As readers of these pages know, I’m a huge fan of Burr Tillstrom and his show Kukla, Fran & Ollie. One of my great treats was being back home when the Chicago History Museum put together a tremendous exhibit for the 50th anniversary of the television show, which had been produced in Chicago.
As it happens, this is the TV show’s 75th anniversary, and the museum has put together another exhibit in its honor. Alas, I’m not there for it this time and have no pandemic travel plans yet…
Kukla, Fran & Ollie was a phenomenon in its day – and beyond. It first went on the air in 1947 in Chicago, and then later was one of the first TV shows to be national. And the first public show to be in color. When it first went on, this was at a time when few people had TVs, and the program was one of the reasons a lot of families bought a set – for a children’s puppet show, albeit one that was done almost as much for adults. It’s was initially a half-hour every day, later was on for one hour every Sunday, and 15-minutes daily. And it was almost entirely ad-libbed. Burr Tillstrom would have a general outline he’d discuss with Fran Allison, but that was it. The only thing they rehearsed were the songs.
How much a phenomenon was it? At its peak, the Kuklapolitan characters got 15,000 letters a day. Among its biggest fans were Helen Hayes, John Steinbeck, Orson Welles and James Thurber, who wrote that Tillstrom was “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television.”
In fact, a young Stephen Sondheim early in his career was such a fan that he wrote a song for the show. (If you want to hear it, I posted a recording of the song here from when Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie actually appeared on Broadway in the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim.) And as a young kid, Jim Henson was inspired by the show, got into puppetry and eventually developed the Muppets.
The TV show was on the air for 10 years, but even after it went off the air in 1957, it stayed around, and in 1970, Kukla, Fran & Ollie went back on television as a regular weekly series on PBS. And they still kept appearing on television and stage after that. In fact, with Tillstrom performing the socialite diva puppet Madame Ooglepuss, "she" actually won the Jefferson Award -- Chicago's version of the Tony Award -- for playing the grandmother in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music around 1975.
(Also worth mentioning is that Broadway hit musical Carnival! -- from which the song, "Love Makes the World Go Round" is from, and which had seven Tony nominations, including Best Musical -- is clearly inspired by Kukla, Fran & Ollie, all the more obvious when you know that it's based on a short story and novella by Paul Gallico that was dedicated to Burr Tillstrom. The short story concerns a puppeteer in a TV studio with a woman who talks to them. When he lengthened it into a novella, he changed it to a traveling circus troupe in Europe.)
Thanks to my pal Nell Minow, she forwarded an article in the Chicago Tribune about the 75th anniversary exhibit.
(I must point out here, as I have a while back that Nell 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, 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.)
I can’t link to the Tribune article by Rick Kogan, since as a special article it’s behind a paywall for subscribers only. But I’ll quote a bit of it --
“But let’s travel back, to 1947 and a man named Burr Tillstrom, who was born and raised here and got his start in theater at Senn High School. In 1935, he dropped out of the University of Chicago after one semester so he could join a puppet theater company run by the city’s parks department and funded by the Works Progress Administration. “That is where he began to create the many characters that would become his Kuklapolitan Players, a gang of such puppets as Kukla, Ollie (more formally known as Oliver J. Dragon), Beulah Witch, Madame Oogelpuss, Colonel Richard Crackie, Doloras Dragon, Cecil Bill and the charming others.”
Side note: Cecil Bill (pronounced "Sess-uhl) was always my favorite. He wasn’t used often, and was quite insane, speaking a language – “ta-toi-toi-toi” – that was totally incomprehensible to anyone other than Kuklapolitans. It was at that 50th anniversary exhibit, too, that I finally got to see Cecil Bill up close, and noticed something I had never realized before. To augment how “off” Cecil Bill was, Tillstrom had painted his mouth on crooked and slightly off-center.
“After World War II, he became intrigued by the relatively new means of communication called television and he thought that the puppets he made and maneuvered would work in that realm. He also felt, as he would later put it, ‘the need for a girl out front, who can talk with the Kuklapolitans, interview guests and sing a song.’
“That ‘girl’ would be Fran Allison, a singer and radio performer who met Tillstrom when they were both on a war bond-selling tour. She would be perfect. As Tillstrom put it, ‘‘she laughed, she sympathized, loved them, sang songs to them. She became their big sister, favorite teacher, babysitter, girlfriend, mother.’
Allison would in later years say, ‘Kukla, Ollie and the others are as real to me as people. I don’t want to see them as mere cloth any more than I want to look at something dead.’
“Junior Jamboree” went on the air here at 4 p.m. on Oct. 13, 1947. There were only an estimated 3,000 television sets in Chicago and most of those were in taverns. Renamed “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” the show was an immediate hit and the following year it was on for 30 minutes, five days a week.”
Kogan notes that ‘s hard now to fully grasp the show’s influence and popularity. He then adds --
“Tillstrom tried, shortly before his death in 1985, saying, ‘We try to maintain a basic honesty and consistency with the characters. They’re all individuals. They have personalities and they all work together. I think that has something to do with the show’s appeal. It’s pure and it represents love.’”
No single video can get across the joy, intelligence, charm and whimsy of Kukla, Fran & Ollie. Without a question, it will come across as old-fashioned to audiences today, especially when seen in clips. (But then, it is old-fashioned, having been created 75 years ago, when only 3,000 homes in Chicago had TVs.) But the humanity still comes through, as does the utter artistry and craft – Tillstrom played all the characters, often singing duets with himself, ad-libbing it all, as well as with Fran Allison’s total belief in the reality of the characters. And from the breadth of watching a wide range of episodes, all of that is still today able to come through.
I thought it best here to post a montage from the show’s very early years, around 1949 through the early 1950s, which might help gives some sense of that, especially in context of when it was done. You’ll note Dave Garroway popping up here, since he created the Today Show in Chicago, and you’ll hear the show's initial announcer Hugh Downs, who went on to a big national career on NBC as a host of the Today Show and newsman. And above all, you’ll get a glimpse of one of my favorite show’s, when the socialite diva Madame Ooglepuss would organize the Kuklapolitan Players to occasionally present some fine art and put on an operetta, in this instance, The Mikado. (Unless something comes up, I'll post a longer clip from the glorious Mikado show tomorrow.)
But for now -- as their theme song said, here they are again.
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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