In the past couple years, two groundbreaking children’s television programs have received some well-deserved attention: In 2019, Sesame Street celebrated 50 years on the air, complete with a heartfelt tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors, and two films released within a year of each other — the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the biographical drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — led audiences to revisit Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Both of these cultural icons revolutionized educational programming and used puppetry to capture kids’ imaginations.
But before Oscar the Grouch’s trash can and King Friday’s castle, a quirky, low-budget, almost entirely improvised puppet show ran on national television, filmed from a simple puppet stage here in Chicago. Kukla, Fran and Ollie starred Fran Allison, a human host, opposite a madcap cast of puppets, all voiced and puppeteered by a Chicago native named Burr Tillstrom. The two main puppet characters were foils for one another: Kukla, a charming, innocent boy with a cherubic singing voice, and Ollie, a gruff, macho dragon. Other “Kuklapolitans” on the show included Fletcher, an earnest rabbit; Mrs. Bufthorpington, an excitable hen; and Beulah, a tough-talking witch. John Steinbeck, Orson Wells, and Thornton Wilder all counted themselves as fans of the show.
Burr Tillstrom was born on the North Side in 1917. As he told an NBC reporter in 1961, he was drawn to puppeteering at a very young age, using his toys and dolls “to duplicate a miniature version of a play I had seen or a book I had read, or a vaudeville or stage show I might have seen.”
In a stroke of good fortune, his neighbor was the sister of a puppeteer named Tony Sarg, who designed some of the giant inflatable floats for the 1928 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and performed for millions of visitors during the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Sarg evidently took interest in the imaginative young boy: Tillstrom gave some of his first puppet shows on a makeshift stage in the Sarg family’s backyard. He continued puppeteering in the theater program at Senn High School and in college at the University of Chicago.
The summer after his first year at U. of C., Tillstrom left school for a job with the Chicago Parks District, which had recently created an outdoor marionette theater troupe with funding by the Works Progress Administration. His work for the parks led to other opportunities, including performances in Chicago Public Schools throughout the ’40s and for troops at the Great Lakes naval service center during World War II. He also performed weekly at Marshall Field’s, which he continued even after his TV career started to take off.
Tillstrom’s early work mostly consisted of scripted, moralistic marionette shows. In one representative script from his archives, called “Ned and Nancy in Groceryland,” a boy and a girl who want to eat dessert for the rest of their lives are visited by a parade of singing, dancing, and punning fruits and vegetables until they realize the error of their ways. But even then, Tillstrom used a small hand puppet named “Kukla” to perform pantomimes in the space between acts. Kukla, a Russian word for “doll,” was a name bestowed upon the puppet by the Georgian-born ballerina Tamara Toumanova, who was a friend of Tillstrom’s.
Unlike the scripted marionette dramas, Kukla’s interstitials were mostly improvised and spontaneous. Tillstrom seems to have thought of Kukla as an extension of his own personality. “Kukla could talk to anyone and everyone,” he told NBC. “When I was too young or too ignorant to have an answer, Kukla took over. What would have been naïve, coming from me, sounded funny from Kukla.”
In 1947, Tillstrom was invited to perform as an act on Junior Jamboree, a local kids’ variety show on WBKB (what became the local ABC affiliate). Rather than bring his marionettes, he decided it would be Kukla and his dragon friend Ollie, along with actress Fran Allison, that would make up his cast. Unlike most children’s television today, which is geared toward specific age groups, Junior Jamboree was designed for kindergarteners and teenagers alike, combining a clown host, interviews with kids, and even short documentary films.
The magic combination of Kukla, Ollie, and Allison was so popular that, within a year, they transferred over to WNBQ (local NBC), and earned their own half-hour of television every weekday. By 1949, Kukla, Fran and Ollie was broadcast on 14 NBC affiliates, and the show continued to air nationally until 1957.
The need to improvise a new hourlong show five days a week meant that ideas for episodes could come from Tillstrom, Allison, or any crew member. Perhaps it came from the early days of competing for the attention of Junior Jamboree’s teenage viewers, or simply from Tillstrom’s own taste, but these ideas were often quite grown-up. In a March 1949 episode, Fran complained about her tax returns, and in April of that year the show lampooned a Life magazine article on high- and lowbrow culture.
Bob Banner, a production assistant who would later co-produce the Carol Burnett Show, remembers a planning meeting for one of the first Kukla, Fran and Ollie episodes he worked on:
“[Tillstrom] turned to me — I was basically a glorified runner on the show — and he said, ‘What’d you do last night?’ I hated to tell him what I did, because I’d gone to see La bohème at the opera — the Met was on tour in Chicago. I thought puppeteers wouldn’t know about opera for goodness’s sake! [But] I said, ‘I went to see La bohème last night.’ And he said, ‘Terrific! We’ll do a take-off on La bohème.’ Fran said, ‘I want to sing Mimì.’ And I said, ‘Should I go to the library and bring you a score?’ And they said no, and the pianist started playing and Fran started singing. I was astonished!”
After Kukla, Fran and Ollie’s run ended in 1957, Tillstrom continued to produce shorter puppet segments for NBC, as well as some work for adult audiences. On the American version of the short-lived news satire show That Was the Week That Was, his puppet-free hands starred in a tragic love story about the Berlin Wall.
Tillstrom never managed to recapture the success of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. A 1970 reboot of the show, produced by WTTW for the national network that became PBS, didn’t garner the same praise as Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which had recently taken American airwaves by storm.
Caroll Spinney, the longtime voice and puppeteer of Sesame Street’s Big Bird who passed away in December, told a television academy interviewer he thought Kukla, Fran and Ollie might have been more interesting to other performers than it was to average viewers, adding that it had a profound influence on him and Muppets creator Jim Henson as young puppeteers.
“It was inside theater kind of stuff. It was really intellectual,” Spinney said, adding that Tillstrom was kind and generous on the occasions the two met in person. “Burr Tillstrom was a really sweet guy. He was a wonderful man.”
In the 1980s, Kukla and Ollie appeared live in Chicago once again, this time onstage at the Goodman Theatre. Tillstrom died in 1986; in 2015, he was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. However, his papers live on at the Chicago History Museum, as does Kukla, Fran and Ollie on YouTube: In February, the Burr Tillstrom Copyright Trust began uploading the show’s entire run, one episode per evening.