Burr Tillstrom was there at the creation.
It was April 30, 1939.
He was at the New York World’s Fair, demonstrating the power of television on the nation’s first regular series of telecasts. He had brought his troupe of puppets with him that day — Kukla and Ollie and Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss.
Earlier that afternoon, at the dedication of the RCA Exhibit Building, RCA President David Sarnoff declared to the NBC television camera, “Today we are on the eve of launching a new industry, based on imagination, on scientific research, and accomplishment … Now we add radio sight to sound.”
Shortly afterward, Tillstrom and his puppets became of one television’s first performers as hundreds of awestruck spectators watched on a nearby monitor.
Perhaps it was then that Tillstrom decided television would be a “perfect medium” for his Kuklapolitan Players. Or maybe he made that decision during the spring of 1940, when he was sent to Bermuda by RCA to do ship-to-shore telecasts on the first television show in mid-ocean.
It isn’t exactly clear when Tillstrom decided to cast his lot with television’s future. But we do know that he performed on the premiere television broadcast of WBKB in Chicago in 1941. During World War II, when most television activity ceased, he and his Kuklapolitans gave benefit performances for the USO and in midwestern hospitals for the Red Cross.
In 1947, he returned to WBKB to do his first commercial telecast of a show entitled Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Whimsical, captivating, comedic, the show was an immediate local hit. It was fed to NBC midwestern affiliates in 1948 and linked coast-to-coast on the network in 1951, when America achieved nationwide television.
By that time, Tillstrom and his troupe of puppets, as well as Fran Allison, his real-life, female, talk-to-the-puppets “straight man,” were television stars on their way to establishing one of the medium’s most enduring and endearing programs.
He was born in Chicago on October 13, 1917. During an illness when he was five, Tillstrom amused himself by endowing his toys with characteristics of people, talking and gesturing for each character. Later, he entertained neighborhood children by seating them outside his window while he crouched inside and manipulated his toys on the sill.
Thus, he started on his career as a puppeteer. That beginning had become a love affair by the time he reached 14 and presented his first “paid” performance in a neighbor’s garden. For that performance, after a series of trials and errors and wide reading about marionettes, he made his own puppets and trained himself to handle them.
Soon he became skillful enough to perform at Chicago’s WPA Parks District. Then, in 1935, after graduating from Senn High School, where one of his interests was dramatics, Tillstrom entered the University of Chicago on an honor scholarship. His heart, however, was elsewhere. He remained at the university for only one semester before his eagerness to begin work as a puppeteer drove him to quit school and entertain in vaudeville, at state fairs, and in nightclubs.
In 1936, he created Kukla, a bald, bulbous-nosed, gnomish puppet that was intended as a gift for a friend. But Tillstrom liked it so much he refused to part with it. The puppet was inadvertently christened by ballerina Tamara Toumanova, for whom Tillstrom performed backstage at one of her appearances. “Kukla!” she exclaimed upon seeing the puppet, uttering the Russian word for doll.
He named his troupe the Kuklapolitans and soon created Madame Ooglepuss, a haughty former opera star, and Ollie, an extroverted dragon with a wide velvet mouth and one big tooth.
Others followed: Fletcher Rabbit, a bunny with droopy ears; Beulah the Witch, a one-time student of electronics who rode a jet-propelled broomstick; Cecil Bill, a stage manager with a language all his own; Colonel Crackie, a long-winded Southern gentleman; Delores Dragon, Ollie’s infant relative; and Olivia, his elderly mother, whose hair was seventy-five feet in length.
He brought many of those puppets with him to the first Kukla, Fran and Ollie show in WBKB in 1947.
In a 1953 interview, Tillstrom recalled signing on to do that show, “I went home and broke out in a cold sweat, trying to figure how I would fill an hour a day,” he told the interviewer. “I called Fran [Allison], whom I had met several weeks prior, and asked her to join the troupe. She said she’d try it, and then I sat down and wrote out ten ideas.”
The gentle Fran Allison, a Chicago radio actress and singer who was playing Aunt Fanny on Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club, soon became an essential ingredient on the show.
When the puppets weren’t focusing on their own day-to-day experiences or staging their own lavish productions ranging from satires (Martin Dragon and Private Tooth) to such operettas as The Mikado, they were talking with Allison. Throughout the Kukla, Fran and Ollie series, Tillstrom played all the puppet roles and interacted with Allison, who stood to the side of a small stage on which the puppets gathered.
Recalling the magical chemistry at work between Tillstrom and her, Allison recently told a news reporter, "We would think about things and just develop as time went along. I would think to myself, “I wish this or that character would say something,” and no sooner would I think it then one of the puppets would say it. [Tillstrom] in turn would think, “I wish she would act or say this or that,” and I would say it."
One of the show’s most memorable telecasts took place in June 1953, when Tillstrom and his troupe presented an original musical play, St. George and the Dragon, complete with musical accompaniment by conductor Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra and special guest John B. Hines, mayor of Boston. St. George and the Dragon was so successful it was repeated in August of that year as one of NBC’s first experimental telecasts in color.
Throughout its run, KFO (as Kukla, Fran and Ollie was known in the trade) managed to attract as regular viewers some of America’s most famous literati, including Thornton Wilder, Robert E. Sherwood, Richard Rodgers, Walter Huston, Leland Hayward, Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya. John Steinbeck once compared Tillstrom’s “writing” technique to his own. “Our characters could never do anything out of character,” Steinbeck said. “They write themselves.”
Tillstrom kept KFO on the air for 10 years by breaking all the rules. For instance, there were no elaborate production values to the show, beyond a puppet stage. And none of the shows — all of which were performed live — made use of a script, beyond a kind of stream-of-consciousness chemistry that spilled out of Tillstrom and Allison as dialogue.
As the 1950s wore on, however, KFO, whose ratings were never spectacular, fell victim to “a TV structure that had to reach the greatest number of people irrespective of specialized program content,” said David Levy, former vice-president of NBC’s programming and talent operations.
NBC, which had reduced the show’s length from thirty minutes to fifteen in 1951, dropped KFO altogether on June 13, 1954. The following September, it resumed on ABC, where it remained until August 30, 1957.
“[KFO] went off the air for the same reason Playhouse 90, Studio One, and Voice of Firestone did,” David Levy added in a 1970 TV Guide interview. “These specialized programs [worked] in the early days because it was not yet necessary to reach the tremendous masses … It may have been too good.”
In 1960, Tillstrom staged a Broadway show, An Evening with Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Then he returned to NBC, without Allison, for a five-minute weekly series in 1961-62. In 1965 he won an Emmy and a Peabody for a series of imaginative “hand ballets” he devised during a semiregular stint on That Was the Week That Was.
PBS picked up KFO in 1969 for two years. Throughout the 1970s, Tillstrom, the Kuklapolitan Players, and Allison also hosted CBS’s Children’s Film Festival. In 1975 the group appeared in a syndicated half-hour series.
“Kukla, Fran and Ollie, on which a whole generation grew up, was the Old Vic of children’s TV shows, and Ollie its Sir Laurence Olivier,” TV Guide once told its readers.
On December 6, 1985, Kukla and Ollie and Madame Ooglepuss and Fletcher Rabbit and Colonel Crackie retired forever from the Old Vic. That was the day Burr Tillstrom, television pioneer, died in his home in Palm Springs, California.
He had kept active until his death, conducting seminars and writing fairy tales. “He was an artist,’’ said Fran Allison, “somebody very special.”
“If he lived to be one hundred years old,” said his only brother and sole survivor, Richard, “he probably would still be creating something. His shop was always busy.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Burr Tillstrom's induction in 1986.