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In 1950s Washington, Jim Henson’s Muppets sold coffee — violently

Patent documentation for the Wilkins “puppet doll” created by Jim Henson for Wilkins Coffee commercials.
Patent documentation for the Wilkins “puppet doll” created by Jim Henson for Wilkins Coffee commercials. (James M. Henson/U.S. Patent Office)
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“Sesame Street” just celebrated its 50th anniversary, but surely the Muppets have been around longer than that. Jim Henson honed the Muppets’ act in the early 1950s with a five-minute show on WRC, Channel 4, every weeknight. It was sponsored by Wilkins Coffee. I remember this as black-and-white TV, but can’t call to mind a whole lot else that would help frame a time period. Does anyone else remember this early Muppets show?

Harry Meem, Richmond

In June 1992, an unusual complaint was filed with the New York City Police Department. Jane Henson, widow of Muppet master Jim Henson, had allegedly thrown a punch while attending a trademark and licensing convention.

“One of my employees was physically attacked by Mrs. Henson,” a marketing executive named John T. Brady told the New York Times. “With her fist, she knocked her across the booth.”

What had so enraged Jane Henson, whose 53-year-old husband had died of pneumonia two years earlier? Well, it all goes back to some of the couple’s earliest creations: a pair of Muppets named Wilkins and Wontkins.

The two Muppets were used in ads for Wilkins Coffee, a firm founded in 1899 by John H. Wilkins Sr., who sold coffee, tea and spices at the corner of 14th and Wallach streets NW.

Eventually, Wilkins focused on just coffee. His son John Wilkins Jr. took over. Junior definitely had coffee in his veins. After joining the Navy in World War II, he wound up erecting a Navy coffee-roasting plant in Pearl Harbor.

Jim Henson did not follow in the footsteps of his father, who was an Agriculture Department agronomist. Henson was in the puppetry club at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. In June 1954, the summer before he started at the University of Maryland, Henson worked as a puppeteer on WTOP-TV’s short-lived “Junior Morning Show.”

Nine months later, his Muppets made their debut as part of a WRC show called “Afternoon” that featured Willard Scott and Mac McGarry as co-hosts. But it was on an evening show called “Sam and Friends” that Henson — assisted by his future wife, then-Jane Nebel — really came into his own. Making its debut was a character fashioned from an old felt coat of Henson’s mother: Kermit.

“Sam and Friends” was produced in a studio in the Sheraton Park Hotel. The show’s success enabled Henson to buy himself a white Ford Thunderbird. The show also caught the eye of Helen Ver Standig, who handled advertising for Wilkins Coffee. In 1957, she approached Henson and persuaded him to make ads for the company. One catch: The ads would be just eight seconds.

If anything, that focused Henson’s creativity. The agreeable Wilkins will drink Wilkins coffee, but when offered a cup, the grumpy Wontkins won’t. And because he won’t, Wontkins is punished in all sorts of creatively gruesome ways: shot with a cannon, thrown from a tree, run over by a train.

As Brian Jay Jones put it in his 2013 biography of Henson: “In Wilkins and Wontkins, Jim had created the kind of silly and endearing characters that were already becoming his trademark — the kind of characters that could even let him get away with being a little dangerous.”

The ads were a hit. Wrote one newspaper critic: “The TV public, weary of looking at such things as gurgling stomach acids at work, took the Wilkins Muppets to heart. No TV commercial ever has known such popularity.”

Wilkins credited the spots with a 300 percent increase in the home sales of its coffee. In 1958, 25,000 pairs of vinyl Wilkins and Wontkins puppets were sold.

By 1992, Wilkins Coffee was no longer the presence it once was. (It seems to be defunct today.) It authorized marketing executive Brady to gauge interest in putting Wilkins and Wontkins on lunchboxes or in cereal or snack-food ads.

According to the New York Times, the booth at the trademark convention “was plastered with photos of Jim Henson and the Muppets, and promotional material describing Wilkins and Wontkins as the ‘Original Muppets Created by Jim Henson.’ ”

Henson had always been careful about his creations. Though he and Jane were estranged when he died, she objected strongly — and apparently violently — to what struck her as an effort to cash in on the Muppets’ fame. Lawsuits were filed, and the copyright case was eventually settled in the Hensons’ favor.

The irony? According to Jones’s biography, Jim Henson didn’t actually like coffee.

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Twitter: @johnkelly

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