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?