Jim Henson and muppet Kermit the Frog got their start at Red Diamond in Birmingham

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Birmingham, Red Diamond, Jim Henson, Kermit the Frog, The Muppets, Wilkins and Wontkins
Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog. Photo via Benno Friedman:Corbis.

You’ve heard of The Muppets. The well-known and beloved puppets created by the incredibly imaginative puppeteer, Jim Henson. But did you know that one of Henson’s most popular puppets, Kermit the Frog, actually got their start at Red Diamond in Birmingham?

You’re probably asking yourself how in the world did Jim Henson and his puppet ended up being a part of Red Diamond’s marketing. Well here’s a bit of the backstory of how this came to be.

Red Diamond’s history began over 100 years ago in Birmingham. You’ve probably heard of Red Diamond – one of the country’s largest coffee and tea distributors.

Birmingham, Red Diamond, coffee, tea, Jim Henson, Wilkins and Wontkins, Kermit the Frog
Photo via Red Diamond.

What began as a family company quickly converted into a premier maker and provider of quality coffees and teas. Originally named “Donovan Provision Company”, in 1908, the name was changed to Red Diamond.

In the mid-1950s, Jim Henson began drawing attention with his personal style of puppeteering, which he performed on local television in Washington, D.C., and on programs like Ed Sullivan and the Tonight Show.

These gigs were decent, but it is claimed that what actually helped keep the beginning years of Henson and his gang of puppet’s career alive was pitching to coffee sellers, like Red Diamond.

In the early 1960s, Red Diamond decided to commission Henson to produce a series of TV ads featuring characters known as Wilkins and Wontkins.

Birmingham, Wilkins and Wontkins, Red Diamond, Jim Jenson, Kermit the Frog, The Muppets
Wilkins and Wontkins. Photo clip from Red Diamond commercial.

“The Red Diamond Jim Henson TV commercials were very popular,” said Bill Bowron, President and CEO of Red Diamond. “They were fun and entertaining. Jim Henson was just getting his start, and his puppets were not even called the Muppets, yet.”

Each ad spot ran no longer than 10 seconds. They also ran with a billboard campaign and were aired well into the 1970s on local Birmingham television.

“Red Diamond has always had an eye for innovation,” said Bowron. “When we ran those commercials, we were out in front of the competition. No one else was running anything like that in Birmingham. They were fresh and new, funny and entertaining. We wanted to make our customers smile, and remind them that a cup of Red Diamond coffee was the best way to start their day!”

“And,” adds Bowron, “it still is.”

Though the puppet used as Wilkins in the Red Diamond commercials may not look exactly like the Kermit the Frog you know today, the similarities are obviously there. Just listen to that voice!

If you take another listen, you’ll also notice that the voice and demeanor of the grumpy and negative Wontkins mimics that of Henson’s well-known Muppets, Rowlf the Dog and Oscar the Grouch.

Would Red Diamond ever go this route again when creating a commercial?

According to Bowron,

“Those commercials were for a different time. Today’s consumers don’t want to be entertained as much as they want to be informed. They are interested in quality, choice and the story behind the product. In our marketing, we communicate our focus on sustainable sourcing of only the finest quality, high-grown beans.”

What do you think of Jim Henson’s commercials with Red Diamond?

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