When Show Business Met Monkey Business

The Today Show is a stalwart of American television. Every weekday from 7 AM to 11 AM Eastern Time, viewers can tune into NBC to catch up on the news of the day, hear about a new product or innovation, catch the weather report, listen to some live music, and usually, hear a feel-good story or two. This all happens in a casual setting involving couches and coffee, and, if the weather plays nice, a foray into the plaza at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. The show, which got its start in on January 14, 1952, has been quite popular over its decades-long run.

But it didn’t start out that way. The Today Show struggled in its first year or two and only found success when it added a unique host to its lineup: J. Fred Muggs, as seen below.

Muggs was born on March 14, 1952, two months after the Today Show debuted. And the timing couldn’t have been better for the chimp. The Today Show was innovative but flailing. Its premise was simple: give people the news when they first wake up at around 7 AM, but also include some softer, lifestyle stories and even offer up a few gimmicky segments. Originally floated under the title of “The Rise and Shine Revue,” the show was intended to be a hodgepodge of disjoined segments, not one cohesive experience. And initial audiences didn’t take to it very well. Ratings were down, and it looked like the experiment was doomed to fail.

Thankfully for NBC, two former employees were working on a strange idea. In the spring of 1952 two former NBC pages, Bud Mennella and Roy Waldron, bought a 13-week-old chimpanzee named Muggs from a local pet store (for $600, or about $7,000 today, accounting for inflation) and trained him to perform stupid pet tricks. Mennella and Waldron used their NBC connections to book the now-trained Muggs on the Perry Como Show, and a Today Show executive saw the appearance and invited Mennella, Waldron, and Muggs in for an audition. It didn’t go well, as the LA Times reported: Muggs and his entourage were “delayed by icy roads and missed the appointment.” But serendipity saved the day. Per the Times, the monkey and his trainers “retired to a nearby coffee shop, where Muggs had a doughnut and began dunking it in a cup of coffee. A small crowd gathered,” including actor James Dean, who at the time was an NBC exec. Dean reported what he saw to the network president who gave the order: “I want the chimp.”

And the network listened. NBC added “J. Fred” to Muggs’ name and on February 3, 1953 — in what may be the quickest rags (or pet store) to riches story in animal history — Muggs made his debut on the Today Show, appearing in diapers and pretending to be a human baby.

His appearance was a hit. Morning TV at the time was not just for adults — trailblazing kids TV shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street had yet to be created — and it was common, if not expected, that little kids would watch whatever their parents were watching during the morning hours. Young children quickly took a liking to J. Fred Muggs, and as any parent knows, if your kids are occupied by a TV show you also want to watch, that’s golden. That gold converted easily into dollars, too, as NBC increased the number of J. Fred Muggs appearances. According to Print Magazine, “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.”

It worked. Muggs’ popularity grew and grew, and with it grew the Today Show’s viewership. As the Saturday Evening Post reported, “Within two years, the show was being watched by millions of viewers, who had to find a way to have breakfast and watch the program. (Back then, the family’s one, massive television set stood in the living room.) One person cut a hole in the kitchen wall so he could see the TV in the next room. Others hung mirrors in the kitchen that would catch the image off the screen in another room.” 

Muggs was rewarded for his work, too, earning as much as $1,275 per week, the equivalent of a $175,000 annual salary in today’s dollars. But In early 1957, his career as a member of the Today Show ended. It’s not entirely clear why, but there were a lot of rumors. According to some sources, Dave Garroway, the host of the show, wasn’t a fan of having a monkey and his antics causing chaos on the set; there were even rumors that Garroway spiked Muggs’ orange juice with benzedrine to get the chimp to act out to the point of being removed. Muggs is believed to have bitten some guests, including comedian Martha Raye before a 1954 broadcast. (Raye ended up canceling her appearance that day.) Per Time Magazine, though, Muggs was just looking for bigger and better things — an NBC spokesperson told the magazine that Muggs (or his trainers) “thinks he can make more money on his own.”

That probably turned out to be wrong, as Muggs fell out of the spotlight quickly after leaving the Today Show. In the decades since, he made appearances here and there — including in court. In 1998, Muggs was living under the care of Bud Mennella in Florida, and Mennella was cited for violating the law; apparently, you need a license to possess a chimpanzee in the county they were in, and Mennella didn’t have one. The fine was $5, but Mennella never had to pay it; per the Tampa Bay Times, when the judge realized that the chimp in question was the famous J. Fred Muggs, he dismissed the case immediately.

As of 2020, Muggs is still living with Mennella in Florida.

Bonus fact: Watching a chimp on TV is fun, but don’t have them manage your money — because even the best will probably not help you build wealth over time. In 1999, a chimpanzee named Raven was given a list of 133 Internet companies and a lot of darts. His handlers invited a couple of professional money managers to watch as Raven threw the darts at the list, and when he finally hit 10 stocks (Raven missed the board more often than not), they invested in the cohort and called it “MonkeyDex.” Raven’s selections, according to Guinness World Records, “delivered a 213 percent gain, outperforming more than 6,000 professional brokers on Wall Street,” and earning the monkey the title of “Most successful chimpanzee on Wall Street.”

But the win was short-lived. As The Next Web reported in 2020, “in August 2000 (one year and eight months after the dartboard experiment), Raven, by proxy of Monkeydex, was down 34%, during which time the Nasdaq was reportedly up 3.37% for the year.” And worse, per that story, “every single stock picked by Raven is worth nothing today, each firm facing collapse in some form — be it basic bankruptcy or run-of-the-mill fraud.”

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