Television: Goodbye, Mr.Chimp

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Manhattan's Radio City buzzed last week with news of a major defection: J. Fred Muggs, 4½, the world's most successful chimpanzee, would quit NBC's Today on March 1 after spending all but ten months of his life as Dave Garroway's ape-in-the-hole. First reports said that Muggs was retiring because of laggard health and old age. "Nonsense," said an NBC spokesman. "He's leaving Garroway for the same reason Nanette Fabray left Sid Caesar. He thinks he can make more money on his own."

Muggs was recovering from a virus infection at his rambling ten-room house in Ramsey, N.J., and his lawyer, Jack Katz, kept mum. But Bud Mennella of the J. Fred Muggs Enterprises confirmed that the chimp's little eyes were fastened on an active future. "The NBC contract is re warding," he said, "but also constricting." Muggs has had so many offers, he added, that he hardly knows where to start raking in the big money. At NBC, where he started at $250 a week, Muggs now makes only $1,275 a week, pads it out with "sizable" income from products, such as shoes, toys and dolls, that use his name.

Many TV colleagues envy Muggs his income, his fan mail (1,000 letters a week) his fan clubs, his wardrobes (450 outfits, including a set of tails and a gorilla suit), his white Corvette, his travels around the world with accommodations in the best hotels. But he has earned them all: he understands 500 words, can count his fingers, play the piano, spank himself, do cartwheels, raise his arms when he wants to be taken to the bathroom, and perform numerous other monkeyshines, including raising TV ratings. He is also the only TV personality on earth who has been denounced in the House of Commons ("an insult to the Queen"), attacked in Izvestia ("a symbol of the American way of life") and defended by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("We've recommended that nobody touch him when he's on camera"). Not only did his presence once prompt ex-King Farouk to stalk out of the Rome zoo, but his TV appearances between films of Queen Elizabeth's coronation on U.S. channels set British jaws against the advent of commercial TV, helped delay it by two years.

Yet the 2½ ft., 50-lb. ape is really a homebody, and the main support of two adult humans, Mennella, 34, and Roy Waldron, 33, onetime NBC pages who bought him for $600 when they decided to open a pet shop. Last week they lovingly nursed him back to health around the clock, feeding him pills every four hours, shared the hours with him as he sat in the living room by a roaring fire watching TV. When necessary, they have even slept in the same bed with him ("The only trouble is that he grabs all the blankets"). Says Mennella: "There will never be another one like him." Actually, NBC is already dickering with a 17-month-old Miami chimp named Mr. Cocomo Jr.

*Which began manufacturing sound tape recorders in 1947 on the strength of an order for 20 from Bing Crosby, who was then seeking a foolproof way to record his radio show.