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. Learning became more difficult at Columbus Elementary School; there was too much distraction. "It kind of caused me to stay in and be kind of lonely, really,” she said. "You couldn’t just go out in public. That was the only problem. But you appreciate the fact that people like you, and you love that part. But it’s just a little disruptive in everyday life.” Her family moved to California to, of all things, escape fame. Henderson began seventh grade completely unknown. No one even suspected she sang about hippos. "I didn’t tell anybody about my show business life or talk about it at all,” she said. "I just wanted to start over fresh and be anonymous — just be a junior high kid going to school.” She could go outside. She could go to the roller rink or to the store. She could go to school. But she didn’t stop singing. As a teen, she recorded a few rock songs on Joy Records under the stage name Jamie Horton. "My Little Marine” made the charts. That career was short-lived, and Henderson was OK with that. "I just kind of faded out of that, and then just gave it up completely,” she said.
Moving onHenderson went on to college. She taught school and got married. Eventually she created her own advertising agency and wrote jingles for more than 15 years. She and her husband are both retired. She still writes a bit, mostly gospel. She sings in church, and she set up a home studio to help young Christian singers record demos. She visits her home state to see family. "I may be living in California, but I still am an Oklahoman at heart,” she said, "and I always will be.” She doesn’t keep her childhood fame a secret any more, she said, but she doesn’t go out of her way to tell everyone either. Her famous song has become more popular in recent years, and she gets calls from all over the world during the holidays. "It’s just so fun to have that song come back after all these years,” she said. "It’s just getting more and more popular, and there’s tons of merchandising out there.” One of the Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments this year features Henderson’s song. And she’s opened greeting cards to hear the sound of her own voice. Her nephew called from Hawaii to say he found a plush, singing hippo in Kmart. She doesn’t make money off the merchandise, though. Henderson doesn’t dwell on her past, but she’s grateful for it. For now, she plans to keep singing and mentoring other young musicians. "If you are just naturally a singer and have that creative need to express yourself, you’re going to do it until the day you die, and that’s how it’s going to be,” she said. "I love to sing, and I’ll be singing on my way out.”