Carmine “Bud” Mennella, the trainer of J. Fred Muggs, the chimpanzee who helped save NBC’s long-running “Today” show from ratings gloom in the 1950s, died in Tampa, Fla., Sunday. He was 80 and had suffered from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Mennella had aspired to a career as an opera singer but was impeded by terrible stage fright and instead went to work as an NBC page.
At the network he met his partner, LeRoy Waldron, with whom he later opened a pet shop in Glen Rock, N.J. An animal importer told them of a chimp newly arrived from French Cameroon. Mennella was enchanted from the moment he laid eyes on the 10-month-old simian, and borrowed $600 to buy him.
Trading on his NBC contacts, Mennella put Muggs to work. After a successful appearance on the Perry Como show, Muggs landed an audition in early 1953 with the year-old “Today” show, NBC’s experiment in early-morning news programming that was slumping badly in the ratings.
On the morning of the audition, Muggs and his trainers were delayed by icy roads and missed the appointment. They retired to a nearby coffee shop, where Muggs had a doughnut and began dunking it in a cup of coffee.
A small crowd gathered. Among the fascinated were an NBC executive and James Dean, the movie heartthrob.
The next thing Mennella knew, “the president of NBC said, ‘I want the chimp.’”
The magnetic Muggs was signed to a contract and, to the dismay of “Today” show host Dave Garroway and other serious journalists, became a sensation.
Dubbed Garroway’s “right-hand monkey,” he sat on the anchorman’s lap, his leash concealed and held by Mennella or Waldron, who hid under the desk. Garroway bantered with and interviewed him. Muggs played in skits, accumulating a wardrobe of 450 outfits.
Children threw tantrums if their parents didn’t let them watch Muggs; soon the parents were hooked, too. The “Today” show’s ratings rocketed within weeks, and two dozen new sponsors were signed. Fan mail poured in for Muggs.
Although Garroway appeared to enjoy his sidekick on air, Muggs’ fame irked him. "[It] was an open secret at Radio City that the two were on-again, off-again pals,” Robert Metz wrote in his 1977 book “The Today Show: An Inside Look at 25 Tumultuous Years.”
According to Mennella, Garroway took revenge in various ways, trying to slam Muggs’ hands in a drawer and spiking his orange juice with drugs to make him misbehave.
“The sad thing was, Muggs loved Dave,” the trainer told the St. Petersburg Times several years ago. “But Dave was so jealous of Muggs being famous that it began to eat at him.”
To mark the first anniversary of Muggs’ Today debut, Garroway planned a gag: He would present the chimp with a real NBC contract on the air and ask him to sign up for another year. As Garroway scripted it, Muggs would spurn the contract for a nearby banana.
But Muggs spurned the hi-jinks instead. “As businesslike as J.P. Morgan, J. Fred gingerly snatched the pen proffered by his TV master and fractured everyone by signing on the dotted line. Believe it or not--and Garroway couldn’t--the baby ape made a genuine X,” television editor Leslie Lieber reported in The Times in 1954.
Although Mennella never indicated otherwise, he perhaps knew that the laugh would be on “Today’s” human host. Muggs, he told The Times after the incident, “hates bananas.”
After almost five years, Muggs’ contract expired at NBC. The reasons were disputed by Mennella, who claimed Muggs was let go because Garroway was jealous. But Metz, the “Today” show chronicler, said it was because Muggs had become a very strong and unruly chimp who took a nip out of Martha Raye during a rehearsal and chomped on Garroway’s cheek.
When NBC made the termination public, the press release said Muggs was leaving to “extend his personal horizons.”
He appeared on television variety shows and performed around the world alongside Bob Hope, Judy Garland and other celebrities.
In 1972 he moved to Florida with Mennella, Waldron and Mennella’s son, Gerald Preis, to perform at Busch Gardens. The team stayed there when Muggs retired three years later.
Mennella gave Muggs his own cottage, complete with a television, a radio and thousands of autographed celebrity pictures. The compound, which had a yard landscaped like a jungle, was also shared by Muggs’ girlfriend, a chimp named Phoebe B. Beebe, who sometimes joined him on the “Today” show.
Mennella was so protective of Muggs after the chimp retired that he refused newspaper requests to photograph him. This contributed to rumors that Muggs was dead.
On the 40th anniversary of the “Today” show in 1992, Muggs was spoofed on-air in a segment called “Unsolved Miseries,” which concluded that the chimp had been “fertilizing daffodils” for years. Mennella, who had tried in vain to earn royalties every time tapes of Muggs were aired, was not amused. “He made millions for NBC, and this is the way he’s treated,” the trainer told the Orlando Sentinel Tribune at the time. “It’s nothing to make fun of.”
The controversy apparently was laid to rest in 1998 when a Florida fish and game officer investigating a break-in at the Mennella compound asked to see Muggs. He later told a local paper that he was shown a healthy, mature chimp named Muggs.
But the officer fined Mennella $5 for possessing wildlife without a valid permit. Mennella had to appear in court to clear up the matter. “I was insulted,” he said later, “that they could treat Fred like an animal and not a person.”