Wednesday, May 22, 2013

J. Fred Muggs (Today Show Mascot, 1953-1957)

Good morning!

Well, I had a whole post planned out to the letter about a vintage conversational manual, but wouldn't you know it, another passing fancy has grabbed my attention. I'm going to have to put the art of 1960's small talk on the back burner and follow my heart. Folks, meet J. Fred Muggs. Yes, that is his actual name. I LOVE J. FRED MUGGS.

The Today Show debuted as NBC's daily morning show in 1952. Network president Pat Weaver, who also created The Tonight Show (see? See what he did there?), envisioned the program as a daily live broadcast that would cover pretty much the same ground it does today-- interviews, news stories, banter, antics, etc. It was the first program of its kind (followed by similar format morning shows with CBS's The Early Show and ABC's Good Morning America) and, believe it or not, it took a little convincing to get early television viewers to tune in first thing in the morning. Faced with a ratings slump in Today's second year, Weaver decided to pump up viewership in the way any red blooded entertainment mogul in 1953 would-- by adding a chimpanzee co-host.

This is big, folks! Weaver had spotted a baby chimpanzee on The Perry Como Show and decided simian co-anchorship was EXACTLY what the program needed to create early-morning network loyalty in prospective viewers. With a ruggedly handsome little face that bears more than a little resemblance to Jock Ewing, the puckishly named J. Fred Muggs went over like gangbusters. He wears human clothes, partial to suspenders and ties. He patiently sits in on guest interviews. Later, a female chimp was introduced as his girlfriend. If you thought "J. Fred Muggs" was a hilarious name for a chimpanzee, how about "Phoebe B. Beebe"? Say it outloud. Feebee Bee BeeBee. Genius. People could hardly wait to tune in and see what Muggs did next! He was a sensation in his day.

Muggs was featured on a number of products by the height of his popularity in 1955. He had a lookalike doll and puppet, was the subject of a Golden Book, and featured prominently in this Baker's Coconut ad. Dig those amorphous but adorable ice cream blobs to his right.

Several articles reference rumors of Muggs having bit Martha Raye during a filming of The Today Show, to the point that in a quoted interview, trainer Gerald Preis actually speaks out denouncing the veracity of such an appalling mistruth (with bad language, too!). However! I found this picture from a May 1954 issue of Life magazine, from a feature on the life of Raye as a busy comedienne-about-town, which ACTUALLY shows her being bit in the arm by the little devil. Who do we believe now?!

I love that he's just this mean-spirited, freewilled, anarchic little beast! I couldn't find any clips of him on The Today Show, but if you want more misbehavior, not to worry. In this 1955 episode of Make the Connection, Muggs is supposed to be the co-contestant on the show, in which the panel has to deduce, through a series of yes or no questions, what connection exists between the two guests. Unfortunately, from the moment he's brought onto the soundstage, Muggs is NOT. HAVING. IT. He's running around the front of the desk at a fast clip, then streaking behind the background set, with his trainer in hot pursuit.  He briefly clambers onto the desk to drink water from a glass (cute!) before resuming his laps around the set. Host Gene Rayburn (later of Match Game fame) makes a valiant effort to keep the show together, but his calm is pretty well nigh completely undermined by Muggs's persistent "acting out". This is live tv at its best!

 Facepalming up and coming starlet Kim Novak at a press conference. Shame on you, Muggs!

In 1957, possibly due to network pressure from anchor Dave Garroway to either "pick the monkey or me", Muggs retired from The Today Show, replaced by a more docile chimp, Kokomo Jr , who continued to cohost with poor Garroway until his retirement from the show in 1961.

Muggs had another brush with fame however-- in 1958, he did a fingerpainting that featured on the cover of Mad #38 (below). He also had TV Guide's yearly "J. Fred Muggs Award for Distinguished Foolishness" named after him.

What amazed me most about this whole story? I assumed Muggs probably went into some other form of less-prominent entertainment, maybe working as a show monkey in nondescript tv appearances, and then quietly passed away in obscurity. BUT NO! MUGGS LIVES! He's still alive and presumably biting at the age of 61, living in Florida with long-time love Phoebe. A happy ending for this adorable pioneer of chimps-on-tv.

So! Had you heard of J. Fred Muggs before? What do you think about using chimpanzees and other creatures as live hosts on early television? Did you have a simian celebrity you were particularly attached to as a child? Is even this little guy more likable as a morning host than meanie Matt Lauer? Let's talk!

That's all for today, kids! I'll see you back here tomorrow for more vintage nonsense. Til then!


  1. My still talks about J Fred Muggs! I can't believe he's still alive! Wow!

  2. I am obsessed with this article and think there is nothing cuter than a baby chimp in people clothes. I love that he is smacking Kim Novak in the face. Can you imagine this being a thing today. Like can you imagine Matt Lauer sharing a couch with a baby chimp or Kelly Ripa having one as her co-host! I would probably be more inclined to watch those programs, to be honest!

    Also, side note: My boyfriend has a stuffed monkey doll from his childhood that looks so similar to the one featured with Fred Muggs in the above picture. It creeps me out because the hands are really humanoid.

    1. I would watch it! I would DEFINITELY watch it! I like the idea that people weren't willing to turn on the tv at 7 in the morning to watch the news in 1953. Now, I mean, my parents DO NOT start the day without eating breakfast in front of the 6 AM news. I read after I wrote this that the idea was kids would like to see the monkey, and then parents would be forced to watch the news part of it to placate the kids who wanted to see the monkey. I'm saying as AN ADULT, I would like to see the monkey more than the news!

  3. I love chimps, but they are wild animals with incredible strength and the aggressiveness to really hurt people. Let them be wild!

    Enjoyed your post--very cute.

    1. Oh, I know! Did you watch the clip? It was so weird because, funny though it is that the chimp's just going nuts, I kept thinking about how powerfully built that little guy's shoulders were, and if you can't contain him, dude, you'd be well advised not to make him mad!

      But I agree, he's totally cute, as well. Contradictions!

  4. OH MY GOD! This is the best story ever. I'm so happy you shared this. I'm such a sucker for cute little chimps, and I might even watch morning television if it was guaranteed that I would see one every morning.

    I'm so happy he has retired to Florida with his wife like so many other New Yorkers.

    1. That's what I'm saying! A gimmicky chimpanzee on a news program would make me 400% more likely to watch that news program.

      And I laughed out loud on the last sentence of your comment. True! So true!

  5. Reading your blog is seriously the highlight of my day. THANK YOU!

    1. Reading THIS COMMENT was the highlight of MY day! Thanks for reading!

  6. Delightful! I had never heard of Mr. Muggs until reading a reference to him by that name recently. Did a little research, and here is where I ended up.




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