Tag Archives: hippo

Gayla Peevey’s Hippo Song…Still Going!

I’m always honored to write another article about Gayla Peevey.  This one was published in Outlook Magazine Dec 2017 (see link). After it came out, I escorted Gayla and her family to the Oklahoma City Zoo’s Sing-a-Long.  You’ll see a teaser that the Zoo planned to make a “big” announcement.  As you might have guessed– we got a new hippopotamus for Christmas this year, and Gayla was on-hand to welcome her second hippo in her lifetime~Amy

Photo provided by Gayla Peevey

“I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas….”

What is it about this chipper little song that has stood the test of time? Oklahoma radio stations have kept the song alive for 64 years because of its distinctly historical roots. It was sung by an Oklahoma child-star, Gayla Peevey. She presented such a darling request that the community jumped on a promotional band wagon to actually buy Gayla a hippo! The Oklahoma City Zoo gladly accepted the responsibility of caring for Mathilda for the next fifty years.

But it takes more than a good back story for a song to reach the status of American holiday classic. The song’s original artist, Gayla Peevey Henderson, has her own insight into the song’s longevity. “The hippo song is a well-written, well-constructed song. The arrangement, the storyline and everything about it was quality. That’s why it’s stood the test of time.”

In the last 10 years, the song has not only seen a resurgence, it’s become a pop culture presence. Hallmark can’t keep its annual hippo ornaments, which play the song, on the shelf. A growing number of modern artists, including Kasey Musgraves and LeAnn Rimes, have recorded the song. In December, the hippo song is one of the most highly-downloaded holiday ringtones on iTunes. The United States Postal Service used the song in their holiday advertising campaign last year, which ranked as the #2 National Television Commercial by Billboard.

“All of a sudden, the song got rediscovered,” Gayla said. “I started getting calls from DJs around the world–Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, and Australia–claiming it as the most popular Christmas song on the air.” (This line was cut from the published version, for spacing)

Gayla Peevey with 2017 hippo merchandise at the OKC Zoo. Photo by A Stephens.

The song’s resurgence also changed Gayla’s life. For 50 years, she’d pretended that the song had little significance. Most people in her life had no idea she’d sung it as a child. “I didn’t want to be a “has-been” because that felt like being a failure, so I just never mentioned it.”

Following Gayla’s hit song, Columbia Records pigeon-holed her into singing kiddie songs, like “Kitty in the Basket.” Even Gayla thought they were silly and poorly written. Belting out country songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was how she’d landed on “The Chuckwagon Gang,” a local WKY-TV show, and later, national shows including “Saturday Night Revue” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Gayla’s parents, lacking show business savvy, were overwhelmed by her popularity. They uprooted her to California, and by the time she was an adult, her recording career had ended. Her adult friends had no idea that she’d once performed on stage with Dean Martin, Jimmie Durante, Grace Kelly and the Count Basie Orchestra.

The hippo song, however, continued to live a life without her. In 2007, Gayla was visiting family in Oklahoma and she chanced to meet an Oklahoma City Zoo employee who was aware of her role in securing the zoo’s first hippopotamus. The zoo began planning a live sing-a-Long event for 2011 to celebrate the song’s story. Gayla was nervous that no one would show up to see her, but a large, enthusiastic crowd arrived, and Gayla was surprised by the long line for autographs.

Gayla Peevey and Amy Stephens, Dec 9, 2017 at the OKC Zoo ZooZeum.

This year, the zoo is again hosting Gayla for a live sing-a-long on Saturday, December 9th. Gayla will perform and share her memories of receiving a 700-pound Christmas gift in 1953. Afterward, attendees are invited to meet Gayla in person and view artifacts from her personal history. Gayla will also be sharing a big announcement on behalf of the zoo.

“After an ordinary life, this is like stepping back in time. I’ve been so rejuvenated to know that people remember my connection to the zoo. It’s a happy, positive, joyful song to be remembered by, and I now treasure that.”


To view Outlook Magazine Article: http://www.outlookoklahoma.com/articles/m.blog/52/everybody-s-favorite-christmas-hippo-song

To visit Gayla’s official site: http://iwantahippopotamusforchristmas.net/gayla-peevey

Other Gayla articles by Amy: https://amydeestephens.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=618&action=edit

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Filed under History, Interviews, Published Article Announcement, Zoo

Four Days with Gayla Peevey

Gayla Peevey Henderson and myself at the unveiling of her exhibit. Photo by Lisa Lee.

 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.”

Gayla at the ZooZeum. Photo by Lisa Lee.

 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.            

Gayla featured on News Channel 4. Photo by Tara Henson.

 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:




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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: iwantahippopotamusforchristmas.net

 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 iwantahippopotamusforchristmas.net. 

Hippo article in ZooSounds, Fall 2011



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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