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J Fred Muggs: The Chimp Who Boosted 'The Today Show's Ratings

Entertainment | July 19, 2020

NBC News' Dave Garroway, J. Fred Muggs the chimpanzee celebrate the 5th Anniversary of "TODAY" on January 14, 1957 -- Photo by: NBC/NBC NewsWire

The Today Show featured a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs in the '50s. The morning program, now known as the home of Hoda Kotb and Al Roker, was first hosted by Dave Garroway, and lackluster ratings inspired NBC to take drastic action: J. Fred Muggs .

We see a lot of gimmicky TV these days, but nothing quite tops a chimp wearing human clothing. The Today Show then served the same purpose as it does now -- a little news, a little human interest, soothing content from friendly personalities meant to appeal to half-awake Americans slurping coffee. Except then, it had a chimpanzee wearing a shirt and pants and shoes who regularly stole the show, much to the chagrin of the humans on set.

Source: (Tumblr)

J. Fred Muggs, an unlikely star, was born on March 14, 1952 in French Cameroon, which became part of Cameroon. Before his first birthday, he was a New York City resident, a chimp living in Henry Trefflich’s pet store. While there, he was named Mr. Muggs following a “name that chimp” contest. When he was 10 months old, two former NBC pages, Carmine Menella and Leroy Waldron bought him for $600, and Menella trained him. After his appearance on The Perry Como Show, he was noticed by The Today Show’s Pat Weaver. Despite his missed appointment for an audition, he was offered a contract anyway; the executives were impressed by his behavior in a coffee shop, when he attracted an audience as he dunked a donut in a cup of coffee.  

The Today Show Was Not A Success At First. It Needed Something

J. Fred Muggs with Frank Blair, Jack Lescoulie, and Dave Garroway of The Today Show. Source: (weirdhistorian.com)

NBC’s Today Show began in 1952, with host Dave Garroway, but the show was struggling by 1953 and needed to do something to boost ratings. When it began, it featured a combination of weather reports and current events, as well as toy demonstrations, comedy sketches, and even people reading children’s books. Because of the show’s hodgepodge format, the addition of a chimp was not totally unexpected.

J. Fred Muggs Made $2,000 A Month

Appearance with Peter Lawford on Dear Phoebe in 1954. Source: (wikipedia)

The Today Show added “J. Fred” to Mr. Muggs’ moniker and he became the host, Dave Garroway’s “right hand monkey.” For his first appearance as a show mascot on February 3, 1953, he was dressed in diapers. However, he ended up with about 450 outfits. Muggs was a hit first with children and then with their parents. However, he was not a hit with his co-stars. Jim Fleming, the newsreader, was not happy with sharing the camera with a chimp, and quit. Garroway was also not very happy with his co-host, particularly since Muggs made $2000 a month -- a $24,000 annual salary that would equate to more than $200,000 in today's dollars. He was so popular that he received a lot of fan mail, including an offer for a limousine ride, provided the owner could ride along with him.

J. Fred Muggs, Global Celebrity

Source: (Wikipedia)

NBC took advantage of Muggs’ popularity, and merchandise followed, including books, comics, and games. He also went on a worldwide promotional tour for Today in 1954, including stops in Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, and Cairo. People around the world appreciated this celebrity. For example, while in Japan, he was a guest of honor in a geisha house, where he wore a kimono and wooden clogs and carried a parasol, while relaxing on pillows, surrounded by geisha girls. Muggs was also given a girlfriend, Phoebe B. Beebe, on the show.

J. Fred Muggs' Tantrums Were Legendary

J. Fred Muggs with his girlfriend, Phoebe B. Beebe, and Dave Garroway in 1954. Source: (wikipedia)

While Muggs was well-loved by the public and really helped to revive a failing show, reportedly, he was not really so lovable. People described him as “a nasty little monkey” and he was said to throw “legendary tantrums.” When the program broadcasted live, the red light was on, and according to stories, he learned that he could not be disciplined while it was on. While on set, he ran around, often dragging furniture with him. Despite the fact that they used a harness and leash to restrain him, he escaped at times, once climbing a tree, necessitating bananas to lure him down. There were also stories of him biting various people. In 1955, he appeared on a game show, Make the Connection, with a babysitter, Joanne Cunningham, and spent much of his appearance running throughout the set.

Muggs Was Too Popular For Garroway's Liking

Source: Mad Magazine

The supposed rivalry between Garroway and Muggs was lampooned in a Mad Magazine feature in November 1955. After TV host Dave "Garrowunway" disciplines a misbehaving chimp named "J. Floyd Gluggs,"  the chimp gets his revenge by locking the TV host out of the studio and taking his place behind the desk.

Muggs continued on Today until 1957, when Garroway reportedly gave NBC an ultimatum: either the chimp had to go, or he would. 

J. Fred Muggs May Still Be Alive

Source: (allthatsinteresting.com)

Although Muggs left the show at that point, he continued in show business until 1975, when he retired to a cottage in Florida. Some of his work prior to beginning his retirement in Florida included finger painting a cover for Mad magazine and a short-lived children’s show, The J. Fred Muggs Show. He also traveled and performed at Busch Gardens in Tampa and was featured on the cover of TV Guide for the annual "J. Fred Muggs Awards for Distinguished Foolishness," which is dedicated to TV’s kookier side.

Tags: J. Fred Muggs | Remember This?... | The Today Show

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!