Allison - Hostess of one of the most delightful puppet shows
to ever debut on television, namely KUKLA FRAN AND OLLIE (which
originally premiered on 10/13/47 as JUNIOR JAMBOREE, a 60-minute
local show on WBKB-TV in Chicago). Puppeteer Burr Tillstrom provided
all the voices and manipulated all the puppets on the program. The
program was performed live and without script.
Kukla, Burr Tillstrom, Fran Allison &
Ollie the Dragon
Standing in front of
a scaled-down stage (a la Punch and Judy) the beautiful, blonde
hostess Fran Allison conversed with the likes of Kukla, a balding,
bulbous nosed "Everyman" with raised eyebrows and a tiny circular
mouth; and a buck toothed creature named Oliver "Ollie" J. Dragon
who was born in Dragon Retreat, Vermont and educated at Dragon Prep.
Many of the ideas for the show came from day-to-day problems and
encounters. If the weather was cold, or if someone was sick, it was
sure to be put into the show's dialogue. Each program began with
Kukla Fran and Ollie singing "Here we are...Yes, by gum and Yes, by
golly, Kukla Fran and Ollie..."
The secret to the show's charm was the special chemistry between
puppeteer Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison who treated the puppets
like real people. Reportedly, Fran never looked at the puppets back
stage so she could always retain the fantasy that the puppets were
Burr Tillstrom landed the job of working marionettes for the WPA
Chicago Parks District Theater in the 1930s His first puppet, Kukla
was made from fabric from a WPA (Works Progress Administration)
While freshman at the University of Chicago in 1936, Kukla derived
his name from an encounter with Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova
whom upon seeing the sweet little puppet exclaimed "Kukla", an
affectionate Russian word for doll.
Kukla's best friend Ollie originally didn't talk, but with the
premiere of "St. George and the Dragon" at the RCA exhibit of the
New York's World Fair in 1939, you couldn't keep him quiet.
Besides the characters, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the program spawned a
variety of puppet players known as the Kuklapolitans including:
- Beulah the Witch, a hooked-nosed hag with a wavering voice who rode
a jet-propelled broomstick (named after producer Beulah Zachary).
- Fletcher Rabbit, a droopy-eared Postman whose mother was a women's
- Mercedes, an attractive ingénue.
- Cecil Bill, a sailor turned stage manager with a language all his
- Colonel Crackie, a longwinded Southern gentlemen and escort of
Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss, a haughty former opera star.
- Dolores Dragon, Ollie's younger cousin.
- Olivia Dragon, Ollie's elderly mother, whose hair was a staggering
- Miss Clara Coo Coo, the official timekeeper of the North Pole.
The Kuklapolitans performed a number of stories including Alice in
Wonderland, Peter Rabbit, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, as
well as, historical stories about George Washington crossing the
Delaware, Thanksgiving tales of the Pilgrims and even a puppet
production of the "Mikado."
Tom Shales of the Washington Post once wrote of the Kuklapolitan
players "They were as gifted as an acting troupe in their own way as
any that ever trod the boards of any theater on Earth...They were
real in the fullest sense of the term."
The Kuklapolitans appeared on THE PERRY COMO SHOW, THE JACK PAAR
SHOW, THE SHARI LEWIS SHOW, NBC's CHILDREN THEATRE, THE TODAY SHOW
(election commentaries in 1960), THE DICK CAVETT SHOW, THE MIKE
DOUGLAS SHOW, THE MERV GRIFFIN SHOW, and the CBS CHILDREN'S FILM
FESTIVAL from 1967-71 (a series of one-hour film specials about
children around the world).
The Kuklapolitan players also appeared
on the news satire program THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS/NBC/1964-65.
An emotional hand ballet about the Berlin Wall Crisis won Tillstrom
a special Emmy on Individual Achievement in 1966.
In 1976, Burr Tillstrom created a new twenty-six week series of
KUKLA FRAN ANDS OLLIE for the PBS Network. In March of 1985 Burr
Tillstrom made an appearance with Kukla, Fran Allison and Ollie at
the Museum of Broadcasting in New York City.
Nine months later, on December 6, 1985, he died peacefully at his
Palm Springs home. Burr Tillstrom was inducted into the Television
Hall of Fame in March of 1986.
Fran Allison posthumously accepted his award. She later died on June
13, 1989 at age 83. Tillstrom's puppet collection was willed to the
Chicago Historical Society.
TRIVIA NOTE: In 1956, Burr Tillstrom needed to replace his worn out
puppet of Oliver J. (Jethro) Dragon III. The new Ollie sported a jaw
sawed from a warped pear crate; a yellow satin face; a chin made
from chamois; spots courtesy of a phony ocelot coat (once worn by
Imogene Coca of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS); hair of a Mongolian wolf; eyes
and a tooth cut from a kid's glove; lashes and brows clipped from
wool felt, and an interior lining of gold cloth.
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