Gayla Peevey can’t avoid hippos, even if she wanted to.
“People assume I collect them, so they give them to me,” she tells me from her home near Mt. Helix. “I have figurines and a lot of stuffed hippos. It’s like a mini museum.”
There’s a good reason why hippos loom large in the 72-year-old’s legend. Back in 1953, Peevey had a holiday hit with “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” at the age of ten.
“I had a recording contract at Columbia, and Mitch Miller brought the song to me. He picked it out,” Peevey says. “We kicked it off by singing it on the Ed Sullivan Show in October.”
The song was a big hit that Christmas season, but faded in popularity, compared to other kid-oriented noel novelties like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
"I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas"
...featuring San Diego's Gayla Peevey
That is, until recently.
“For some reason, it started becoming popular again after 9/11,” Peevey says. “I started getting calls from all over the world. It was a hit in Australia last year.
“Just last week, I was with my grandkids at Disneyland and we heard ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ playing on the loudspeakers.”
When the song was released in 1953, Peevey and her family were living near Oklahoma City. Her local ties inspired the city zoo to do a fundraiser to “Buy Gayla a hippo for Christmas.”
About $3000 was raised by December (about $26,000 in modern currency), enough to buy a baby hippo from the Central Park Zoo in New York.
“That was a lot of money then!” Peevey says. “Anyway, the hippo was flown in and it was ‘presented’ to me. We made a big deal about how we wouldn’t be able to fit it in the house and then donated it to the zoo.”
As $3000 investments go, this one paid off for the zoo. “Matilda,” as she was called, lived nearly 50 years and had nine babies with her husband, “Norm.”
“By the time I was 12, we moved to San Diego so I could live a normal life,” she says.
That life included attending San Diego State College (as it was known at the time) where she met and married Cliff Henderson, her husband of 52 years. She also ran an advertising agency for a few years.
These days, Peevey is more likely to be singing hymns at Gateway Church in El Cajon but admits sometimes she gets requests for it.
“People want me to sing it at banquets,” she laughs.