Every year, there are Christmas songs that just get stuck in your head. After hearing «Silver Bells» at the grocery store, you’ll catch yourself humming it all month. But there’s only one song that’s guaranteed to get stuck in your brain well into the New Year.
When Gayla Peevey was just 10 years old, she was already a child star in her hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma. Her popular songs were charting around the country, but nothing ever came close to the success of one Christmas song she recorded in 1953.
Peevey sang the first — and still most popular — version of «I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,» which became an instant hit for the pint-sized singer. She was invited on The Ed Sullivan Show to perform the song, and more than 300,000 copies of her record had sold by Christmas of 1953.
The single only ever climbed as high as #24 on the Billboard chart during that month, but the song has become a Christmas classic over the past six decades.
But what most people don’t realize is that Peevey actually did ask for a hippo that year, and she really got one.
The Oklahoma City Zoo took advantage of Peevey’s smash hit, starting a fundraiser to «buy a hippo for Gayla.»
In just a month, the zoo raised $3,000 (worth about $30,000 in today’s money) and were able to buy a baby hippopotamus named Matilda. The hippo was even «given» to Peevey so it could be donated back to the zoo in her name.
Matilda remained a fixture at the Oklahoma City Zoo for 45 years, until her death in 1998.
For Peevey, her most famous song’s continued popularity is a source of joy each year during the holiday season. AP caught up with the singer for a special interview in 2016. While she eventually left the music business to become a teacher and later to run an advertising company, the song still holds a special place in Peevey’s heart.
«It’s fun to hear it now after all these years,» she says, «to know people still enjoy it and want to hear it.»