I have to confess. For years, I assumed “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” was sung by an adult pretending to be a little kid. I wasn’t listening to the radio in 1953, so when I first heard Gayla Peevey’s strong voice and comic timing years later, I assumed she was a studio singer banging out a novelty hit between commercials for Ipana toothpaste and Chesterfield cigarettes.
Turns out, Gayla Peevey was a real ten-year-old radio singer from Oklahoma City. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” was her first single for Capitol Records, a song found for her by Mitch Miller. This clip is from “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
In 1953, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” went to #24 on the pop chart, but has become a Christmas standard based on the song’s weird premise and Peevey’s sweet but mature performance. As I write this, Gayla Peevey is 77. She got married, is Gayla Henderson now, has grandkids and lives in the San Diego area. Gayla was a teacher and owned her own advertising firm before retiring – but still will sing “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Here she is in 2018 at an event for the Oklahoma City Zoo.
As Gayla mentions in the video, a radio station decided in 1953 to raise the money to actually buy a hippopotamus. A cute idea but not very practical, the baby hippo was given to the Oklahoma City Zoo. Named Matilda, she lived at the zoo for 45 years.
In 1998, Matilda was being moved to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, along with her mate Norman, for a retirement of sorts. OKC Zoo managers decided her life would be better in Orlando, more space and more natural living conditions. Unfortunately, Matilda died of heart failure while making the 36-hour move. Norman did move into Animal Kingdom at age 30. If anyone knows if he’s still around at DAK, let me know!
In 2006, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” got a pop culture boost from being included on “Dr. Demento Presents The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All Time.” Since then, a lot of bands and singers have covered the tune. Let me wrap up by playing you one that does it wrong and one that does it right. I’ll let you decide which is which – here comes Captain & Tennille and then Lake Street Drive.