Recently, I ordered two DVD box sets of the television puppet show Kukla, Fran and Ollie, a production once beloved by many for its light humor, musical interludes, and guest appearances. Most people have forgotten about the powerful cultural impact this children’s puppet show had during the Golden Age of TV, not only for younger viewers, but for a significant number of adults as well. Some recent developments have provided a new path for audiences to discover more about this magical world and its memorable inhabitants.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie was created by Burr Tillstrom (1917–85), a talented Chicago-based puppeteer who dreamed of bringing his beloved art form to a wider audience. He joined the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and in 1936 staged a play by Gertrude Stein at the first American puppet festival in Detroit. The hand puppet Tillstrom created for this play was nicknamed Kukla (meaning “puppet” in Russian) by the Georgian-American ballerina Tamara Toumanova—and it stuck.
A few years later, Tillstrom ventured into the then-uncharted territory of broadcast television. His first project was an hour-long show, Junior Jamboree, which debuted for Chicago’s WBKB on October 13, 1947. It was an instant hit: the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that more than half of Chicago televisions tuned in to watch the show regularly, with an average of four viewers per set. Junior Jamboree was transferred to WNBQ on November 29, 1948, under a new name, Kukla, Fran and Ollie. It ran nationally on NBC for the first time on January 12, 1949.
The show’s main hand-held protagonists were the affable Kukla and the gregarious Ollie Jethro Dragon III, or just plain Ollie. Among a large cast of characters, these two comprised the heart and soul of the program, along with the only human character, Fran Allison. The radio comedienne and singer met Tillstrom on a war-bond tour during the Second World War, and they struck up a friendship and partnership that lasted decades. The supporting cast of puppets, or “Kuklapolitans,” included the whimsical Fletcher Rabbit, the mumbling Cecil Bill, the forceful Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss, and the eccentric Buelah Witch.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie had some unique characteristics. For one thing, it was completely ad-libbed. The humor would be regarded as pretty tame by today’s standards. Still, there were great moments of character interplay and commentary on politics, sports, and holidays that led to a few zingers and got the whole crew laughing hysterically on and off camera.
Many early episodes also appealed to adults instead of children. There’s an episode from March 7, 1949, on doing your income taxes. Selections from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were performed on April 12, 1950. Then there’s the unforgettable February 21, 1954, “dress rehearsal” of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which may arguably be the finest episode in the show’s history. Performing selections from a comic opera with puppets is difficult enough; making them engaging for children is a daunting task. Yet Tillstrom & co. accomplished it with panache by launching into popular arias like “Three little maids from school are we” and poking good-natured fun at the opera’s costumes, hairstyles, language, and falsetto voices. Like the contemporaneous Warner Bros. “opera” cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, the show brought the art form to life for young eyes and ears. Who knows? Some people may have been converted to the cause of opera via laughter that day.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie’s young fans were joined by celebrity admirers like Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, the cartoonist Milton Caniff, and the two-time Democratic presidential nominee Adlai E. Stevenson. Edward Albee based the character of Grandma in his one-act play The American Dream (1961) on Buelah. The actress Tallulah Bankhead was “a fanatically faithful viewer” who asked friends to take notes on shows she missed—and filled in for Allison for two weeks when the latter was ill.
Why did Kukla, Fran and Ollie appeal to people from so many different walks of life? For one, the (mostly) puppet crew engaged audiences by not only sounding and acting human, but speaking directly to them. The fourth wall was broken on a near-daily basis, and viewers often felt like they were in on the joke or routine. This genuine relationship between the imaginary Kuklapolitans and the TV camera turned out to be more meaningful than what one would normally expect from mere puppet theater. Audiences cherished the lack of condescension it entailed.
TV critics of the day sensed this. The New York Times’s Jack Gould called it “the most charming and heartwarming excursion into pure make-believe that is to be found in television today.” The Chicago Daily Tribune’s Larry Wolters went even further when he wrote, “what Walt Disney has done in the movies Tillstrom will do in television.”
The show inspired many young people to become puppeteers. Tillstrom mentored the ventriloquist and puppeteer Shari Lewis, who created the famous puppets Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse, and Hush Puppy. Jim Henson was inspired by Tillstrom, too. Henson’s first TV series, Sam and Friends (1955), which included an early version of Kermit the Frog, featured his own repertory company of puppets just like Tillstrom’s Kuklapolitans. In a 1979 New York Times interview, Henson noted that while “Tillstrom and the Bairds had more to do with the beginning of puppets on television than we did . . . they had developed their art and style to a certain extent before television.”
Kukla, Fran and Ollie won a Peabody Award in 1949 and a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1954. It also ran on NET (now PBS) between 1969 and 71, and the three co-hosted the CBS Children’s Film Festival from 1967–79, earning Tillstrom an individual Emmy in 1971. Alas, tastes change and people change. Kukla, Fran and Ollie gradually fell out of favor with audiences, replaced by Lewis, Henson’s Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and The Electric Company. Tillstrom died in 1985, Allison in 1989.
A lack of public awareness soon followed. Tillstrom’s “adamant refusal to market the show and do the kind of merchandising that made Howdy [Doody] so ubiquitous” didn’t help matters, according to Mark Milano, the curator of the website kukla.tv and the producer behind the aforementioned DVD reissue. With limited video releases and little available online, the show’s appeal to future generations barely registered a pulse.
Until recently, that is. Last February, Milano announced that all seven-hundred surviving Kukla, Fran and Ollie episodes would be released on an official YouTube channel, in collaboration with the Burr Tillstrom Copyright Trust, the Jane Henson Foundation, the Chicago History Museum, Puppeteers of America, and Global Video Chicago.
Unfortunately, most people are unaware of Kukla, Fran and Ollie’s revival. That’s a real shame, but maybe we can change it. People who watched the show growing up should get a kick out of Milano’s project. It will hopefully help reinvigorate interest in this groundbreaking children’s puppet show, and introduce it to a whole new generation of viewers. To paraphrase from Kukla, Fran and Ollie’s opening song, “Here we are (once) again!” I, for one, am glad they’re back.