Happy 70th birthday to J. Fred Muggs (b. 1952)! Unlike so many of our posts, this one concerns a star who is STILL with us, and it’s pretty unusual for one of his species to live to this age.
For those who came late (even I came late to this story), Muggs is not just any chimp, he was a STAR, not just one of the earliest stars of NBC’s The Today Show, but essentially the reason that the show survived at all for you to enjoy in the present day. It’s a famous show biz legend. When The Today Show first launched in 1952, almost nobody watched it, and it was nearly cancelled. It wasn’t until Muggs, only a few months old, was brought in to “co-host” with Dave Garroway that ratings began to take off. And that’s America in a nutshell. Their newsman quit, the producers were like, “Fine, best o’luck, we’ll keep the chimp.” Muggs was unpredictable, and that’s always entertaining. And guests loved to interact with him. And thereby a boring news and talk magazine program became a SHOW.
Muggs was born in French Cameroon and was initially a popular mascot at a Manhattan pet store, where he was known simply as Mr. Muggs. A couple of NBC pages (the real life equivalents of Kenneth on 30 Rock) bought him and trained him, and he began to appear on things like Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, and The Martha Raye Show, and then Today. “J. Fred” was added to his name — not sure if its a reference to J. Fred Coots of thevaudeville team of Coots and Shirley. There are lots of urban legends about Muggs being “temperamental” and Garroway being jealous of him and doing things to undermine him, as though he were a human co-star. In ’57 Muggs was let go, ostensibly because he had bitten a couple of people. He was replaced with one “Kokomo, Jr”, who didn’t last long, either. By that time, enough people were habitual viewers of The Today Show and didn’t require simian entertainment to go with their morning coffee. And let’s face it, chimps need a lot of handholding.
After leaving the hot lights of the television studio, Muggs became an attraction at Busch Gardens in Florida. He retired when he was in his 20s, which is middle age for a chimp. Nobody dreamt he’d be a non-working show chimp for nearly a half century.
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.
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