Kukla, Fran and Update

It’s our mission here at Mister Boomer to provide entertaining and informative content for baby boomers and beyond. As such, it is vitally important to us to relay information that is as accurate as it is fun. Last week, astute reader Leslie commented on a discrepancy in the story about the origins of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Specifically, Mister B mistakenly thought that Burr Tillstrom, creator of the show, got his start in radio. In fact, host Fran Allison was a radio star, but Mr. Tillstrom was not. In Mister B’s zeal to condense volumes of information, he muddled the facts. Here is Burr Tillstrom’s and Kuka, Fran and Ollie’s more complete story:

Burr Tillstrom (Franklin Burr Tillstrom, born in Chicago in 1917) created a puppet that later was to be called “Kukla,” for a friend in 1936. He liked the puppet so much he decided to keep it for himself, and made a different puppet for his friend. The puppet remained nameless until the Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova, on seeing the puppet peeking into her dressing room, called it “kukla,” which is the Russian word for doll. Tillstrom gave the name to the puppet, which he used as the basis for the Kuklapolitan Players from then on.

Tillstrom began performing puppet shows at an early age. In 1938, he became the manager of the puppet exhibits and marionette theater at Marshall Field and Company in Chicago. Tillstrom caught the attention of the RCA Victor company, and as a result, he was asked to perform for a Midwest demonstration tour in the late 1930s. Due to the success of his shows, he was invited to present his Kuklapolitan Players at the 1939 World’s Fair as a way of demonstrating RCA’s new product: television. It is said he performed over 2,000 shows, but each was different since Tillstrom preferred unscripted, ad-libbed performances that were often based on his reacting and responding to the audience and celebrity guests. He carried that format throughout his career.

During World War II, Tillstrom performed benefits on behalf of the USO, and also in bond-selling rallies. At a rally in Chicago, Tillstrom met Fran Allison, who was a radio comedienne and singer. In 1947, Tillstrom was asked to create a local, hour-long television program for a 13-week trial run in Chicago, to be aired on WBKB five days a week. The producers decided the show needed a pretty face, so Tillstrom called on Fran to join the troupe as the only visible human. The show was called Junior Jamboree. A few months later, the show’s title was changed to Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Burr Tillstrom with his Dolores Dragon puppet. Dolores was the cousin of Ollie (Oliver J. Dragon). On the left is Fran Allison, to the right is Tallulah Bankhead, who was a friend and fan of the show. Image is in the public domain as a publicity photo.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie
went national on NBC in 1948 for five nights a week, where it remained until 1952. In 1954, ABC picked up the show and it continued until 1957. The show was one of the most influential and popular TV programs of the early boomer era. It influenced all of the puppeteers who came after him, including Shari Lewis and Jim Henson, who was a personal friend. Tillstrom was a constant promoter of puppetry and puppeteers. He introduced Henson to Bernie Brillstein, who was instrumental in getting Henson’s Muppets on TV. In 1960, Burr Tillstrom staged a Broadway production called An Evening with Kukla, Burr and Ollie; the show, like his TV shows before them, had ad-libbed elements throughout.

Tillstrom died in December 1985. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recognized Burr Tillstrom for his significant contributions to the art of television by posthumously inducting him into the Hall of Fame in March of 1986.

Hey boomers, what role did Burr Tillstrom play in your TV viewing history?

Boomer Kids Said, “I’m Your Puppet”

After World War II, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) discovered that many TV stations in various cities around the country were located too close to each other, which resulted in broadcast interference. As a result, the FCC issued “The Freeze” of 1948, which put a halt to all licenses for new construction of television stations. Most people anticipated the freeze would be a short-term interruption, but it became a four-year stint. Some stations were required to shift to new VHF channels, while others were moved to the new UHF designation. It wasn’t until 1952 that the FCC agreed to grow television stations from the existing 108 to around 550, but it would take another five years to reach that total.

Meanwhile, the sales of televisions continued to grow, which in turn increased the need for more broadcasting. In the early 1950s, children’s programming was positioned as a benefit to owning a TV, as a way to sell more TVs. By 1951, there were 27 hours of broadcast children’s programming that were mainly action-adventure shows like Sky King and Lassie, and puppet-oriented shows. With more hours of broadcasting to fill for an ever-widening audience and limited budgets, TV stations quickly realized that they could produce children’s shows more inexpensively than action-adventure shows. Now with an expanding audience, the assumption was that families would watch TV together. As a result, programs would be written to please adults as well as children. To further save money, they discovered that puppets could fit the bill as main characters. Much to the delight of TV producers, adults and kids loved the characters.

For Mister Boomer, three puppet-based shows emerged as the ones he remembers the most from his early viewing days. They were The Howdy Doody Show; Kukla, Fran and Ollie; and The Shari Lewis Show.

The Howdy Doody Show
The Howdy Doody Show (1947-1960) was one of the first of the kids’ puppet shows, making its debut in 1947. Due to a dispute with the original Howdy marionette, the puppet changed in 1948 to the freckle-faced, red-haired boy that most boomers recall. Howdy was a marionette-style puppet manipulated by strings. The show set the standard for TV puppet shows to follow, and became the first children’s show to be broadcast five days a week. The show had a mix of live characters and puppets. The puppets were treated as though they were human, immediately tweaking the imaginations of the young viewers.

Kids sat in a special live audience section called The Peanut Gallery as boomers of a certain age will no doubt recall.

Puppets for the show included Howdy Doody; Phineas T. Bluster as mayor of the mythical city of Doodyville; another boy named Dilly Dally; Flub-a-dub, which was a character composed of eight different animals; and Princess Summerfall Winterspring. She was one of the few females to appear on the show, and the character also had the distinction of transferring from first being a puppet character to later becoming a live character.

Among the live characters were Buffalo Bob, who served as the main host; the bumbling Chief Thunderthud; and Clarabell Hornblow, a clown. Chief Thunderthud, as leader of the Ooragnak tribe (“kangaroo” spelled backward) is credited with introducing “Kawabunga” into the American lexicon. Clarabell, boomers will remember, didn’t speak, but rather communicated with horn honks. The clown’s skits often included slapstick scenes involving squirting a seltzer bottle. Speaking of “kangaroo,” the original actor who played Clarabell was Bob Keeshan, who left the show in 1952 to host Captain Kangaroo.

By 1952, there were 19 million TV sets in American homes. In order to address a rising belief that movies, radio and TV broadcasts were contributing to the corrupting of American morals, the first Congressional hearing on violence on TV was held in June of 1952. After 13 days of hearings, the Congressional committee adjourned, saying the range of subjects was too disorganized, beliefs too far and afield, and the general feeling was that industry self-regulation was the way to go. The industry was changing in many ways, not impervious to public sentiment, but always maintaining a safe distance from too much controversy in order to keep the government from stepping in.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie
Fran Allison was the human host in Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1948-1957). She stood in front of a stage-like setting reminiscent of the historical Punch & Judy puppet show theaters, and spoke to Kukla, who was a clown puppet, and Ollie, a single-toothed dragon, along with a few other character puppets. They were sock-type puppets, meaning the puppet was placed over the hand of the puppeteer, unlike the marionette strings that controlled Howdy Doody.

The show had its origins as a radio program, then as live performances when creator and puppeteer Burr Tillstrom took his Kuklapolitans show on the road in 1936. During the War his troupe toured, selling War Bonds. What separated Tillstrom’s show from others was that he worked almost entirely unscripted, getting the staff together for a one paragraph outline before each performance. That style of spontaneity endeared his puppets to the audience with their timely, witty satire of popular culture. Mr. Tillstrom continued that method with his TV show, making it a favorite among adults and children. At the time, some asked if it was a children’s show that adults could like, or whether it was an adult show that kids could like. Unlike The Howdy Doody Show, Tillstrom rejected calls for merchandising his characters to children.

Mister Boomer recalls watching the show with his brother. Mister B especially liked when Ollie the dragon would slam his wooden jaw down to make a point, or roll over to rest on the top of his head when he was love-struck or being endearing.

The Shari Lewis Show
The Shari Lewis Show (1960-1963) won just about every TV award possible in its three-year run, including 12 Emmy Awards and a Peabody in 1960. Unlike the other shows mentioned, The Shari Lewis Show debuted as a Saturday morning show. Saturday mornings were long known to be the time when television had its fewest number of viewers, so programmers began to move children’s shows from evening broadcasts to the Saturday slots, and more shows were specifically created and targeted to the child demographic.

Shari Lewis was the creator, main puppeteer and ventriloquist for the show. Like Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Ms. Lewis spoke to her character puppets, but there was no stage between them. Her main character was a sock-style puppet called Lamb Chop. Among her other puppet characters were Charlie Horse, Hush Puppy and Wing Ding.

Though Mister B liked Lamb Chop’s outrageous behavior — she could scream about practically anything — the show was not among his favorites. Yet the personable Ms. Lewis and her characters remain vividly etched in his memory of early TV viewing.

But Wait, There’s More
There were many other shows that employed puppetry, of course. Supercar (1961) was one of Mister B’s favorites. It was a British import, and unlike its predecessors, did not feature a human on-screen. The marionette puppets acted out scripted story lines centered around a car that could fly through air and space, drive on a road, or dive underwater.

Perhaps Mister Boomer’s all-time favorite show that utilized puppets was The Soupy Sales Show (1959-1966). It wasn’t a puppet-oriented show per se, but had three main puppet characters: White Fang and Black Tooth, who were oversized dogs that would appear on screen only as arms and paws, and a sock-puppet named Pookie the Lion. In early shows, Pookie only spoke with whistles. Later, the character was given a voice and a personality as a Jazz aficionado who often sang or danced to current Jazz music. The puppets were part of the zany live cast, and like the three puppet shows mentioned, interacted directly with the human characters.

There is so much Mister B liked about The Soupy Sales Show that he’ll be featuring it as a separate entry soon.

By the mid-’60s, puppet shows were fading away. TV networks had discovered that animated cartoons were cheaper to produce due to advancements in technology, so a fresh crop joined Mighty Mouse and soon dominated Saturday mornings.

Though most of the puppet shows would be considered primitive by today’s standards, puppets entertained and educated us from our earliest days of TV viewing. The shows set the standard for kids’ comedy, and played a major role in bringing American culture to young viewers, along with story lines of manners and morality.

What memories of puppets on TV do you recall, boomers?