Gayla Peevey had never seen a real hippo until she got one as a present.
Her song, "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” debuted in 1953 and is still a novelty classic. The director of the Oklahoma City Zoo at the time started a campaign to give Gayla a hippo, said Amy Stephens, an author and historian at the Oklahoma City Zoo.
Gayla, 10 years old when she recorded the song, made the first donation: a $1 bill.
"I was just a child,” said Gayla Peevey Henderson, who is now 65. "I probably didn’t grasp exactly how big it was or exactly how much was involved. I was just going along for the ride and having a good time.”
Donations were slow. Only about $1,000 of the $3,000 needed had been given a week before Christmas, Stephens said. Gayla gave a rousing performance of a new song — "How’d Ja Like to Have a Hippo Christmas Day?” — and the money flooded in.
Mathilda, a 700-pound baby hippo, arrived from New York on Christmas Eve. Gayla greeted Mathilda at the airport, Stephens said. Gayla then donated Mathilda to the zoo.
Because of all the interest in Gayla and her hippo, the zoo director organized a special event. The zoo opened at 1 p.m. Christmas Day for the public to see Mathilda. More than 10,000 people filed into the zoo to see a hippopotamus on Christmas.