Monthly Archives: November 2011

The History Behind “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”

 Gayla Peevey was 10-years-old when she recorded the song “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” in 1953.  The child star, often confused with Shirley Temple, acquired adoring fans quickly, especially in her hometown of Oklahoma City.  Gayla remembers the awkwardness when schoolmates stared at her during class or when children climbed into trees to stare at her through the bedroom window. 

 Gayla had a clear gift for singing, so her parents allowed her to perform on a local television variety program.  When Columbia Records noticed her strong voice and stage presence, they offered her a recording contract to sing children’s songs. 

Gayla Peevey. Source:

 The first selection, a cutesy song about a hippo, delighted Gayla as much as it did audiences.  During rehearsal, Gayla made some improvements to the lyrics, which originally read “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.  A hippopotamus is all I want.”  She also ad-libbed an extra “es” onto “hippopotamuses-es.” 

 That Christmas, the song sold a record half million copies;  Gayla even performed on the Ed Sullivan Show.  The Oklahoma City Zoo decided to capitalize upon the success of their local celebrity by starting a campaign to buy a hippo for Gayla for Christmas.  The catch?  She had to donate it to the zoo! 

 Mathilda, a two-year-old hippopotamus, arrived by airplane on Christmas Eve.  Gayla was at the airport to greet her and turn her gift over to the zoo.  On Christmas day, over 10,000 visitors came to see the zoo’s first hippo. 

 Almost fifty years later, the song remains a holiday favorite.  As Gayla says, “If you’re going to have a hit song, make it a Christmas song, because it comes back every year!”  It has especially experienced a resurgence in popularity among children, who are the grandchildren of the original audience.  Even Gayla’s grandchildren enjoy the song; although they find it hard to believe their grandmother recorded the song. 

 Gayla could be called a one-hit-wonder, because her musical career never reached such heights again.  She attributes this partly to the fact that the next few songs she recorded “weren’t very good songs.”  The lineup included one about a knock-kneed monkey and another with the silly theme, “I wish I were a whisker on the Easter Bunny’s chin.”   

 In addition, her parents didn’t have the promotional training needed to further the career of their youngest daughter.  Faced with the uncertainty of show business and the problem of an invasive fan base, escape seemed the best solution.  Gayla was uprooted from Oklahoma City and moved to California to live a “normal” life.

 She did have a brief stint as a teenage recording artist, under the name Jamie Horton.  She netted a few successful songs; but the entrance of the new Beatles-style music caused Gayla to exit the singing industry for good.  However, she composed several published songs and eventually wrote commercial jingles for a living. 

 Gayla and her husband, Cliff Henderson, did have that “normal” life of working, going to church, and raising children.  These days, she says she is best known in California for her role of singing “Silent Night” from the tip-top of a human, singing Christmas tree.

 In November 2011, the Oklahoma City Zoo welcomed Gayla as a guest celebrity to share her story and sign autographs.  During her visit, she participated in a Gayla Gala and various media events, celebrating her hippo song that is now part ofOklahoma’s history. 

 Thank you, Gayla, for bringing us such a delightful Christmas tale!

Gayla’s website is 

Hippo article in ZooSounds, Fall 2011



Filed under History, Zoo

Christmas Celebrity Coming to OKC

"I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" album cover. Image used with permission from Sony Entertainment, for the purposes of advertising this event.

What an honor to coordinate this historic event—the return of singer, Gayla Peevey, to the Oklahoma City Zoo!  Don’t recognize the name?  Maybe you’ll recognize her song “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.”   ~Amy


 When Gayla Peevey, a 10-year-old Oklahoma City singer, recorded, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” she made more than just music history. She soon found herself as spokesperson for a campaign that would eventually bring a real hippo to the zoo—just in time for Christmas! 

In December 1953, with half a million copies sold, Gayla’s song became a best-selling Christmas hit.”  Zoo Director, Julian Frazier, decided to capitalize on the momentum of the popular song by granting Gayla’s request for a Christmas hippo; Gayla would then gift the hippo to the zoo so that all Oklahoma City children could enjoy it. 

Thus began the Gayla Peevey Hippo Fund.  Children sent in their pennies, and a few days before Christmas, the final $3,000 was raised to purchase Mathilda, a 2-year-old hippo from Central Park Zoo. 

Mathilda arrived by plane on Christmas Eve.  Gayla presented the hippo to the zoo before climbing to the top of the crate to see Mathilda released into her new home, where she would live for the next 45 years.  To this day, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” remains a favorite holiday song—especially to Oklahomans. 

 This holiday season, the Oklahoma City Zoo’s ZooZeum will feature a new museum exhibit “A Hippo for Christmas.”  It runs from Nov 20th to the end of January 2012.  See Gayla’s broadcast on the Ed Sullivan show, the original record album, and artwork by Gayla Peevey herself.  Mathilda the Hippo merchandise is available in the ZooZeum gift shop. 

Event Details:

Date: Sunday, November 20, 2011 / 1:53 p.m.
Event: “I Want A Hippopotamus” Sing-Along and Meet N’ Greet with Gayla Peevey
Info: Join us for a festive time as we sing “I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas” with Gayla Peevey, the song’s recording artist, in the Zoo’s Global Plaza at 1:53 p.m. on Sunday, November 20. Following the crooning celebration, guests can meet Gayla Peevey who will be at the ZooZeum from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. The sing-along does not require admission.  A dance routine has also been choreographed for those interested.  The routine is available on the zoo’s Facebook page.  Regular admission required for the meet and greet at the ZooZeum. Come on, and sing-along!


Filed under History, Zoo