An Iowan wrote one of the season's strangest Christmas songs
Residents of Ashby Avenue and Wallace Lane in Des Moines' Beaverdale neighborhood have put up Christmas lights on almost every home for decades. Des Moines Register
Editor's note — This story was originally published in 2018.
In 1953, a 10-year-old Gayla Peevey declared that she wanted a hippopotamus for Christmas.
She wailed her proclamation in a song, singing that she “don’t want a doll, no dinky tinkertoy. I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy.”
A shrill, inescapable earworm, the 65-year-old “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” may be one of the most celebrated oddities in all of holiday music. And it was written by an Iowan.
In an era before Chuck Berry struck a power chord or Elvis gyrated into living rooms, John Rox — a 1920 graduate of Winterset High School and former Drake University student — penned a number of successful show tunes and radio hits, including the holiday classic still spinning on Des Moines airwaves in 2018.
Drake archives confirm Rox attended the private Des Moines university in 1923 and 1924, pledging as a member of the now-extinct Tau Psi fraternity. He later married Alice Pearce, an actor best known for her role as Gladys Kravitz in “Bewitched.” Rox died of a heart attack in 1957.
"I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” peaked at No. 24 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1953, leading to Peevy getting her wish fulfilled. In Oklahoma City, Peevy’s hometown, locals raised nearly $3,000 to gift her a baby hippopotamus, Matilda, for Christmas. She gifted it to the city zoo, where it lived for nearly 50 years
The tune continues to live through cover versions, too. Notable acts to release a take on the classic include Kacey Musgraves, Lake Street Dive and Gretchen Wilson.
On its enduring charm, Peevy told the Chicago Tribune: “That one just really took off, and it's still going strong, stronger than ever. … Hard to believe.”
A few Iowa ties to holiday music ...
- Famed composer and Mason City native Meredith Willson penned "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas" in 1951. Two notable versions — one by Perry Como and The Fontane Sisters and another by Bing Crosby — were released that year.
- The Everly Brothers, raised in Shenandoah, released in 1962 "Christmas With The Everly Brothers," a collection of traditional songs featuring the Boys Town, Nebraska choir.
- Andy Williams, born in Wall Lake, released his beloved Christmas album in 1963. The best-selling record notably features "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."
- Slipknot and Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor, of Des Moines, released a popular (albeit not safe for work) holiday parody song, "X-M@$," in 2010. The song's been played 3.2 million times on YouTube.