Yesterday, in my tribute to Kukla, Fran and Ollie on their 75th anniversary, I wrote that I would be posting today the full, glorious episode when the Kuklapolitans present their version of The Mikado. Initially, I wrote that unfortunately I was mistaken -- I thought I had the full show, but it's only about two minutes. Although joyous ones.
As it turns out, however, the full show does exist! O huzzah. I thought I had come across, but when I looked at my notes, I only had that two-minute clip. But thanks to reader Ken Kahn, he found the completely episode of The Mikado," and I've changed the video below to it.
The rest of the article holds.
No single episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie gives a full sense of the different levels of the show. But this video gives an idea of it.
And an idea of the range of the Kuklapolitan Players, and of Burr Tillstrom's unearthly skill with characters and voices. Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss, being the dowager protector of All Things Fine Art among the Kuklapolitans, would regularly try to organize everyone and put on some light opera production once a year, and more often than not it would be an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. And that's what we have here, The Mikado.
What the video also shows is Fran Allison’s sweetness and total, pure belief in the puppets. Yet as sweet as she was, she would easily get perturbed with the others when called for. (Which was not uncommon...) And it also gives an idea of Burr Tillstrom at his most lunatic and artistic. Keep in mind, as you watch this, that he's handling both puppets: singing and dancing both characters, while ad-libbing the dialogue for the full show, of course. Not to mention holding his arms up for a half-hour.) In fact, much as there appears to be a happy accident in the song "Three Little Maids from School," upon having watched repeated viewings of it I’m pretty convinced that it was all impressively planned. Moreover, remember that for years, they did this for a half-hour every day, five days a week. There was another half-hour show the very next day. And after that. And...
By the way, it's also worth noting the laughter of the audience. The show didn't always have an audience, usually if you heard laughing it was from the crew members cracking up, since much of the show was ad-libbed. But occasionally there were small audiences. The reason I bring it up here, though, is because what stands out is that the laughter isn't the sound of little kids at all, but rather adults. Much as Kukla, Fran and Olllie was a children's puppet show, it was as much for adults, at least those with a sense of the whimsical.
I spoke to a friend who went to a TV Academy tribute to Burr Tillstrom on the show's 50th anniversary in 1997 (I was in Chicago at the time -- and went to the exhibit at the Chicago History Museum), where he said they played this episode in its entirety. The auditorium was full, with probably 1,000 people there, and as these adults watched this barebones, black-and-white puppet show almost 50 years after it was made in the early days of television, he said the place was filled with laughter.
This, in small part explains why. It starts quietly, with a five-minute introduction by Col. Crackie to it all (including a brief tour of the studio and cast & crew participating) -- and then slowly builds through the songs and a wonderfully, if weirdly interpolated commercial. Until they make it through.
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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