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TV URBAN LEGEND: Cookie Monster was originally created as the “Wheel-Stealer” for a cheese snack commercial.
An interesting aspect of Jim Henson’s career is that before the debut of Sesame Street, while he made a number of appearances on late-night television (and his character Rowlf was a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show during the early 1960s), his Muppets were best known for their appearances in commercials around the country (in the Washington, D.C., area, where Henson got his big break doing the puppet television show Sam and Friends in the 1950s, he did more than 300 ads for Wilkins Coffee). These early commercial works helped Henson to develop the style he would later use on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. However, these ads also gave him freedom to create new characters — and one of the most amusing character developments was the evolution of the “Wheel-Stealer,” which went from being one of three puppets in an unaired ad campaign for a long-forgotten cheese snack to become one of the most famous Muppets of them all, Cookie Monster.
In 1966, Henson’s Muppets Inc. made a pitch for an ad campaign for a new General Foods snack food called Wheels, Crowns and Flutes, which were cheese snacks (similar to Goldfish) shaped like, well, wheels, crowns and flutes. Henson developed three puppets that were each obsessed with one of the three designs of the snacks. There was the Crown-Grabber, which was a big Boris Karloff-esque monster, the Flute-Snatcher, which Henson described as a “speed demon,” and, finally, the Wheel-Stealer, a cute, sharp-toothed monster that excitedly devoured wheels. The ad campaign was not chosen by General Foods, so the commercials never aired.
Undeterred, Henson adapted the Grown-Grabber for a sketch on The Ed Sullivan Show, where he ruins a girl’s day. From that point on, he was known as the Beautiful Day Monster and made a few appearances on Sesame Street. Flute-Snatcher made a couple of Sesame Street appearances but never really amounted to anything.
The Wheel-Stealer, though, was meant for bigger things. First, Henson used the character for a training film for IBM in 1967, where it devours a talking coffee machine (that then explodes) and then adapted the film for an Ed Sullivan Show sketch (the coffee machine was now a bomb).
Then Henson adapted the character for a new ad campaign for Frito-Lay in 1969 for a potato crisp snack food called Munchos. This new version didn’t have the teeth of the previous incarnations, and changed color to purple. He basically looked like a smaller purple version of Cookie Monster. This character did well in his three commercials for the product, and Frito-Lay wanted to continue the campaign but Henson declined to extend the contract, as he was by that point developing Sesame Street and wanted to use the character in his new show.
Cookie Monster then made his official debut in the very first episode of Sesame Street in November 1969 and has been a delight ever since!
The legend is …
Thanks to the Muppet Wiki for the images!
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