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J. Fred Muggs was the most celebrated of all TV chimps. Innovative, charismatic, trailblazing: Muggs set the standard for performing simians worldwide. This isn't his story. We' re here to discuss the ape that eclipsed him. A talking ape.

Kokomo Jr. was the first and probably the only talking chimp to come down the pike. Likewise, the first chimp to ski down a mountain, first chimp to open a checking account, first chimp with a syndicated newspaper column, first chimp on a Hallmark greeting card - you get the idea. In the 50s and 60s, he swung on the brass ring of show biz success to the accolades of humans everywhere. He rubbed hairy elbows with Presidents and First Ladies, comedians and clowns, singers and schpritzers. Kokomo spent a fair amount of time making with the personal appearances and fundraising for various charities. He also emerged at elementary schools across the land, doing tricks and teaching civic lessons to the kiddies. Can anyone truly calculate the lasting effect dapper Kokomo Jr. had on the slack-jawed youngsters? Off the clock, his swinging coterie included the likes of Julie Newmar and Buddy Hackett. The world was his banana and he peeled it in style.

Top: Having to buy his own 50 cent sandwich with Jack Benny.
Below (L-R): Sharing a laugh with Julie 'Catwoman' Newmar,
'Monkey Mind Melding' with Joey Bishop,
and tickling the ivories with pal, Buddy Hackett.

Currently retired in North Carolina, Kokomo tools his Big Wheel around the neighborhood and auctions off his paintings on the internet. What a simple, naked existence Kokomo would have endured had he not crossed paths with his future pal and confidant Nick Carrado. Back in the heady days of '55, Carrado was an ex-marine eking out several careers in the insanity that was and still is New York City. By day, he laid bricks for skyscrapers. Between 5 and 7pm, he taught self defense and martial arts to NYC's Finest. Sometimes he'd ride around with the detectives and watch his teachings put into action. In the wee hours, Carrado pursued his childhood dream of prestidigitation in nightclubs and swank Italian restaurants. A little passing the coin through the table, some slight-of-hand and the ol' rabbit out of the hat. Carrado created a buzz that landed him out-of-town gigs when time permitted.

Into the spotlight swung a talented little fella, destined to change the act forever. In a recent conversation, Carrado recounted Kokomo's rise to fame and also a surprising revelation about a certain hairy doppleganger. Here is their story, in the words of the man who knows it best.

"One time I was performing up at Blimstrom's, which was the largest night spot in Boston. I stopped at a wild animal farm up on the Cape, and that's where I first saw Kokomo. I just went goo-goo over him! He was about a year old when I met him. Probably 1956. The thing was, I was tired of producing a rabbit out of my hat. Kokomo_Jr_on_saxThe rabbit was really dumb and I could never teach it any tricks and I said, 'Wouldn't it be great to get a chimp and produce him not out of a hat, but out of a foulard - a large silk. Then I could tell him to disappear and then go on with the act!' The problem was, he would clown around while I was doing my sleight of hand, which I took very seriously. The people would start laughing like crazy. So I said, 'Look Kokomo, either I'm gonna do the act or you're gonna do the act!' I guess you know who won out!

I named him Kokomo Jr. after two of my Marine buddies who never made it back. It was 'Coco' and 'Moe' and I was the 'Jr.' Now, Kokomo didn't do tricks, per se. He was understanding and very understanding of words. Riding a bicycle, roller skating...any chimp could do that. I would teach him 'Open!' Like open a box, or open a door or close a door. Anything with open or close he was a natural at. Once you start teaching the basics - like open, close, pick-up, put-down, put-back - a lot of things he could easily do. I was a single fella and we had a good rapport going. I spent plenty of time literally raising him like a child.

He used to do magic tricks. He would do box magic which you don't have to be too brilliant to do. We had a bit where he would pour water in a vase, wave his magic wand then pull a never-ending foulard out of it. He'd stop in the middle and give the audience a look like, 'Is this ever gonna end?' Oh, they loved it!

I put the show on the road. I went down to Florida with five dollars in my pocket. Just enough to feed a chimp. Sometimes in the trailer parks, I'd send him up a tree to get a couple of coconuts. Then I heard that the Today Show people were doing a remote down there. They wanted to take a look at Kokomo, as they had heard a lot about him. This was after J. Fred Muggs left the Today Show. Muggs was the granddaddy of all TV chimps. He was great. Kokomo Jr. and Muggs never did meet, though. Anyhow, NBC taped the whole show around us and we were hired on the spot.

Koko was on the Today Show with Dave Garroway everyday for a couple of years. He'd do the weather and lots of funny little bits. Sometimes the producers would request special routines. They would call me and say, 'Hey, can we have Kokomo play the violin?' and I'd say, 'Sure.' A few weeks later, there he is sawing out a tune.

He always had a huge wardrobe. Brooks Brothers suits, cowboy outfits, marine uniforms, a leopard skin lounging robe. The tailors would cut the pants shorter, the sleeves a little longer and he was good to go. I used to take him for a shave and a haircut once a week. He loved it. He also ate with a knife and fork.

In his heyday, he was on most of the big TV shows: What's my Line, I' ve Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth - he done all those shows. We worked with some big celebrities: Bill Cullen, Charlie Weaver, Jake LaMotta, Jack Paar, Merv Griffin - worked with them all. He was a regular on the Howdy Doody Show for over a year. One time on Candid Camera they had him in a dry cleaner's store. He took the tickets and brought back the clothing and some people didn't even notice that a chimp was waiting on them! That's New York for you.

Teaching him to talk, well, that was difficult. I took him to psychologists, speech therapists, they all told me,' Chimps just don't talk.' I spent about four months getting him to make a sound with his vocal cords. Then another three months to make him shape his mouth, lips, and jaws. I found that he couldn't make the 'M' sound without overlapping his upper lip with his lower lip by about a half an inch. When he said' Mama' on the Today Show, it was all worth it. The Daily News gave us a full page, the Associated Press, you name it. One time a reporter challenged me on it, so I said, 'I'll come down there and I'll show ya,' which I did! I could've taught Koko to say more words. I have no doubt in my mind about that. I was busy trying to earn a living and I didn't have the time it would take to do that. It could get a little hectic.

You gotta remember we were on live TV back then. You didn't get no second chance. By the time we shot the Kokomo Jr. show on film everyone called him 'One Take Koko.' Tell him what to do one time, run him through once, and he knew it. A lot of the actors would blow it and have to do it again and again. Koko'd come over to me and be like, 'Man, I'm not gonna do this scene one more time!'

At the '64 World's Fair, Kodak used Kokomo on what at that time was the largest photograph in the world. They were looking for a chimp that played baseball and I said,' I' ve got two chimps that work together. They never played baseball before but I can teach them.' See, I' ve always had two chimps. I would rotate them between shows so they wouldn't get burned out or tired. I was always concerned about not pushing them too hard. You know - it's like Lassie. Some Lassies would run through smoke and fire, some wouldn't. The chimps are both named Kokomo. They know which one I'm talking to. One's Kokomo Jr and the other one I say, 'Hey Koko Koko.' It's all in the inflection of the voice. It's been seventeen years since we performed, so I guess we don't need to keep this a secret anymore. In the end, I'd rather that people know that I'm humane.

They both like to sleep in. My wife is an early riser. We run a company called Monkey Packaging Tape. They like to watch TV and flip through National Geographic. We have an island in the backyard where they run out to play. I don't dress them up any more. Usually if they go out on the island, I'll put red sweaters on them so I can keep an eye on them from a distance. Only a couple of hours and then they're back in. They like the air conditioning. They got the refrigerator - they love to snack all day. Chimps really like to make a big deal out of eating. When they' re in the jungle, they'll eat all day long. They'll travel and pick a little here, pick on this berry, what have you.

They like biking around on Big Wheels. That's something they do for pleasure. They've gotten more interested in painting lately. I leave the brushes and acrylics out in their room, and they'll just go over and start painting. Always nice to have a hobby."


To find out more about Kokomo Jr. or to see his paintings, go to:

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To find out more about either one of the Dave the Spazzes, tune in every Thursday night at 8pm.


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