When the ratings for NBC's 'Today' show were plummeting, they looked to a non-human species for help.
It’s hard to believe that NBC’s long-running Todayshow, almost tanked after its first year of broadcasting due to low ratings. What’s more unbelievable is that a chimpanzee was hired as a co-host to save it.
But this is exactly what happened. In 1953, a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs joined fellow presenter Dave Garroway, and not only boosted ratings but earned NBC an estimated $100 million in the process.
Early 1950s television primarily targeted children, so the addition of a chimpanzee co-host was not so out of place. Back then, the Today show was a strange mix of serious current affairs and weather reports, with comedy sketches, toy demonstrations, and presenters reading children’s books.
Muggs fit the demographic, but his co-hosting career was fraught with difficulties and almost never happened.
Carmine ‘Bud’ Mennella, Muggs’ owner and a former page for NBC, used his contacts to get the ten-month-old primate an audition at the network in early 1953.
However, they missed the audition. Fortunately, bad luck turned into serendipity after they stopped by a coffee shop. Muggs drew quite an audience by dunking a doughnut into his coffee.
One of the amused customers was an NBC executive. He informed the NBC president who said: “I want the chimp.”
Next thing you know, Muggs, Mannella, and his business partner Leroy Waldron were on the Today show.
Muggs was an instant sensation with children, and later their parents. As Garroway’s “right-hand monkey,” he performed comedy routines, had a wardrobe of 450 outfits, and played the piano. Mennella and Waldron would be out-of-sight holding Muggs’s leash.
Within weeks, the floundering show had a significant boost in its audience and a surge in advertising revenue.
Soon J. Fred Muggs merchandise followed, and the chimp went on world tours promoting NBC. In Japan, his popularity was second only to Marilyn Monroe. Meanwhile, Russian media took a pot shot at him stating 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.”
While NBC execs were happy with the attention, behind-the-scenes on set was not so rosy.
Garroway allegedly began lacing Muggs’ orange juice with Benzedrine to make the chimp act out.
“The sad thing was, Muggs loved Dave,” said Mennella. “But Dave was so jealous of Muggs being famous that it began to eat at him.
In another incident, Garroway allegedly set up the chimp with an on-air gag he designed. Muggs was given a choice, either take a banana or sign a real NBC contract for another year as co-host. To Garroway’s dismay, Muggs grabbed Garroway’s pen and signed the contract with an X.
Garroway was the chump. Muggs hated bananas.
Despite Garroway’s jealousy, others say the chimp had epic temper tantrums and was often violent and disruptive.
He would run amok dragging furniture and equipment on set or run around the set. Things escalated when Garroway claimed Muggs bit him on the cheek while on air. The final straw for NBC came after Muggs nipped comedienne Martha Rye during rehearsal.
When Muggs’ contract expired after nearly five years, it wasn’t renewed. In 1957, a smaller, more agreeable ape named Kokomo Jr replaced him.
On “behalf of” Muggs, Mennella and Waldron sued Garroway, stating his allegations had ruined the chimps career. But by 1958, all apes were gone, and the Today show would begin to take shape as the show audiences are familiar with today.
Muggs’ continued in showbiz for a while, appearing on television variety shows with celebrities like Bob Hope. His celebrity helped promote him as an artist, with one of his finger paintings appearing on the cover of Mad magazine in 1958.
In 1972, Mennella, Waldron, and Muggs moved to Florida to perform at Busch Gardens’ Stanley Theater. The show only lasted a few years. Despite this, the team decided to stay on in Florida.
Muggs retired and moved into his own cottage, which had human comforts such as a television and radio, and a backyard made to look like a jungle. Mennella and Waldron lived nearby.
Mennella protected Muggs’ privacy to the point that rumors circulated that he was dead. Even the 40th Anniversary episode of the Today show spoofed Muggs by declaring the ape had been “fertilizing daffodils” for years. Mennella saw this as a slap in the face. He had failed to obtain royalties for archival footage of Muggs’ often televised by NBC.
“He made millions for NBC, and this is the way he’s treated,” Mennella told the Orlando Sentinel Tribune.
Still, Muggs has had a happy retirement from all accounts. He is still alive to this day, outliving both Mennella and Garroway. Waldron’s son, Gerald Preis has taken over caretaking duties from close by.
Muggs lives in the same cottage with his long-term girlfriend, Phoebe B. Beebe, who he met on the Today show.
He is 65.