Gayla meets Mathilda

Gayla Peevey looks at Mathilda, the baby hippopotamus. 

OKLAHOMA CITY — Most children ask for a puppy for Christmas, but Gayla Peevey wanted something larger — a certain temperamental beast that lives in Africa’s Nile River and wouldn’t even fit in her garage.

While most children would consider asking Santa Claus for their gift, the precocious 10-year-old found the perfect outlet for her message — the insanely popular "Ed Sullivan Show," thanks to her record label, Columbia.

So, just before Christmas 1953, the young Oklahoman sang what would become that year's top Christmas song, “I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas.”

“I want a hippopotamus for Christmas. Only a hippopotamus will do. I don’t want a doll, no dinky Tinkertoy. I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy,” she sang in a voice filled with sass.

And Oklahomans took her at her word.

After hearing that Peevey wanted a hippopotamus, a fundraising campaign was set up and thousands of children sent nickels and dimes, accumulating more than $3,000, “which today couldn’t even buy the toe of a hippopotamus,” Peevey jokes.

But on Christmas Eve 1953, it was more than enough to buy Mathilda, a fully grown Nile hippopotamus. (Nile hippopotamuses, by the way, can  reach 15 feet long and weigh 8,000 pounds.)

The two met the day before Christmas.

“It was a large hippopotamus,” Peevey laughed this week as she remembered Mathilda. “It was like, ‘Oh there’s no room for her in my garage. I guess maybe I’ll donate her to the zoo.’”

And that was that.

Off Mathilda went to the Oklahoma City Zoo, where she lived happily for about 40 years. After many failed dates — yep, zoos sent in blind dates — Mathilda eventually married. Literally, there was a ceremony. She and the love of her life, Norman, a male hippo, had nine hippo babies, which were shipped to a zoos across the country for other children to enjoy, Peevey said.

While Mathilda remained in the spotlight for much of her life, bringing joy to zoo visitors, Peevey drifted back into anonymity. For decades the song that brought her — and Oklahomans — Mathilda also drifted into relative obscurity.

Peevey’s parents were alarmed at her notoriety; they didn’t like the idea that people followed her around everywhere, or that people were found hiding in the trees around her Oklahoma City home. They moved to California to give her a normal life outside the spotlight.

Peevey, now 71, still lives in relative obscurity in California — and she’d have it no other way.

Like Mathilda, she also met the love of her life, Cliff. The two have been married 51 years, have one daughter and three grandchildren.

Oddly enough, she still sounds like the 10-year-old whose song started it all. Sure, her voice has matured as she’s aged, but you can still clearly hear the 10-year-old on the phone as she cheerfully discusses her life.

“Goodness, nobody recognizes me,” she said. “It was impossible for me to go to school and just live a normal life.”

Peevey adds that she would consider it a favor if this reporter kept it that way by not using her married name or the exact city where she lives. She enjoys not being recognized. The only solo singing she does these days is in church.

But her star is rising again. During the past few years, “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas," has gained in popularity. Unlike the previous year's top Christmas hit (“I Saw Grandma Kissing Santa Claus”) few artists have attempted to cover her song. When you hear it on the radio, it’s usually Peevey in her full glory.

She can tell it’s becoming popular again by the requests for interviews and emails she receives from across the world, as well as the royalties that have started to roll in from iTunes and Sony, the parent company of Columbia Records.

Those were really unexpected, she said.

“I think it just gets more and more popular,” she said.

The way she ends the interview is also fitting — especially for someone who found fame by asking for a hippopotamus for Christmas, then saw that wish fulfilled thanks to the generosity of others.

“Merry Christmas,” she says as she hangs up.

Janelle Stecklein covers Oklahoma politics and state issues for CNHI newspapers. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com or on Twitter at @ReporterJanelle.

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