A Burr Tillstrom Biography


Curator's note: This document, dated January 12, 1956, was prepared by the promotions department of the American Broadcasting Company, presumably on the occasion of the return of Kukla, Fran and Ollie to WBKB that year. Thanks to Dick Carter, director emeritus of WTTW television, for providing it to me.

Burr Tillstrom, a remarkable young man who has made a fortune and won international fame with a pair of puppet "people", inauspiciously began his career at kindergarten age with two stuffed teddy bears as his first proteges.

Young "talent scout" Tillstrom, now general manager of the remarkable Kuklapolitan players, found the animals in the toy bin of his kindergarten classroom and promptle infused life into them as characters in a world of male-believe.

That was the first manifestation of the Tillstrom genius that has produced the wonderfully fanciful world of KUKKLA, FRAN AND OLLIE, the award-blessed video program seen on ABC-TV each weekday from 6 to 6:15 p.m., CST.

During the same stage of his life, young Burr began to manipulate dolls and other toy figures, trying to make them live in plots created in his immense imagination. He had the characters perfor on an orange crate stage framed with lace window curtains.

On one well-remembered occasion, when he was kept indoors because of an illness, he entertained the neighborhood children standing outside the window with a "show" staged on his window sill.

In an elementary school teacher Burr found an invaluable benefactor in the development of his talent. Through her help he gave a presentation of "Rip Van Winkle" in the garden of a neighbor.

The garden belonged to the sister of Tony Sarg, one of the most famous marionette artists of all time.

Here is where Burr became acquainted with puppets and marionettes for the first time. He immediately began to make and string his own puppet, launching a project that has carried on to the present time.

On graduating from Senn High School in Chicago, where he studied dramatics, Burr got a scholarship to the University of Chicago. He attended the university for a short time and left to perform in a puppet show for the WPA-Chicago Park District Theatre. It was during that period that Kukla, his first hand puppet creation, was born (1936). The bulbous-nosed fellow took his permanent position on Burr's right hand and, a couple of years later, was joined by Ollie, the one-toothed dragon from Dragon Retreat, Vt., who resides on Burr's left hand.

Kukla and Ollie accompanied their master to performances in state fairs, vaudeville and night clubs.

In 1939, troupe manager Tillstrom turned downan offer to tour Europe to take a post as manager of puppet exhibits and a marionette theatre at the famous Marshall Field and Company department store in Chicago. The day after he said "no" to Europe, he saw his first television show. It was a kind of love at first sight.

He decided that entertaining through that medium was his ultimate goal. He was convinced that this was not only the ideal medium for his talents, but that here lay the expansive future of the entertainment world.

Soon after that he got the opportunity to do a couple of experimental closed circuit telecasts from Field's and for RCA Victor. The latter company then sent him to Bermuda and to the New York World's Fair in 1940 to conduct the same pioneering shows.

When the was came, Burr was rejected for service and so he packed up his players and volunteered his and their services for hospital shows throughout the Midwest. During the next few years, Tillstrom's time was also occupied with various engagements in summer stock, theatre and charity shows.

In 1942 he was invited to do experimental TV work for station WBKB in Chicago, then an independent station owned by the Balaban and Katz theatre chain. It was over this same station in October, 1947, that he began his first regular television program under the title "Junior Jamboree". The show's title was later changed to carry the names of the principals --- "Kuklam Fran and Ollie".

Eight years and some 55 tleevision awards later, that same program, led by the creative genius of Burr TIllstrom, is delighting video viewers across the country.

Tillstrom, a native Chicagoan, was born on October 13, 1917, in a family of moderate means. From his mother he inherited a love of music and the arts; she often accompanied him on the piano for his early puppet shows. From his father he inheritied a love of nature and the great outdoors.

He says that what influenced him most in embarking on his career was his deep affection as a child for the Oz books, which he still reads with great enthusiasm. He keeps in touch with children;s likes and ways by collecting kiddie books and fairy tales.

His considerable acting ability in roles other than those the public knows through KUKLA, FRAN AND OLLIE, was visible for the first time to a TV audience last fall when he took the parts of the Mock Turtle and the Cheshire Cat on the NBC-TV presentation of "Alice in Wonderland". The performance was unanimously received by the critics and viewers as a masterpiece of acting.

He's a devoted fan of the ballet, an expert swimmer, and loves to take long bicycle rides (he once biked across Canada's Gaspe peninsula).

In the company of his parents or friends, Tillstrom has variously spent his summers on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, on the shores of Lake Michigan and in Europe. During the working year, he lives in Chicago in and old coachhouse he has remodeled with the help of Joseph Lockwood Jr., his show assistant and costume designer for the Kuklapolitans. These bachelor quarters were recently shown to TV viewers across the country when Edward R. Murrow visited Burr on a Friday telecast of his "Person to Person".

If he had time, Burr says, he would like to study archaeology or build model airplanes, ships and trains. But most of his spare hours invariably go into preparation of show materials and props, and lately, into developing new facts of and outlets for his and the Kuklapolitans' talents.

Return to the Burr Tillstrom index page

Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
Audio and video downloads
About the Curator

Comments or suggestions? click here to send them to Rich Samuels

Created by Rich Samuels (e-mail to rich@richsamuels.com)
< /BODY>