Meet the Kuklapolitans

CURATOR'S NOTE: The text and pictures below are from an article by Richard Gehman that appeared in Theatre Arts magazine in October, 1950.

But first, here's a chronological note: "Junior Jamboree", featuring Burr Tillstrom, his puppet creations and Fran Allison made its television debut on WBKB (Balaban and Katz, channel 4) in the fall of 1947. The show, renamed "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" moved to the Merchandise Mart Studios in January of 1949 following the completion of the coaxial cable linking the East Coast and the Midwest.

"Kukla, Fran and Ollie" was originally broadcast over NBC from 6:00 to 6:30 PM Chicago time, Mondays through Fridays.

In November of 1951, following the loss of a sponsor, the show was cut back to fifteen minutes. Sponsor interest continued to dwindle. In the fall of 1952, "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" reappeared as a weekly, half-hour broadcast on Sunday afternoons. During the 1952-53 season, the series was only half-sponsored; during the 1953-54 season it was entirely sustaining until December, when a sponsor was found. NBC canceled "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" the end of the 1953-54 season when the sponsor failed to renew.

Jack, Burr and Fran
Jack Fascianato, Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison

The day before, when they had done their version of "The Mikado", everything had gone very well, even Ollie's entrance as Lieutenant Pinkerton (somehow he had got the idea that they were doing "Madame Butterfly"). Now Burr and Fran and Beulah and Lew were sitting around wondering what to do on that afternoon's show. Burr said he thought the kids might talk over their performance of the day before. Fran said she thought a post-mortem might be funny---everybody could be very sweet at first, she said, and wind up battling. Beulah and Lew agreed, and the four of them went to talk to Jack, who was in the studio sitting at his piano. Joe came in then, heard what the show was going to consist of, and went backstage to fuss with some props. With no more preparation than that, another episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie was ready to go out to about five-million television sets.


For the benefit of hermit subscribers, it should be explained here that Kukla, Fran and Ollie is a sensationally successful television show currently being shown on about sixty stations. The people mentioned above need no introduction; but, again for the hermits, here is who they are. Burr is Burr Tillstrom, a quiet, blue-eyed puppeteer in his early thirties. Fran is a tall, slender, grey-haired girl who talks to Burr's puppets. Beulah Zachary is the show's producer, Jack Fascianato is the director of music, Joe Lockwood is costumer and prop man, and Lew Gomavitz is director and all-around troubleshooter. Ollie is Mr. Oliver J. Dragon, a gentle member of his species who has soulful eyes, a single tooth, and a body that looks suspiciously like leopard skin. Ollie modestly admits to being the star of the show, but his claim is sometimes disputed by admirers of Kukla, the other puppet principal. Kukla is not entirely sure just what he is; once Fran told him he was a blessing, and although he settled for that, the question of identity still bothers him occasionally. In appearance he somewhat resembles a small boy, although he is bald and has a nose like a bright red doorknob.

Fran and Ollie

Fran Allison and Ollie
Story conferences and preparations for any day's presentation of Kukla, Fran and Ollie are seldom more elaborate than those described in the first paragraph. No frantic sponsors, nail-bitten gagmen or ulcerous advertising agency executives intrude upon the quiet meetings that are held in the afternoon in three small rooms in the NBC studios on the 19th floor of Chicago's Merchandise Mart; no script has ever littered the floor. Burr Tillstrom and his associates simply talk over their program and then go and do it; it is no more complicated than that. Once an agency man suggested to Burr that he could use a writer; Burr stared at him a moment and left the room. Beulah, who has steel-grey hair and a temperament to match when the occasion demands, has spent large portions of her time reading the riot act to assorted Philistines who have insisted, sometimes bluntly and sometimes insinuatingly, that the show could not last without formalization. She has always won her battles; Kukla, Fran and Ollie is not only not formalized, it is perhaps the most blithely informal program on the coaxial cable. It won sixteen awards in 1949 alone; the kids (Burr never refers to his puppets as puppets) are national figures and Fran's admirers would more than fill the Chicago telephone directory.

Fletcher Rabbit
Fletcher Rabbit

To those remaining humans in the United States who have never seen this show, the idea of a girl talking to an assortment of puppets may not sound, at first, like an exciting one. Yet that is substantially all that happens. Kukla and Ollie come on stage, talk for a while, and are ultimately joined by Fran. Sometimes Kukla and Ollie give way to one of the other characters---Cecil Bill, the stage hand, whose squeaks and twitterings are intelligible only to Kukla; Madame Ooglepuss, a red-haired lady with a horribly crooked noes and the manner of a grande dame; Colonel Cracky, a Southern gentleman; Fletcher Rabbit, the postman, who sometimes starches his floppy white ears; the naughty Mercedes, Clara Coo Coo, or Beulah Witch. All the Kuklapolitans have strong, identifiable characters; each of them represents the facets of the collective human personality. There is not much slapstick as one ordinarily expects of a puppet show.

Beulah Witch
Beulah Witch

The informality, although important, is not the main ingredient of the show's success. Television is perhaps the most personal and intimate of the visual media; its players, dropped as they are into the audience's lap, can't get by for long on sheer virtuosity. Burr and Fran have been successful not merely because they are artists but because they have been able to communicate their warmth and conviction clearly and strongly. Burr made the first Kukla fifteen years ago. He was going to send it to a friend, but as he was packing the box he looked down at the little face and couldn't bear to send it away. Since then he has worn out eight Kuklas; they lie in a drawer in his workshop, sixteen button eyes staring up almost reproachfully. Each time Burr must make a new one, he feels a twinge of regret. So does Fran. Last year when the show went to Washington for a week, Burr took a new Kukla; as they were starting out, Fran remarked wistful that it was a shame that the old one hadn't got to make the trip. That was not a remark calculated for the fan magazines and the gossip columns; it was genuine feeling. Both Burr and Fran, quite literally, love and believe in the kids. They are her friends, they are his alter egos.

Colonel and Madame
Colonel Cracky and Madame Ooglepuss

Fran, in fact, believes so implicitly in her fellow Kuklapolitans that it sometimes takes her a couple of days to get completely accustomed to a new version of one of them. Although she may not be wholly aware of it, Burr was originally responsible for her belief. When she first came to work with Kukla, Ollie and their supporting cast, Burr had noted that she had just the slightest touch of condescension in her voice. She understood the job she had to do, she was quick-witted and imaginative (few females have ever approached her gift for ad-libbing), but she wasn't quite right; she was thinking of the kids as puppets, not as beings with personalities of their own. Burr knew that he would somehow have to change her attitude without mentioning it to her, since pointing it out might have made her self-conscious. Accordingly, one day Kukla and Ollie (Burr is the voice and manipulator of al nine puppets) began talking about female habits that were distasteful to men. They talked gently and reservedly, not speaking directly to Fran, but they managed to tough her femininity, and within a few minutes she was defending her sex spiritedly. From that program on, she was never condescending again.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie started out as a show designed for children. It's difficult to decide, today, whether it is still that; it could be called a children's show for adults, or an adult's show for children. Like Alice in Wonderland, to which it has been compared on many occasions, it is for everybody. Actually, it is not much different from impromptu shows that Burr used to give for friends at parties around the time when he first made Kukla (Toumanova, the ballet dancer, named the little fellow ; "Kukla", is Russian for "doll.") At that time, Kukla simple commented on things that were on Burr's mind; Burr was in a theatrical group, and Kukla used to criticize the actors' performances. It is the same today. Kukla, Ollie, Madame Ooglepuss, Colonel Cracky, Beulah Witch and the rest simply talk about things on Burr's mind. Once he and Fran and the kids were invited to Pleasantville, New York, to visit the Reader's Digest crowd. They were given a kind of Royal Tour and taken in to see the desk where Lila Acheson Wallace has her creative spasms. Later they gave a show for the manorial hired hands. "What magazine did you say this was?" Ollie whispered to Kukla. "Coronet?"

Stray thoughts, fragments of ideas, letters or gifts from fans---anything that touches Burr's being ultimately comes out on the show. He likes to read science fiction; Ollie does too, and sometimes discourses on atomic energy or galactic war. Burr loves to go to parties; the Kuklapolitans are always discussing good times they had at parties the night before. When I first went to Chicago last summer to meet Burr and gather material for this piece, he misunderstood my name and called me Bob; he continued to do so until another friend corrected him. On that day's show, Fran invited Ollie to go with her to a carnival. "I can't," he said, "I have a dinner engagement. A fellow is here to write a magazine story about me." Fran asked what the fellow's name was. Ollie hesitated. "Why, ah, it's---uh---Bob," he finished, triumphantly, and vanished downstairs to his dressing room.

Burr wears a crew cut but sometimes lets his brownish hair get long enough to comb back and stand to the right. He likes to go on bicycle trips and is a good swimmer; in summer, he and Beulah and Lew and Fran and the rest often hold story conferences on the rocks along Chicago's endless lakefront. Burr lives with his parents in an unpretentious apartment out Evanston way. He spends most of the morning and early afternoon hours in his workshop, where he is currently working on marionettes for a soon-to-be-produced version of the Wizard of Oz; when he gets tired working he wanders upstairs and talks to a three-inch green parakeet who knows that his name is Buster Tillstrom, can whistle the Kukla, Fran and Ollie theme, and can tell when it's time to go to bed. Burr has never quite become accustomed to the fact that he is a celebrity. Last year in New York, a friend took him backstage at "South Pacific" to meet Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. Miss Martin, an ardent Kukla, Fran and Ollie follower, overwhelmed him with questions about the kids, and Pinza confided that he had had to buy a second television set because, as he explained sadly, his children had deserted the Kuklapolitans for another show that came on at the same time. Burr, who had just been bowled over by the Pinza-Martin performances, could scarcely grasp what was going on; for one frightened moment he thought they were ribbing him. When celebrities in other fields write Kukla and Ollie letters of unashamed devotion, Burr still wonders if there hasn't been some mistake.

Although he could hardly be called shy, Burr is diffident and unassuming to a degree seldom achieved by theatrical folk. Mostly he stays with a small knot of friends, talking about almost everything but his own activities. His reticence vanishes the instant he gets behind the Kuklapolitan stage, where he is commanding and sure, a master at his work. He operates standing erect, behind a translucent screen, resting his puppet-clad arms on a ledge and keeping his eyes to the right, watching a tiny monitor-screen that shows him what the kids are doing out front. He has developed an incredible dexterity in changing from one character to the other. The kids hang heads downward on little hooks under his arm-rest; when one of them comes off stage, Burr slips a small loop at the bottom of the puppet's costume onto a hook, pulls out his arm, and shoves it down into the body of the next character awaiting a cue. Joe Lockwood, standing behind him, dresses the kids as they are waiting to go on and hands over props as needed.

Burr's active interest in puppetry dates from the year he was fourteen, when a sister of the famous Tony Sarg encouraged him to construct marionettes of his own. In the mid-Thirties he worked with the Chicago Park District Theater and later took his act into carnivals, fairs and night clubs. In 1939, just as he was all set to go to Europe with a marionette troupe, he was offered a chance to put on a weekly Saturday morning puppet show for children in the Marshall field department store. He stayed in Chicago and ultimately did the first Balaban and Katz telecast over Station WBKB in 1941. That convinced him that television was the medium in which he could work at best advantage. When he first began doing a series in 1947, the sponsors wanted an hour-long program. Astonished at being offered so much time, Burr decided that he couldn't work alone--but at the same time, the idea of anybody else manipulating his own creations was unthinkable. He thereupon got in touch with Fran---who was then, as she is now, doing the Aunt Fanny part on Don McNeil's Breakfast Club. Fran, an Iowan, had been a schoolteacher before coming to Chicago, which may account in part for her patient, easygoing manner and her understanding of burr's kids. She, Kukla, Ollie and the rest got along very well from the beginning. The original sponsor, RCA, has been supplemented by two more, Sealtest and Ford; last year the show moved to WNBQ, the NBC outlet in Chicago.

Burr and Fran have never regarded their program as anything but an occasion for fun. He is constantly trying to throw her a line that will catch her off guard; quite often, just the reverse happens. ("She breaks me up all the time," he says, happily). Fran has contributed a great deal to the Kuklapolitans' genealogical background. One day Ollie, an alumnus of Dragon Prep, asked Kukla if he happened to know where Beulah Witch had gone to school. Kukla didn't know, but Fran did. "Why, she went to Witch Normal," she said. Shortly after that, Beulah Witch began mentioning her days at Witch Normal with increasing nostalgia, and to date the school has been equipped with a faculty and a set of rigid traditions.

The phenomenal success of Kukla and Ollie---one magazine repotted that Burr last year signed a million dollar contract running five years---hasn't materially altered Burr's life. He dresses better than he used to and he has a chauffeur service that picks him up and carries him about Chicago, but his ambitions are the same as when he was struggling. He collects books on the history of puppetry and some day hopes to do one of his own. He wants very much to perpetuate puppetry as an art form. "In America it dates back at least to the 17th century---and the ancient Chinese and other orientals used puppets and shadow figures in religious plays and pageants. But for some reason, people in this country've always been kind of haughty about puppets. They seem to think that they're only for kids. A puppet theater---that's what we need." Burr hopes to establish a puppet center in Chicago, a school and theater combined, and has already sounded out some potential backers. Meanwhile, until he is ready to go to work on his plan, he will continue with Kukla, Ollie and their friends. The format of the show will not change; there will be no script, no sponsor dictatorship. If, as seems unlikely, he ever should be maneuvered into a position where it will be impossible to do the show his own way, he will simply retire from television for good. "After all," he stated recently, "we can always go back to the Marshall Field show."

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