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.
"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
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
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
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
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
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.