There's a local angle to the Gumby story, connected to another interesting character behind its success.
It appears that Gumby was one of the pioneers in marketing kids' toys through TV shows, though in this case, the show came before the toy.
TV stations broadcasting the Gumby films that introduced the claytoon character to the nation typically didn't pay for the program. For Clokey to make any money, he had to use the free air time as promotion for a product he could sell — a Gumby toy.
But Clokey was a film maker, not a toymaker, so eventually he licensed Gumby to a Minneapolis-based company, Lakeside Industries, and worked with an inventor named Jim Becker. (The story of the arrangement can be read in this Court of Appeals case dealing with a tax issue.)
In addition to manufacturing and selling Gumby, Lakeside marketed all kinds of cheesy toys and games. Some, like Barrel of Monkeys, Tub Town and the Big Wheel predecessor The Cheetah, still have their fans. Others, like American Heroes and the examples collected here, are largely lost, moldering in cabins or languishing on ebay.
I ran into Lakeside years ago when the company called looking for someone to write instructions for a new family card game called Sequence, a variation on Concentration that has rightly passed into oblivion.
After showing up at the company headquarters in a nondescript New Hope light industrial building, I was ushered into the office of owner Zom Levine.
Zom was a minute 80-something who dressed impeccably in tailored suits and custom, collarless shirts with studs instead of buttons. I suppose in New York City there are still buildings full of these old gentlemen, who make very good money from running obscure businesses — ladies shoulder pad manufacturers, button stampers and safety pin distributors — but here in Minnesota, Zom was pretty exotic.
I have been in many offices of men who ran giant enterprises, but Zom's was the most impressive — and most secure. It was locked, with him inside, and I had to be buzzed in.
Unlike the concrete block and fluorescent ambiance of the rest of the building, his large office was dark paneled and mood-lit with a six-foot-long NASCAR racer Budweiser beer light hung over a pool table.
It turned out Zom was not just in the toy business (and the flex-film electronic control pad business). He was also a promotional beer sign mogul.
You have seen his company's work, dating back to the Hamm's Beer signs, lamps and prized Scenorama motorized displays, neon baseball signs for Miller or palm trees for Corona, and this Clydesdale under glass.
The beer sign business, I learned, had a handful of regional companies like Lakeside that came up with new sign ideas for the dominant buyers, Miller and Budweiser. The brewers would accept certain designs, then take the drawings and bid out the manufacturing. The originators hoped their familiarity with the design would give them an advantage pricing the job, but if they didn't match the low bid, they got nothing for their effort.
The brewers exploited this system for years. The neon sign shops grumbled but played the game because beer was the main industry still using neon for new promotions.
I worked with Zom as he tried to come up with new ways to break the hammerlock Lakeside and the other small companies were in. But the companies were nervous about losing all their business if the big boys decided they weren't being sufficiently subservient.
I find it hard to believe these neon benders had any power to hurt the giant companies, but maybe it just shows Zom's competitors were right. They could not control their own destinies in the beer sign business. If they fought the system, they'd be ruined one way or the other.
Art Clokey found a way around the TV system to make his films and make a nice living. But he couldn't have done it without Zom Levine.