- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 24, 2006

A few weeks ago, conservative author Stan Evans wondered aloud: “Whatever happened to Gayla Peevey?

Gayla Peevey, in case you didn’t know (and you almost certainly don’t) is the woman who as a 10-year-old singer recorded a novelty song titled “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” more than a half-century ago.

Gayla Peevey has been a recurrent Christmas season topic of conversation for Stan and me for years. In addition to being a noted author, editor and commentator, Stan is a peerless authority on rock ‘n’ roll music of the 1950s and ‘60s, displaying a savantlike ability to recall the names of song titles, recording artists and release dates.

About 10 years ago, playing “stump the Stan man,” I told Stan, “I’ve got a question that I know you can’t possibly answer.

“I had a vague recollection of my 7-year-old cousin Linda singing ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ as a second-grader in our elementary school Christmas program in 1954.”

I mentioned the title and asked, “Who sang the song and in what year?”

Without missing a beat, Stan said, “Gayla Peevey, 1953.”

I was dumbfounded and re-dumbfounded when a little research showed that he was right.

The song was a big hit when it was released in 1953, and Gayla debuted it on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and in recent years has seen a resurgence of popularity. On the Christmas music format radio stations, it can be heard multiple times daily. It’s become something of a camp Christmas classic.

The lyrics, by John Rox, begin: “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas/Only a hippopotamus will do.”

Mr. Evans has studied the lyrics closely and finds fault with one stanza that goes: “Mom says a hippo would eat me up but then/Teacher says a hippo is a vegetarian.” In these words, Mr. Evans claims to discern a subtle attempt by the public-education establishment to undermine and usurp parental authority. Aside from this, though, he is a big fan of the song.

But what of Gayla herself — the “adolescent Ethel Merman” in Mr. Evans’ words?

Chris Graham, a researcher at Radio America, tracked her down.

Reached at her home in La Mesa, Calif., Gayla Peevey Henderson explained that, following the song’s release 53 years ago her Christmas wish actually came true — sort of.

She was a resident of Oklahoma City when the song was released by Columbia Records in 1953.

“The local zoo didn’t have a hippopotamus,” she says, “and the song gave them the idea of putting together a major media blitz asking kids to send in nickels and dimes to raise money to buy Gayla a hippopotamus for Christmas.”

The campaign raised a total of $3,000.

“Matilda, a baby hippo, was presented to me,” she says, “and I donated it to the zoo.”

Matilda died in 1998.

In 1959, Gayla adopted the pseudonym Jamie Horton and recorded songs for Joy Records, scoring one hit with a song titled “My Little Marine.”

She later attended San Diego State University and graduated with a teaching degree. She disliked teaching, however, and opened her own advertising agency, which she ran for 15 years.

Mrs. Henderson and her husband, Cliff Henderson, have a daughter who worked as a writer for Disney and is now a full-time mother with two children.

“I’m retired now,” she says, “and living a wonderful, happy life. My husband and I keep very busy, and we’re very active in our local Baptist church.”

What does she think of the song’s renewed popularity?

“It’s just amazing,” she says. “The song disappeared for many years, and then about five years ago, there was this sudden rediscovery.”

Now during the Christmas season, Mrs. Henderson is besieged by calls from radio stations.

“They frequently tell me that ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ is the most requested song by listeners,” she says. “I get calls from all over the world — Australia, Nigeria, you name it — from people telling me how much they love the song.”

Mrs. Henderson reports that her hippo, Matilda, had 12 offspring, which are now living in zoos all over the country. “So her legacy lives on,” she says.

How about her own legacy?

“I think the song is just a really nice thing to be known for,” she says. “All this happened so long ago, and all of this interest rekindles so many wonderful memories.”

Mr. Roberts is president of the Radio America talk-radio network.

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