The other day, my pal Nell Minow sent me an article by Char Daston from Chicago magazine that's a terrific, fascinating history of Tillstrom, much of which I didn't know -- like that not only did he do weekly puppet shows at Marshall Fields department store in the city, but that he continued doing them even after his TV career began. The article is titled, "Without This Chicago Puppeteer, There Would be No Sesame Street," and while that's hyperbolic, since the show would likely have been created even without The Muppets, just that it would have been vastly different. But the point about The Muppets is not terribly far off, since Jim Henson was a huge fan of Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran & Ollie. Indeed, at a recent major exhibit on The Muppets at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, there was a section on Henson's early influences which included video and a reference to Tillstrom not only being an influence, but one of Henson's heroes.
The article is wonderful and detailed. I have only a few quibbles. The piece mostly focuses on Burr Tillstrom through his years with Kukla, Fran & Ollie -- but he did a great deal more after the show went off the air in 1957 than the article suggests (although it does mention that the show returned to public TV in 1970). In fact, Tillstrom kept performing a lot -- not just with Kukla and Ollie TV guest appearances and even as game show contestants, but on stage. For instance, I wish it had mentioned that in 1978, Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie actually appeared on Broadway in the replacement cast of the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim. Further, around the same time (I'm not sure which came first), Madame Oglepuss (with Tillstrom performing, of course) remarkably was cast to play the role of the grandmother in an otherwise standard, human Chicago production of Stephen Sondheim's musical A Little Night Music -- and won the Jefferson Award (the city's version of the Tonys) as Best Supporting Actress! Also, while I was glad the article included mention of the Berlin Wall "Hand Ballet," I also wish it had added that Tillstrom, in fact, won an Emmy Award for the performance -- and mentioned that Henson was posthumously inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame, soon after he passed away. However, other than those quibbles, it's a wonderful article filled with great, little-known research on such a seminal person in TV history. You can read it here.
By the way, I must note that Ms. Minow comes to her love and appreciation of Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran & Ollie with a high pedigree -- her father Newton Minow (who later would become FCC Commissioner under President Kennedy, though is best known as a poker-playing buddy and patient of my father...) was Burr Tillstrom's attorney. Moreover, when Nell was very little she would often get to visit the set, and one day a newspaper reporter was there to do a piece on Tillstrom and the show. Seeing the little girl,he asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer got in the paper -- "A Kuklapolitan." (The story has a happy ending, because much later in life -- it is my firm belief and absolute insistence -- she got her wish.)
Also fun in the article is mention that "The show’s cultural cache was so great that Kukla and Ollie even appeared on the Ford Motor Company’s two-hour 50th anniversary show in 1953. Jerome Robbins choreographed this live dance number, over which the puppets narrate the history of the bathing suit." (Among his great many credits, Robbins later directed and choreographed Fiddler On the Roof, West Side Story and Gypsy.)
I'm not quite sure what the history of bathing suits had to do with the Ford Motor Company, except that I suppose a theme of the show was about the cultural history of the United States during the 50 years since Ford began. But best of all is that a video of that musical number is embedded into the online version of article. And therefore I have access to it and can embed it here.
There was something else, though, which struck me about the video and bathing suit history ballet. One of the earlier musicals that Jerome Robbins choreographed (though didn't direct) was the surprise hit High Button Shoes that starred Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabray that opened in 1947 and ran for almost two years, 727 performances. And one of the famous things about the show was what became known as the Bathing Beauty Ballet near the end of the show, that was a Keystone Cops-like chase scene at the beach. I have to believe that Robbins' work on that number only six years earlier had to be a major reason he was hired for the TV job and which was an inspiration of his choreography for it.
I can't find any choreography of the High Button Shoes dance.to fully prove the point -- but happily I did find a trailer for the show when the Encores! organization did the show in New York only last year as part of their concert staging series -- complete with the original choreography of the Bathing Beauties Ballet that runs throughout.
But to return to the point that got us all here -- don't forget to check out the article about Burr Tillstrom. Again, you can get to it here.