Early Jim Henson Puppets Once Worked For Red Diamond
Early Jim Henson puppets once worked for Red Diamond

Every celebrity has to start somewhere, and in the case of the highly innovative Muppets originator Jim Henson, Birmingham’s Red Diamond played a key role in sustaining his career.

Henson in the mid-1950s had already begun drawing attention to his style of puppeteering on local television in Washington, D.C. and appearances on Ed Sullivan and the Tonight Show. But it was Henson’s genius for pitching coffee products, including Red Diamond, that helped keep the puppet troupe and their creator solvent during the early years.

Red Diamond in the early 1960s commissioned Henson to produce a series of TV ads featuring characters known to Henson as Wilkins and Wontkins after noting the campaign's success in a Texas market.  In each spot, running no longer than 10 seconds, the positive Wilkins pitched Red Diamond to a negative Wontkins, who met an appropriate punishment. The immensely popular ads, which ran with a billboard campaign, were aired well into the 1970s on local Birmingham television.

Wilkins, namesake of Henson’s’ first job for Wilkins Coffee, sounded much like Henson’s Muppet, Kermit the Frog. The grumpy Wontkins echoed the voice and temperament of Henson’s Rowlf the Dog and Oscar the Grouch.
“Everyone knew at the time that Henson turned to advertising to stay afloat,” said Red Diamond CEO William A. Bowron, who was a child at the time the campaign launched. “The commercials are still some of Red Diamond’s most memorable. Henson’s simple genius was so evident, even then.”

Henson’s immensely popular formula caught on with coffee brands around the country. The characters and scripts remained the same, with only the brand name changed to reflect the local area. (In the 1980s, comedian Jim Varney would follow the same pattern with his "Hey, Vern!" commercials for various sponsors.)

The ad campaign was also very successful for Red Diamond, and even though it represented a small portion of Jim Henson's legacy, it was important in helping establish himself as one of the nation's most innovative puppeteers.
    - Tim Hollis