Jim Henson — a world-renowned puppeteer and creator of “The Muppets,” who lived in University Park with his family, went to Northwestern High School in Hyattsville and attended the University of Maryland, College Park, where he created “Sam and Friends — is remembered today as a preternaturally good-natured creator of puppets beloved by children and adults around the world.
But Route 1’s most famous resident had a dark sense of humor that’s often forgotten.
The best way to get a sense of this is to look at one of Henson’s earliest works, a series of ads for D.C.’s own Wilkins Coffee that he created when he lived in the area and that aired on local T.V. stations from 1957 to 1961.
At the time, the stations had only 10-second slots in which the ads could air, so they had to be punchy. In this case, often literally so.
Henson came up with two characters — Wilkins, who drinks the coffee, and Wontkins, who won’t — and had them spar with the kind of cheerful violence typically seen in Itchy and Scratchy cartoons.
Over the course of 179 ads, Wilkins cuts, stabs, boxes, smashes, runs over, blows up, hammers, steamrolls, guillotines, cannonballs and electrocutes Wontkins, among other things, over his taste in coffee.
The ads were attention-getting — and successful enough that they were remade. Kids could even order a vinyl version of Wilkins and Wontkins through the mail in 1958.
“In terms of popularity of commercials in the Washington area, we were the number one, most popular commercial,” Henson later recalled. “They got a lot of talk, and so then the advertising agency started syndicating them and they would sell them to a coffee company in Boston, another coffee company in New York.”
The ads are creative, but they are a bit jarring to people who remember Henson differently. You can watch some of the ads here.