One of the most delightful puppet shows to ever debut on television was KUKLA FRAN AND OLLIE (which originally premiered on October 10, 1947 as JUNIOR JAMBOREE, a 60-minute local show on WBKB-TV in Chicago). Puppeteer Burr Tillstrom provided all the voices and manipulated all the puppets on the program. The program was performed live and without script. Standing in front of a scaled-down stage (a la Punch and Judy) the beautiful, blonde hostess Fran Allison conversed with the likes of Kukla, a balding, bulbous nosed "Everyman" with raised eyebrows and a tiny circular mouth; and a buck toothed creature named Oliver "Ollie" J. Dragon who was born in Dragon Retreat, Vermont and educated at Dragon Prep.
Many of the ideas for the show came from day-to-day problems and encounters. If the weather was cold, or if someone was sick, it was sure to be put into the show's dialogue. Each program began with Kukla, Fran and Ollie singing, "Here we are...Yes, by gum and Yes, by golly, Kukla Fran and Ollie..."
The secret to the show's charm was the special chemistry between puppeteer Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison who treated the puppets like real people. Reportedly, she never looked at the puppets back stage, always retaining the fantasy that the puppets were alive.
Burr Tillstrom landed the job of working marionettes for the WPA Chicago Parks District Theater in the 1930s His first puppet, Kukla was made from fabric from a WPA (Works Progress Administration) ragbag. While freshman at the University of Chicago in 1936, Kukla derived his name from an encounter with Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova who upon seeing the sweet little puppet exclaimed "Kukla", an affectionate Russian word for doll. Kukla's best friend Ollie originally didn't talk, but with the premiere of "St. George and the Dragon" at the RCA exhibit of the New York's World Fair in 1939, you couldn't keep him quiet. Besides the characters, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the program spawned a variety of puppet players known as the Kuklapolitans including Beulah the Witch, a hooked-nosed hag with a wavering voice who rode a jet-propelled broomstick (named after producer Beulah Zachary); Fletcher Rabbit, a droopy-eared Postman whose mother was a women's libber; Mercedes, an attractive ingé nue; Cecil Bill, a sailor turned stage manager with a language all his own; Colonel Crackie, a longwinded Southern gentlemen and escort of Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss, a haughty former opera star; Dolores Dragon, Ollie's younger cousin; Olivia Dragon, Ollie's elderly mother, whose hair was a staggering 75-feet long and Miss Clara Coo Coo, the official timekeeper of the North Pole.
In 1956, Burr Tillstrom needed to replace his worn out puppet of Oliver J. (Jethro) Dragon III. The new Ollie sported a jaw sawed from a warped pear crate; a yellow satin face; a chin made from chamois; spots courtesy of a phony ocelot coat (once worn by Imogene Coca of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS); hair of a Mongolian wolf; eyes and a tooth cut from a kid's glove; lashes and brows clipped from wool felt, and an interior lining of gold cloth.
The Kuklapolitans performed a number of stories including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Rabbit, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, historical stories about George Washington crossing the Delaware, Thanksgiving tales of the Pilgrims and even a puppet production of the "Mikado."
Tom Shales of the Washington Post once wrote of the Kuklapolitan players "They were as gifted as an acting troupe in their own way as any that ever trod the boards of any theater on Earth...They were real in the fullest sense of the term."
The Kuklapolitans also appeared on THE PERRY COMO SHOW, THE JACK PAAR SHOW, THE SHARI LEWIS SHOW, NBC's CHILDREN THEATRE, THE TODAY SHOW (election commentaries in 1960), THE DICK CAVETT SHOW, THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW, THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW, and the CBS CHILDREN'S FILM FESTIVAL from 1967-71 (a series of one-hour film specials about children around the world). The Kuklapolitan players also appeared on the news satire program THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS/NBC/1964-65.
An emotional hand ballet about the Berlin Wall Crisis won Tillstrom a special Emmy on Individual Achievement in 1966. In 1976 Burr Tillstrom created a new twenty-six week series of KUKLA FRAN ANDS OLLIE for the PBS Network. In March of 1985 Burr Tillstrom made an appearance with Kukla, Fran Allison and Ollie at the Museum of Broadcasting in New York City. Nine months later, on December 6, 1985, he died peacefully at his Palm Springs home. Burr Tillstrom was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in March of 1986. Fran Allison posthumously accepted his award. She later died on June 13, 1989 at age 83. Tillstrom's puppet collection was willed to the Chicago Historical Society.
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