Who do you think the very first famous Muppet is? Just off the top of your head, who would you guess? Kermit probably, right? Maybe Big Bird? Surely Miss Piggy then...
NOPE! WRONG! YOU ARE SUPER INCORRECT! It was this guy...
[caption id="attachment_29850" align="alignnone" width="300"] Image via Muppet Wikia[/caption]
That's right, resident Muppet Show
pianist Rowlf was the first of Jim Henson's Muppets to achieve any kind of national spotlight. It all started before The Muppet Show,
before Sesame Street,
and even before Lady Gaga and The Muppets' Holiday
Yes, to track Rowlf's rise properly, we gotta go all the way back to the 1950s...
Back then, Jim Henson was known primarily for making delightful commercials, the most popular of which were a series for Wilkins Coffee. Take a look...
Weird, right? If you're wondering where all the reds, yellows and yes, even purples are, this was back when black and white TV had the market cornered. Colors would not be invented until summer, 1967. (Ask your parents.) It's easy to see the roots of Henson's later trademark Muppet chaos in these early spots. I mean, that's a lot of explosions. Henson would get recruited to make spots for Frank's Beverages, Esskay Meats, and Lifesavers, among others, through the late 50's and early 60's.
Finally, in 1962, Purina Dog Chow approached Henson with an offer to work on their next ad campaign. Naturally, Henson figured the best way to sell dog chow was via its target audience - dogs. Thus, Rowlf was born...
Seven spots total were made - all featuring Rowlf and lesser-Muppet dog, Baskerville the Hound. The campaign proved so successful that Purina tried to purchase Rowlf outright for the sum of $100 grand. Ultimately, Henson decided to keep Rowlf - and it paid off almost immediately. In 1963, Rowlf landed a gig as Jimmy Dean's sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show,
a network variety show that ran until 1966. Typically, Rowlf would get a ten minute spot with Jimmy during each episode, which would contain banter, songs, bits, all kindsa wacky 60's TV stuff.
One weird thing (at least for me) is that Rowlf at this point was a UKELELE player! What is he, a Brooklyn hipster?! Thankfully, the old dog learned a new trick in piano, which somehow fits more naturally with his personality. Nevertheless, Rowlf proved extremely popular on the variety show circuit, appearing on Our Place
and The Mike Douglas Show,
among others. In fact, Rowlf helped sell Sesame Street, appearing in the original pitch reel alongside a familiar green lizard-y thing. Seriously, who is
that other guy?!
Of course, when The Muppet Show
debuted in 1976, Rowlf was included as one of the gang, and his status was cemented. Rowlf would usually get his own segments playing a popular or classical tune at the piano, but lest we forget, he was also the centerpiece of pun-tastic recurring sketch Veterinarian's Hospital.
Rowlf also appeared in nearly ever single Muppet film. Like Kermit, there's nothing really that zany about Rowlf, he's sort of an even-keeled dude. I daresay he's even more well-adjusted than Kermit, who has a tendency to fly off the handle. Am I psychoanalyzing Muppets? The real question is, why aren't YOU?
[caption id="attachment_29851" align="alignnone" width="575"] Image via Muppet Wikia
It's weird to think that Rowlf beat Fozzie, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Animal into the world (let alone Big Bird, Cookie Monster, etc.), but it happened...all thanks to a commercial for Purina Dog Chow. So in a way, you could say we have dog's to thank for our beloved Muppets. Heck, we're just gonna go ahead and say it. Thanks, dog-kind!