Trainer of famed chimp J. Fred Muggs dies at 80
By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Carmine "Bud" Mennella and J. Fred Muggs were about as close as a man and an animal could get.
They traveled the country and world together, thrilling hundreds of thousands of onlookers with Muggs' feats of simian intelligence. Mennella, a big-hearted Italian from a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, was the trainer; Muggs was the devoted and charismatic chimpanzee who responded to his commands.
Muggs' popularity is credited with saving NBC's Today Show from an early demise in the 1950s when the now famous program was struggling to attract advertisers.
But for the past three years, Mennella rarely saw Muggs, who is now 50. Though the pair lived in the same compound off Gunn Highway, Mennella was increasingly crippled by Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases and had trouble getting over to Muggs' separate 2,400-square-foot home.
Mennella died Sunday at age 80.
"You could see the love between the animal and the trainer," said Gerald Preis, Mennella's son and longtime member of the entertainment team. "He responded to Buddy out of love. If Muggs made a mistake on stage he would rush over to my dad and give him a kiss, as though to say, 'I'm sorry. I goofed.' "
After Mennella became ill, the care of Muggs and his live-in girlfriend, Phoebe B. Beebe, fell to Preis and Mennella's longtime business partner, LeRoy Waldron. Preis said the care of the chimps was written into each of their wills.
"It was one of his big concerns," Preis, 58, said of his father.
Mennella, Waldron and Preis have been Citrus Park residents since the early 1970s, when they moved temporarily to perform a show at Busch Gardens' Stanleyville Theater. The show lasted three years.
Preis handled production. Waldron arranged bookings and did the announcing.
Mennella and Waldron met after returning from stints in the armed services, Preis said. They opened a pet shop together in Glen Rock, N.J., and in 1952 bought an infant chimpanzee, whom they named Muggs and used for publicity events.
Mennella, an NBC studio page, had taken Muggs to the hospital to visit Mennella's ailing father when he stopped off at the NBC coffee shop. Muggs was dunking a doughnut in a cup of coffee when he caught the eye of an NBC executive, Preis said.
An overnight hit, Muggs pulled in child viewers and later their parents. Former Today producer Richard Pinkham once estimated that Muggs brought more than $100-million to NBC.
Behind the scenes, Muggs and Mennella had a tense relationship with show host David Garroway, Preis said. The highly intelligent Garroway was so jealous of Muggs' marque value that he would spike the chimp's orange juice with drugs to make him look bad.
"It was terrible," Preis said.
They toured the country promoting the show, often entertaining with Hollywood stars, such as Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Jackie Gleason and Perry Como. They became friends with many of them.
In later years, stars sometimes visited the Citrus Park compound, said Preis, who joined the act when he was 18.
"It was like our own little paradise," he said. "We would have quiet dinner parties with famous people. In fact, a lot of those stars would like to come here for that reason. It was just a place to relax and be by ourselves."
Since word of his father's death got out, Preis said he has received "hundreds of phone calls. I just spoke with Liza Minelli. I've had calls from Paris, France, England, Italy. It amazes me how many people responded to this."
For the past three years, Preis said he and Waldron took turns caring for Mennella, who needed constant attention. It was a sad end to a vibrant life, he said.
"I've lost my right arm," he said.
-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Josh Zimmer can be reached at (813) 269-5314.
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