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‘Hippo’ song was a wild hit for Oklahoma City Zoo, city

BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Published: December 21, 2008
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.

Oklahomans and Christmas songs
Here are some of the most famous Christmas songs with Oklahoma ties:

• "Have Yourself

a Merry Little

Christmas” written by Ralph Blane

• "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)” written by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman

• "Rudolph the

Red-Nosed Reindeer” recorded by Gene Autry

• "Frosty the

Snowman” recorded by Gene Autry

• "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” recorded by Gayla Peevey


Watch a video of Amy Stephens telling the story of Mathilda coming to the Oklahoma City Zoo.


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