Readers of these pages well-know my great love for Kukla, Fran and Ollie and the brilliant work of Burr Tillstrom. Here are 45 wonderful minutes of them. Contrary to the title of this video, it is not remotely "The Best of..." Rather, this is just a montage of material from their later years (or from just one year, for all I know), when the show was in color. So, this shouldn't be mistaken as anything more than that. But then, this remains a treat because most material on the show online (or anytime, period) is in black-and-white, since that's when so much of the program was done, and it's fun to see so much in vibrant color.
Most the Kuklapolitan players are here, if only some briefly -- Kukla, Ollie, Beulah Witch, Fletcher Rabbit and an aria from Madame Ogglepuss, along with a brief appearance from Ollie's niece, Dolores Dragon. Best of all for me is that we get to see my favorite, Cecil Blll (pronounced "Sess-uhl) who rarely got in the show, but Burr Tillstrom would pop him in every very-random once in a while. That's likely because Cecill Bill was totally lunatic, speaking in no discernible language that was known to Man, although every Kuklapolitan and Fran easily conversed with his "ta-toi-toi-toi's". He comes in at here the 38:23 mark, though it's impossible to miss him...
(Many years later, I discovered something wonderful about Tillstrom's thinking and Cecil Bill. There was a tremendous 50th anniversary tribute exhibit to Kukla, Fran and Ollie at the Chicago History Museum -- the TV show had been broadcast out of Chicago -- and as part of it, they had all the original puppets on display. (As well as the proscenium "stage" which you could wander behind and see how it was all set up.) And when looking close up at Cecil Bill, I noticed something I'd never caught before for all those many years on television. Tillstrom had Cecil Blll's mouth painted on crooked. It wasn't something you'd necessarily notice on a small screen, especially when black-and-white, but it added to the sense that something was just a bit "off" about him.),
About the only two Kuklapolitans I can think of who aren't in the video are Col. Crackie, who was enamored with Madame Ogglepuss, and Nell Minow. (Yes, really. You see, Nell's father Newton -- who later became the FCC Chairman under President Kennedy and famously referred to TV as a "Vast Wasteland" -- had been Burr Tillstrom's attorney back in Chicago. His young children would occasionally join their father when he had reason to visit the set. One day, a reporter was there doing an article about Tillstrom and the show, and Nell made it into the article. That's because when the reporter asked the little girl what she wanted to be when she grew up, she answered, "A Kuklapolitan." The good news is that I believe she made it.)
I wrote about the show extensively here, which is worth checking out not only for some of their history, but also a bunch of wonderful photos, including one of Burr Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie with Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog.
And again to repeat, in no way is this the "Best of Kukla, Fran and Ollie," but it does give a very nice look at them in color, with plenty of songs mixed in. I have a friend who did some puppetry briefly but who didn't care much for Tillstrom's work because he didn't sync Oliver J. Dragon's mouth with the words he was speaking -- and also most of the other characters didn't even have movable mouths. This view exploded my head since it missed the entire point. Edgar Bergen also famously wasn't the most technically "meticulous" ventriloquist, something he would often even joke about in sketches, but it was the incredibly believable characters he created and the world he drew you into that made him legendary. And that was the same with Burr Tillstrom and his characters. It's why a young Nell Minow would want to be a Kuklapolitan when she grew up. Fran Allison's brilliance was making you believe that she fully, unquestioningly believed the Kuklapolitans were real, so you suspended disbelief and did so, too. Indeed, I would also argue that when a single man played all eight characters on live TV, often sang duets, and basically ad-libbed the entire shows with only a basic outline (and for decades at the same high level, winning two Emmys for the show, a seriously-impressive 17 years apart, in 1954 and 1971. And was inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame in 1986 -- with the presentation made by Jim Henson), his technical skills were majestic. In the end, what the "Best of" Kukla, Fran and Ollive was...was this isolated world of loving, believable characters that built over time and you were briefly a part of, not that there were specific moments or stories to single out.
By the way, Burr Tillstrom also won and Emmy and Peabody Award for "hand ballet" work he did on the series, That Was the Week That Was, which I posted here. But also, at the Chicago History Museum exhibit, they had on display a Jefferson Award -- Chicago's version of the Tony -- for Madame Ogglepuss, who Tillstrom portrayed as the Grandmother in an otherwise "all human" production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. And I only recently discovered that Burr Tillstrom had another impressive connection with Sondheim, when Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie appeared on Broadway -- yes, really! -- as narrators in the third cast of the 1977 revue Side by Side by Sondheim!!! (They repeated this in the Chicago touring company -- replacing the original narrator there: Capt. Hook himself, Cyril Ritchard.)
That said, though the "Best of" Kukla Fran and Ollie was never inherently moments, there are some that over the many years were classic and memorable. Indeed, I suspect that any time that Madame Ogglepus organized the Kuklapolitan Players to perform one of her annual operas, usually Gilbert & Sullivan, the show especially soared. (I watched one such episode of The Mikado from that aforementioned Chicago Historical Society exhibit which was hysterical -- you could even hear the crew cracking up. And maybe a year later I was trying to describe this to a friend, when his face lit up. In honor of that 50th anniversary, the TV Academy itself had put on a tribute to Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which he went to -- I didn't know about it, but I was in Chicago at the time anyway -- ...and they showed that same episode about trying to put on The Mikado. And my friend, who is a massive opera buff, said that not only did he find it as hilarious as I described, but the auditorium full of 1,000 sophisticated TV professionals, watching this rough black-and-white broadcast from many decades earlier, were roaring with laughter throughout.)
This is not that. This is just a charming montage of enjoyable moments. But with Kukla, Fran and Ollie, that's in large part the whole point.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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