J. Fred Muggs
J. Fred Muggs in 1954
March 14, 1952|
Life and career
Muggs was born in French Cameroon. He first became popular when he was in Henry Trefflich's pet store in New York; a "name that chimp" contest led to his being named Mr. Muggs, to which the Today Show later added "J. Fred". Carmine "Bud" Mennella and Leroy "Roy" Waldron, former NBC pages, bought him for $600 when he was 10 months old, and Mennella trained him. He appeared on the Perry Como Show and Pat Weaver of the Today Show saw potential in him; Mennella had an appointment with NBC executives for Muggs to audition for the Today Show, but missed it; however, Muggs' antics in a coffee shop led the president of the network to offer him a contract anyway. Muggs first appeared on the show on February 3, 1953, dressed in diapers like a baby.
The Today Show had begun in 1952, with Dave Garroway as host, but was doing poorly. The introduction of a chimp caused Jim Fleming, the original newsreader, to quit; he was replaced by Frank Blair. However, the addition of Muggs boosted ratings and helped win advertisers; the program's producer, Richard Pinkham, once estimated Muggs had brought the network $100 million. Muggs sat in Garroway's lap, mastered more than 500 words, and had a wardrobe of 450 outfits. He "read" the day's newspapers, imitated Popeye and played the piano with Steve Allen. Merchandise featuring him included books, comics, and games; as a star, he was called on to open supermarkets and commission US Navy ships.
Many sources refer to Garroway as jealous of Muggs. Joe Hagan of The New York Observer noted, without attribution, that "Legend has it that ... Mr. Garroway grew jealous and began spiking Muggs' orange juice with benzedrine to make him misbehave and deliver his human co-host back to center stage." Many sources suggested that Muggs did not have a good disposition. He has been described as "a nasty little monkey" and as "throwing legendary tantrums". He is said to have learned that if he misbehaved when the red light was on, indicating that the program was broadcasting live, he could not be disciplined. At the press conference announcing his addition to the show, Muggs yanked Garroway's glasses off. He was restrained in a harness and leash, but sometimes escaped: during one remote broadcast he climbed a tree and had to be lured down with bananas, and in Beirut an associate producer had to chase him in her underwear down a hotel hallway.
Many sites refer to Muggs as having bitten comedian Martha Raye on the arm. Gerald Preis, however, told Hagan that this story was a "tabloid rumor" and "just plain bullshit." Muggs's handlers at one point sued Garroway in the chimp's name for allegedly ruining the Muggs's career by claiming to have been bitten by him; Garroway said Muggs had bitten him on the face on live TV.
During a 1955 episode of the game show Make the Connection, Muggs appeared with Joanne Cottingham, who served as his babysitter; the panel was supposed to attempt to guess her relationship to the chimp, but after Muggs was introduced, he spent most of the segment running all over the set (as well as behind it) until host Gene Rayburn finally called the game and awarded Cottingham the show's maximum $150 payoff by default.
Muggs was associated with Mad in another way, when the magazine ran an article titled "The Dave Garrowunway Show". This article focused on the chimp, whom writer Harvey Kurtzman named "J. Floyd Gluggs", and his apparent ambition to take over "Garrowunway's" spot as anchor. Sure enough, by the end of the article, with "Garrowunway" rapping rudely on the window from outside the building, "Gluggs" appears in Garroway's familiar closing pose, in suit, glasses and lavalier microphone, saying "vootie" in place of the anchor's tagline "Peace," with his right palm thrust forward. The caption reads, "By George...we've warned Garrowunway to watch out..."
Today interrupted its coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation (which involved slightly delayed still pictures and BBC radio audio) with foolery and advertising for tea, featuring Muggs. This was severely criticized in the United Kingdom and by some US television critics, including Jack Gould in The New York Times; in the UK the introduction of commercial television was being debated at the time, and its opponents felt that it strengthened their case. It was arguably a key factor in the strong regulation of ITV (by the Independent Television Authority) written into the Television Act 1954, including its ban on advertising breaks during programming featuring the Royal Family.
Muggs went on a world tour to promote Today; in Japan, where his popularity was second only to that of Marilyn Monroe, 15 geishas waited on him, while in Russia Izvestia described him as "a symbol of the American way of life" and said he was "necessary in order that the average American should not look into reports on rising taxes, and decreasing pay, but rather laugh at the funny mug of a chimpanzee." In 1957—supposedly following the Martha Raye incident—he was replaced on the show by another chimp called Kokomo Jr. NBC's press release stated that he intended "to extend his personal horizons", and he briefly starred in The J. Fred Muggs Show. He then worked at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, and appeared on Good Morning America (on the ABC) to celebrate his 23rd birthday, before retiring.
Muggs and his "live-in girlfriend", Phoebe B. Beebe (who also made appearances on Today), were still alive as of January 12, 2012, and living in Citrus Park, Florida, in the care of Gerald Preis, Mennella's son. In 2004, Joe Hagan reached Preis at his home, where Preis stated that Muggs "has a little gray, mostly in his beard."
For many years, TV Guide ran an annual feature highlighting its takes on the year's most dubious television programs, episodes, activities, and issues, "The J. Fred Muggs Awards for Distinguished Foolishness". And in the 1994 film Quiz Show, chronicling the infamous quiz show scandal of the late 1950s, actor Ralph Fiennes as Twenty-One champion Charles Van Doren—shown being offered a regular job on Today—says to the Dave Garroway character (played by Barry Levinson), "I hope you're not firing the chimp!"
- "Advertising Mascots - Animals: J. Fred Muggs". TV Acres. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007. Retrieved April 5, 2016. According to this site he was only 13 weeks old when Mennella and Waldron bought him.
- Woo, Elaine (March 15, 2002). "Carmine 'Bud' Mennella, 80; Trained TV Star J. Fred Muggs". Los Angeles Times.
- Zimmer, Josh (March 14, 2002). "Trainer of famed chimp J. Fred Muggs dies at 80". St. Petersburg Times.
- Martinez, James (January 17, 1992). "'J. Fred' missing at 'Today' special". The Robesonian. Associated Press. p. 7A.
- Battaglio, Stephen (2011). From Yesterday to Today: Six Decades of America's Favorite Morning Show. Philadelphia: Running Press. pp. 29, 34–37. ISBN 9780762445486.
- Ingram, Billy (December 2005). "Sixty Years of NBC's Today Show: Part One". TV Party. Retrieved April 5, 2016.
- Hagan, Joe (January 26, 2004). "Dean TV Performance Eviscerated On Air: 'Worst Since Quayle': Tuesday, Jan. 27". New York Observer. Archived from the original on February 25, 2004.
- McMahon, Ed; with Fisher, David (2007). When Television Was Young: The Inside Story with Memories by Legends of the Small Screen. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson. p. 160. ISBN 978-1-4016-0327-4.
- Stark, Steven D. (1997). "Today, Barbara Walters, and TV's Definition of News". Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events that Made Us who We are Today. New York: Free Press. pp. 64–65. ISBN 9780684828176.
To his credit, Muggs did once bite Martha Raye.
- Ingram. Sixty Years of NBC's Today Show: Part Two.
- Spadoni, Mike (January 2002). "US Television ... Peacock's Finest Plumage: The 20 Defining Programs Of NBC". Television Heaven. Archived from the original on November 2, 2002.
- McMahon, pp. 56–57.
- Battaglio, p. 34; according to this author, Garroway said that Muggs behaved on-camera but misbehaved as soon as the red light went off.
- Battaglio, p. 37.
- "Television Top 100: The 1950s: J. Fred Muggs Joins 'Today': Rank 34". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on June 1, 2000.
The sometimes vicious simian once took a nip out of Martha Raye.
- J. Fred Muggs' MAD Magazine cover (#38, March 1958) at Doug Gilford's Mad Cover Site, retrieved April 5, 2016.
- "The Mad Auction, Lot 92029. 'J. Fred Muggs'. Mad #38 Cover Original Art (EC, 1958)". Heritage Auctions. 2008. Retrieved April 5, 2016.
- Calvert, Ben; et al., eds. (2008). "Taste". Television Studies: The Key Concepts. Key Guides (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. p. 284. ISBN 9780415371490.
- Kelner, Martin (2012). "Waiting for J. Fred Muggs". Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV. Wisden Sports Writing. London: Bloomsbury. pp. 69–70. ISBN 9781408129234.
- McMahon, p. 161.
- Fretts, Bruce (September 4, 2013). "TV Guide Magazine's 60 Greatest TV Animals of All Time". TV Guide.
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