Children climbed up the trees in Gayla Peevey’s front yard to sneak a look. She couldn’t go outside to play or skate at the roller rink. She couldn’t go to the store. Eventually, she couldn’t even go to school because her presence caused such a ruckus in her fifth-grade class.
In 1953, the young singer was already famous because of her performances on WKY-TV, but when "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” debuted, her life changed. "I think there are always things you would do differently if you had it to do over,” she said, "but I really don’t have any regrets. I just think I have been really blessed.” But the fame that brought adoration eventually drove her and her family from Oklahoma.
Accidentally famousGayla Peevey Henderson, 65, grew up in Ponca City. She started singing in church as a young girl. "I sang from the time I was old enough to talk practically,” she said from her California home. She sang at Kiwanis meetings and banquets and watermelon festivals. Her singing career was kind of an accident. The Peevey family moved to Oklahoma City in the early 1950s. Her uncle played the fiddle on an Oklahoma City radio show, and he suggested she come along to sing. The bass player for "The Chuckwagon Gang” show on WKY-TV was listening. He invited Henderson to join him on the Easter telethon. Donations spiked during her performance, and producers asked her to come back. Soon, she was a regular. Suddenly, Henderson was a celebrity. She caught the attention of Columbia Records and signed a recording deal. They gave her two songs: "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” and the B-side, "Are My Ears on Straight?” She’d never even seen a hippo in real life. The label flew the 10-year-old and her mother to New York to record. The songs were released. She appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show” and met some of Hollywood’s elite — Dean Martin, Groucho Marx, Grace Kelly. Her fame swelled.
Creating a normal lifeAs much as her parents tried to maintain a normal life for her, it wasn’t possible. TV was a novelty then, she said, and to be a regular on local and national programs was rare. To be a child star was even more impressive. The early years of television were special, said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society and son of longtime Oklahoma City TV host Ida "B” Blackburn. When WKY and other television stations first went on the air, all programming was produced locally. So the stars of early television lived where they broadcast, and fans were close at hand. "It was very intimate,” Blackburn said. "It was very real. And people felt like the people on their screens were in their home. They were visiting in their living rooms.” Henderson couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized.