Looking back, I know that meeting Gayla Peevey Henderson was not an accident. A series of events led to our introduction in the middle of a gift store. That culminated into the “Gayla Gala” event that occurred last weekend at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Now, I’m honored to say that Gayla and her husband, Cliff, are treasured friends.
Nearly ten years ago, I researched Gayla’s childhood recording of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” for my book Oklahoma City Zoo; 1902-1959. Every time I’m asked to speak to a group about zoo history, Gayla’s hippo story is the most popular topic. On occasion, the audience bursts into spontaneous singing of the song; at other times, I must give my best imitation of Gayla’s performance.
In April 2007, I received an unexpected phone call at work. The quick-thinking cashier working in the gift shop called to say that I should rush down to meet Gayla Peevey. I scrambled to grab an autograph pen and pull the 1953 “I Want a Hippopotamus” record album cover out of its archival box.
On any other day, the cashier might have paid no attention to the conversation going on near the register. This particular girl (I don’t remember her name), had actually read my book, so her ears perked up when she heard Gayla tell her friend, “Look, my story’s in this book.”
Two years later, the opening of the zoo’s history museum, the ZooZeum, was approaching. I knew that we simply had to feature an exhibit about Gayla and how her Christmas song brought the first hippo to the Oklahoma City Zoo. I called Gayla to ask if she would be willing to fly from California to unveil the exhibit. She said yes!
We began the planning for various special events to celebrate Gayla and her music. In addition, I oversaw the research and installation of the ZooZeum exhibit, “A Hippo for Christmas” (huge thanks to Sherri Vance, who made everything happen behind-the-scenes).
Gayla’s visit spanned November 17-20, 2011. Her arrival was heralded with a rash of media interviews; sharing her story and advertising the public sing-a-long and autograph session. She did a question-and-answer session with zoo staff, and was the guest of honor at a private exhibit-unveiling, called the Gayla Gala. In all cases, she proved herself charming and friendly. Her ability to field questions, chat easily with DJs and burst into song and dance on cue showed that the knack for show business is still in her blood.
The day of the sing-a-long was nearly freezing, but about 350 people came to sing the hippo song, led by Gayla. Almost 250 of them then visited the ZooZeum to meet Gayla and get autographs on a variety of hippo items custom-produced for the zoo gift shop (including my favorite, a snow globe music box).
Gayla was very touched by all of the visitors’ stories about why the song was special to them. Many of the children sang it for her; some had traveled many miles to see her. Gayla couldn’t believe that the song still had such a following. In fact, she expressed to me that one of her fears about coming to the zoo was that no one would attend. Instead, Gayla found herself treated like a celebrity. “And I’m just a regular person at home,” she said. “I’m a grandma, and I do dishes.”
I thoroughly enjoyed chauffeuring Gayla and Cliff around for four days. They were delightful every second! We sang together at the radio stations, experimented with different autograph pens, visited Bricktown by trolley, and ate Sonic hot dogs. The hippo keepers even allowed Gayla to put food out in the yard for the zoo’s pygmy hippo.
Since I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day 2011, I must say that I’m thankful that the gift shop cashier was paying attention that spring day in 2007; otherwise I might never have met Gayla Peevey. She and Cliff are some of my favorite people, and I’m glad Gayla’s song lives on.
A few links from Gayla’s zoo visit: