avail­able for down­load on iTunes. It's even fea­tured in a US Postal Ser­vice com­mer­cial in which the post of­fice boasts it ships more on­line gifts, hip­popota­muses in­cluded, than any­body. Some peo­ple will tell you it's an an­noy­ing ear worm, a tune with such silly lyrics and a melody so mad­den­ingly mem­o­rable that it will play end­lessly in your head ev­ery hol­i­day sea­son un­til New Year's Day. But that's part of its charm, says Tim Moore, iHeart Ra­dio's New Hamp­shire pro­gram­ming di­rec­tor who over the decades has played it plenty of times.

"It's got the sound of an old-time record­ing," Moore says. "It sounds dated. It sounds a lit­tle corny. But that's the thing about it. Also, not to be dis­counted is its ef­fect on chil­dren." Yes, def­i­nitely don't dis­count that. For years, Peevey has been hear­ing from school­teach­ers around the world who tell her their stu­dents per­form the song and can't get enough of it. "Over 15 years now we've done it, and I don't think we're stop­ping," laughs Dana Caro, who di­rects the sec­ond-grade Christ­mas mu­sic pro­gram at a sub­ur­ban South­ern Cal­i­for­nia school. Other songs come and go, says Caro, but "Hippo" stays in the mix ev­ery year at Arcadia's Longley Way El­e­men­tary School.

A hit but not a big hit

"Even in class to­day, we weren't in re­hearsal yet when one kid started singing it, and then they were all singing it," added the teacher, who says it has a bounce and a cheer­i­ness that kids love. And who knows, singing it may ac­tu­ally get a kid a hippo. Un­likely, per­haps, but it did get one for Peevey. Her home­town zoo, hip­po­less at the time, teamed with the lo­cal news­pa­per to en­cour­age peo­ple to send in enough money to buy her one af­ter she de­buted the song on tele­vi­sion's "The Ed Sul­li­van Show." Three thou­sand dol­lars later, Matilda ar­rived on Christ­mas Eve, a fit­ting gift for some­one who would so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally de­clare, "No croc­o­diles, no rhinoceroses. I only like hip­popota­muses. And hip­popota­muses like me too."

Soon af­ter, how­ever, Peevey left her hip­popota­mus be­hind, mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia. She had been singing pro­fes­sion­ally for two years be­fore record­ing "Hippo," mov­ing up from lo­cal water­melon fes­ti­vals to ra­dio shows and then a spot on tele­vi­sion's "Satur­day Night Re­vue" hosted by Hoagy Carmichael. But her hippo fame caught her off guard, and for months af­ter­ward she couldn't move around Ok­la­homa City with­out be­ing mobbed by fans. Her par­ents fig­ured she'd blend in as just another "nor­mal kid" in Cal­i­for­nia while record­ing a few more songs. None would have the im­pact of that first one, writ­ten by John Rox and per­son­ally se­lected for Peevey by Columbia Records' leg­endary pro­ducer and A&R man Mitch Miller, who backed her with his or­ches­tra.

She did resur­face briefly in 1959 with "My Lit­tle Ma­rine," an aching teen bal­lad she'd writ­ten about her first crush. She recorded it un­der the name Jamie Hor­ton, her man­ager not want­ing peo­ple to dis­miss it as another hippo song. It peaked at Num­ber 84 on Bill­board's Hot 100. "A hit but not a big hit," she says now. "Cer­tainly not a hit as big as the hip­popota­mus song." Soon af­ter, she was off to col­lege, then mar­riage and moth­er­hood. Even­tu­ally she founded her own ad­ver­tis­ing agency, keep­ing her hand in mu­sic writ­ing com­mer­cial jin­gles. Re­tired and mar­ried for 53 years now, she still sings reg­u­larly in church. "But not the hippo song," Peevey says, laugh­ing. "It's not re­ally a church song."

Gayla Peevey, singer of that en­dur­ing Christ­mas clas­sic, ‘I Want a Hip­popota­mus For Christ­mas,’ stands next to an im­age she drew of a hip­popota­mus in her home in La Mesa, Cal­i­for­nia.

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