Monday, December 20, 2004

The Story of Matilda, the Christmas Hippopotamus

(This is for ol' E.R. Taken from a story I wrote in December 2000)


Visions of sugar plums weren't dancing through the heads of Oklahoma children in 1953.

No, what marched through their heads -- what they longed for -- was a hippopotamus for Christmas.

A hippo?

Yes, a hippo.
No crocodiles. No rhinoceroses. Only a hippopotamus would do.

And that's how Matilda the hippopotamus found herself at home at the Oklahoma City Zoo on Christmas Eve that year.


Santa is in the business of granting special wishes. But a hippo? Surely Santa slipped the reindeer a few extra vitamins for this special delivery.

The song "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," featuring the voice of a 10-year-old Gayla Peevey, sold more than 300,000 copies on the Columbia Records label by mid-December 1953.

The song inspired a campaign by WKY-TV and The Oklahoma City Times to raise enough to buy a hippo named Matilda.

And it took a lot of coins to buy the three-year-old hippo. Nearly $4,000 was raised, most of that in nickles and dimes sent in by children.

What child could dream that singing a song would really bring them a hippopotamus for Christmas? Or imagine that people would still cherish the song nearly 50 years later?

The little girl is now Gayla Peevey Henderson, living in California.

"It's true. Every Christmas people start contacting me," she said with a laugh.

"I was just 10, so it was all just kind of exciting and unexpected and fun. It was kind of a bonus to the whole thing to have the hippo actually be bought and donated to the zoo. Who would have ever dreamed that such a thing would ever happen?

"It was really a very fun experience. I got to meet so many other people, and the connection with other kids with them sending in their dimes and nickles was just really nice."

As much as Henderson enjoyed her singing career and seeing her song inspire children to buy Matilda, the fame that came along also took a toll.

"I know that people find this really hard to believe, but it's true. All that show business stuff was just too hard for our family to handle. It was very disruptive," Henderson said.

"My dad transferred to San Diego just so I could go to school and be normal. I was going into junior high. I was about 12. It was kind of nice. I was able to go to school, and we re-established ourselves here. I went on to college and met a nice guy and got marrie -- pretty normal stuff. I've had a wonderful life totally away from show business. I do still sing, but it's primarily at church.

"I still do some songwriting, but basically it's a pretty normal life. Every Christmas, somebody tracks me down to talk about the hippo song," she said.

Henderson has been married 37 years (in 2000).

"It's wonderful and unusual in this day and age to be married that long. I attribute that to being pretty grounded in our church and Christian faith. He's a teacher," she said.

She said her husband doesn't remember the hippopotamus song from his childhood, but he smiles when he hears it. The song has been played on "Ally McBeal" and "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Henderson's daughter, Sydney Forest, is a professional singer and songwriter.

"She writes songs that are in movies and animated films. She just completed writing a musical with her husband. ... She claims the music was passed through the genes."

The flip side of the record was "Are My Ears on Straight?" which is used a lot in dance studios for children, Henderson said.

Henderson was born in Oklahoma City and moved to Ponca City before she entered first grade. She and her family lived there for five years.

She sang on WKY-TV on "Sooner Shindig" and "The Chuckwagon Gang" programs. The president of WKY sent a demo tape to Columbia which led to Peevey's record contract.

"I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" was recorded with the Mitch Miller Orchestra. She performed the song on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Matilda the Hippo lived with her mate, Norman, at the Oklahoma City Zoo until March 1998. She had eight babies. She died in 1998 when she was being moved to Disney World in Florida where she would have retired with Norman.

"I was so very sad when Matilda died and was so happy I got to see her when I visited the Oklahoma City Zoo about 10 years ago," Henderson said.

Here are the lyrics. If you want to hear it on your computer, click here.

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

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
I don't think Santa Claus will mind, do you?
He won't have to use our dirty chimney flue
Just bring him through the front door,
that's the easy thing to do

I can see me now on Christmas morning,
creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise
when I open up my eyes
to see a hippo hero standing there

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles, no rhinoceroses
I only like hippopotamuses
And hippopotamuses like me too

Mom says the hippo would eat me up, but then
Teacher says a hippo is a vegeterian

There's lots of room for him in our two-car garage
I'd feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage

I can see me now on Christmas morning,
creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise
when I open up my eyes
to see a hippo hero standing there

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles or rhinoceroseses
I only like hippopotamuseses
And hippopotamuses like me too!

8 comments:

TECH said...

This is an absolutely awesome story!

Erudite Redneck said...

Excellent, Trix. :-)

Trixie said...

Surprise! Here's the answer to the B.C. Clark jingle quiz!

The line that was cut from the jingle in 1977 was:

"The Christmas wish of B.C. Clark is to keep on pleasing you."

It was right before the final "So give the gift ...." line.

Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the background information. Thank you!

SCU LIBRARY COMMONS said...

Have you seen there is a fiction book out now about how kids raised money to buy Judy the elephant? It is "Elephant Hips Are Expensive".

Anonymous said...

I'm looking for the sheet music for Hippo. I need piano level 1 or 2 but I'm willing to take what i can find. Please help, my mom played and sang this song every Christmas until she died - but she knew it by heart and we have no replacement. I'll check back in soon to see if anyone has a copy they are willing to share for a fair price, of course. Thankyou

Robin said...

Thank you so much for posting this information...I've searched all over the web for it, and finally found your place1

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

looking for Hippo sheet music- try musicnotes.com