The world’s most famous chimpanzee was featured on the original NBC morning program, The Today Show, from 1953-57. His name was named J. Fred Muggs and he was the first animal star on “live” television. Beginning in diapers J. Fred co-starred with nascent news anchor and bow-tie-wearer, Dave Garroway. The little monkey boosted ratings, for imitating Popeye playing piano. I wanted him as a friend. Here’s a little Muggs lore.
J. Fred Muggs was originally discovered by a staff member of The Today Show while his owners, Buddy Mennella & Roy Waldron (former NBC Pages) were visiting a friend at NBC Studios in New York City. They had procured Mr. Muggs from the Henry Trefflich’s Chimp Room in New York City for the cost of $600. At the time the chimp was 13 weeks old and weighed 3 and 1/2 pounds but eventually over the years weighed out at 175 pounds.
The strategy behind using the chimp was to attract younger viewers who in turn would alert their parents (the real target of the advertisers) to the new celebrity. Also seen on the program was Phoebe B. Beebee, J. Fred Mugg’s female chimpanzee companion. After biting comedian/actress Martha Raye on the elbow during an April 1954 program, Mr. Muggs was sent on a worldwide promotional tour.
During his travels he attracted the attention of the Russian newspaper Izvestia which described J. Fred Muggs as “A symbol of the American way of life…Muggs is 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.” (Photo bottom: Muggs’ replacement, Kokomo.)
Muggs was replaced on The Today Show by a more docile, Kokomo, Jr. J. Fred Muggs later starred in his own short-lived show called The J. Fred Muggs Show. He worked a show for five years at Busch Gardens in the late sixties and early seventies and retired to Tampa. Mugg’s trainer died there in 2002. Remarkably, Muggs still lives in his Citrus Park home. That’s my favorite monkey.