The Kuklapolitan Website was pleased to receive permission from Don Glut to publish excerpts from this excellent history of early TV (for which Burr wrote transcripts of some early shows). The book is out of print, but if you can find a used copy, buy it!
Great Television Heroes, Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Copyright © 1975 by Donald F. Glut & Jim Harmon, All Rights Reserved
To many of us, Kukla, Fran and Ollie was the reason we ate our supper in the living room before a rounded television screen in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There was real magic, the kind that could bring figures of cotton and cloth to life, when we heard pianist Jack Fascinato play the show's theme song, composed by Fascinato with lyrics by Burr Tillstrom, and sung by Kukla, the little Everyman, blonde Fran Allison, and a friendly dragon named Ollie:
Here we are,
In many ways Kukla, Fran and Ollie was a television "first." The show, which began in 1947 as a local program on Chicago's WBKB, became the very first East-to-West network show in January 1949, when the NBC coaxial cable linking the big cities east of the Mississippi went into operation. The program was the first puppet show in the classic sense to feature a live person conversing with the puppets. By tradition puppet shows have not included real people in order to sustain a sense of reality in the miniature performers. But blonde and pretty Fran Allison hardly seemed out of place when she stepped before the scaled-down stage and became involved in the lives of Kukla, his best friend Oliver J. Dragon (affectionately known as Ollie) and the rest of their puppet friends. Kukla, Fran and Ollie was also television's first theatrical troupe.Among all the Kuklapolitan players, it was Kukla himself that kept everything stabilized. Kukla did most of the worrying and always felt responsible for the actions of the other characters. When one's best friend happens to be a dragon with a propensity for trouble, that responsibility can feel heavy indeed.
Ollie the dragon joined the Kuklapolitans long before their debut on local television. Dragons are traditional characters in puppet shows because of the up-and-down action of the mouth. Tillstrom, attempting to maintain a feel of the traditional, created Ollie in 1938. But while most dragons were fire-breathing monsters, Ollie was a softhearted creature with soulful eyes and a single tooth protruding from his grinning mouth. Not so much as a wisp of smoke ever came from that snapping mouth, and in the early days, neither did a single word. At first content merely to snap his mouth open and shut and move his long neck, Ollie gained a voice by necessity when the Kuklapolitans presented a pageant of St. George and the Dragon at the RCA exhibit of the New York World's Fair in 1939. Once Ollie could speak he gained his distinct personality. He sang in a baritone which contrasted nicely with Kukla's higher-pitched voice. And he developed an impetuousness with which to voice his strong opinions and objections.
Just as Burr Tillstrom was the voices of Kukla and Ollie, so were they the voice of their creator. Kukla accompanied Tillstrom wherever he went in those days before Kukla, Fran and Ollie and entertained impromptu at parties, answering people's questions. "Kukla was really smart with people," says Tillstrom. "He could talk to everyone and anyone. When I was too young or too ignorant to have an answer, Kukla took over. What would have been naive coming from me sounded funny coming from Kukla." Ollie mouthed Tillstrom's own objections. If his car got stuck in one of Chicago's heavy winter snows, Ollie had something to say about it on that evening's show.
To Ollie, nothing was more enjoyable than to dance in the park on a warm spring afternoon. Of course, the sight of a dragon cavorting among the flowers and birds would usually cause a small riot. Kukla would receive a telephone call from the police station asking him to bail out a dragon who had been arrested for disturbing the peace. When Kukla later reprimanded Ollie over the matter, the friendly dragon seemed hardly "reformed."
KUKLA: Ollie, I don't know how you get yourself into these things.
OLLIE: It's easy - if you're a dragon.
KUKLA: But dancing on the green in Lincoln Park . . . whatever got into you?
OLLIE: Spring fever, Kukla, spring fever. Haven't you ever just felt so happy you wanted to go out and cavort with the birds and the daffodils?
KUKLA: Well, yes, I have, Ollie.
OLLIE: And did you ever obey your impulse?
OLLIE: Come on, now, tell the truth.
KUKLA: Well, yes, I did, once or twice.
OLLIE: There, see?
KUKLA: But I looked where I was dancing.
OLLIE: I couldn't help it if the lagoon was there. One minute I was dancing on solid turf, the next I was scuba-dancing on the bottom of the lagoon with a couple of frogs.
KUKLA: Wasn't it cold?
OLLIE: Terribly. . . ahhhhh chooooo! Oh, Kukla, I'm so miserable!
KUKLA: Oh, Ollie, come on. Dry yourself with this towel and then well go downstairs. Fran's made a big pot of hot chocolate. Does that sound good?
OLLIE: Oh, Kukla, you're a real friend. (Bites nose tenderly.)
When Ollie's excursions into trouble proved too much even for Kukla to handle, the little character turned to Fran for advice. Fran Allison was the only real person to appear with the puppets. Her background included several years teaching school. But when her talents as a singer became noticed she secured a job as a radio performer. Eventually Fran became "Aunt Fanny," a small-town gossip, on radio's Don McNeill's Breakfast Club.
Fran was the special sweetheart of Kukla, Ollie and all the other Kuklapolitans. Every member of the troupe loved and respected Fran and sought her advice and understanding. In return Fran treated all of them as real people. To Fran the Kuklapolitans were real and not just puppets manipulated by Burr Tillstrom. When Kukla felt depressed over Ollie's lack of self-control, Fran gave him counsel.
KUKLA: Fran, I don't know what we're going to do. Ollie used up the whole budget to buy that used steam table for Gommie's birthday.
FRAN: I know, Kukla. Sometimes it's awfully hard to live with a dragon.
KUKLA: I think I'll just pack my little things and run away.
FRAN: Oh, Kukla, you don't mean that.
KUKLA: Yes, I do, Fran. Yes, I do. I think I'll just go away.
FRAN: Kukla, I'd miss you terribly. I wouldn't want to be here if you weren't here. I'll tell you what. Let me talk to Ollie. I'll tell him he's just got to take that steam table right back and get his money and report to us before he does one more thing.
KUKLA: Oh, would you, could you, Fran?
FRAN: I'll be firm. He won't get around me with his big brown eyes and his sweet talk.
KUKLA: Wanna bet?
FRAN: You're right, Kukla. I can't resist him. Maybe Gommie needs a used steam table.
KUKLA (laughing): Fran, I love you!
FRAN: Then you won't run away?
KUKLA: Never. Come on, let's look for some BIG gift-wrapping paper.
Every effort was taken to make the Kuklapolitans living characters. As there was no script, all of the dialogue was spontaneous, reflecting the personality of each character. Tillstrom would come up with a basic story line, sometimes only minutes before the program was telecast live. Without a rehearsal, Fran and the Kuklapolitans (who were as real to Tillstrom as they were to Fran) would not act but react to one another. The effect or actual persons living real lives within their special world was marvelous. To maintain her acceptance of the Kuklapolitans as real, Fran made it her policy never to view them backstage. Only while they were moving and speaking did Fran ever see Kukla and Ollie and the rest of her miniature friends.
Fran was the perfect choice for bridging the fantasy world of the Kuklapolitans with the real world of the television audience. According to Burr Tillstrom, "Fran was just what we needed to turn our make believe real. She's the Alice who wanders through Wonderland, the Dorothy who goes to Oz. Every episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie ended with a resolution a problem and it was primarily Fran who made certain that everything commenced on a note of warmth and love. After a sad Ollie failed to land the leading role in a Broadway musical, Fran managed to lift his spirits.
OLLIE: Fran, I don't know what happened. There I was waiting in line backstage - while all those other actors were auditioning, absolutely sure that I'd get the part. Then . . . they called my name and I went out . . . stood on stage . . . nodded to my accompanist to begin the music. . opened my mouth and. . . Oh, Fran (sobbing), it was horrible!
FRAN: Nothing came out??
OLLIE: Not a sound. OOOOOOH, I was so mortified! (Breaks down.)
FRAN: There, there, Ollie. (He gets worse with sympathy. She comforts him on her shoulder.) Here. (Holds up her handkerchief.) Blow.
OLLIE (blowing his nose): What do you suppose it was, Fran? Stage fright?
FRAN: Well, whatever it was, I think it was a blessing.
OLLIE: A blessing?
FRAN: Yes, because if you had been able to sing, there's no doubt that you would have been given the part and then you'd have to leave us and what would we do without you?
OLLIE: That's true, Fran. I never thought of it that way. I would hate to leave the Kuklapolitans in the lurch without a baritone. Oh, thank you, Fran. You've made me feel so much better. I belong here with my buddies. . . you, and little Kukla. (Kisses her.)
The real genius behind Kukla, Fran and Ollie was Burr Tillstrom, who created, worked and spoke for all of the Kuklapolitans. While most television puppeteers were strictly performers, Tillstrom was an artist. Because of Tillstrom, Kukla, Fran and Ollie maintained an integrity and stressed a quiet humor that made the program shine over all others. The Kuklapolitans were a real theatrical troupe in which we saw a true microcosm of our world.The first "person" to join Kukla's dramatic group was Mme. Ooglepuss. Tillstrom developed a wavering voice for her that satirized an opera singer. Mme. Ooglepuss was a midde-aged woman of the opera, with a great hooked nose, make-up to regain a lost youth and the most expensive gowns and furs. She was thoroughly convinced that she was irresistible to all men and frequently told the other Kuklapolitans about that magnetism.
Ollie followed Mme. Ooglepuss. In 1942, when the Kuklapolitans were playing U.S. naval hospitals in Chicago, Burr realized that Mme. Ooglepuss actually should have a boyfriend. But she needed a boyfriend who simply could not talk back to her. When Mme. Ooglepuss sang "My Bill" one day, she met her dream man, a sailor (made for the benefit of the sailors in the hospitals) named Bill, and later called Cecil Bill. His every word came out "Tooie," a language understood almost exclusively by Fran. But even we could sometimes know what Cecil Bill was talking about if we listened closely enough. When the television show started, Cecil Bill retired from the Navy and became the Kuklapolitans' stagehand. While Mme. Ooglepuss always had the final word, Cecil Bill eventually had the last "tooie."
Mercedes was a character who was not created especially for the Kuklapolitans. Kukla's troupe was appearing at Marshall Field's and a company official requested that Tillstrom invent a nasty little girl character for the benefit of the clerks. Through the Kuklapolitans' handling of Mercedes, the Marshall Field's clerks could learn how to cope with pesky brats.
In 1945 two more performers joined the Kuklapolitans. Buelah Witch (named after the show's producer Beulah Zachary) was as lovable as she was hideous, with her elongated chin and nose and white scraggly hair. She zoomed about on a jet-propelled broomstick. But even her United States Army pilot's license didn't stop her being arrested for buzzing a police station. Buelah was originally a mean old witch for a production of Hansel and Gretel for the Junior League. But she was, after all, only portraying an evil witch and remained with the troupe as the lovable person she really was. Hansel and Gretel also featured a buck-toothed rabbit. He too remained with the troupe, gaining the name Fletcher Rabbit and eventually becoming the official mailman of the Kuklapolitans and perhaps the troupe's most practical member. Fletcher would often inspect Buelah's modern broomstick just before she took off on another buzzing spree.
||BUELAH: Well, Fletcher,
FLETCHER: She looks good to me, Buelah.
BUELAH: Straw look all right?
FLETCHER: Yep, just fine.
BUELAH: I'm glad the weather cleared up. I hate to fly the mop on a mission like this.
FLETCHER: Not as fast, eh?
BUELAH: Oh, heavens, no! Flies so sluggish. But what's a girl gonna do? Can't fly a broom in the rain. Straw won't respond when it's wet. Well, it's time to take off. Am I cleared for take-off, Fletcher?
FLETCHER: All clear, Buelah. Happy landing!!!
Other characters joined the Kuklapolitans in the following years. Colonel Crackie, a courteous Southern gentleman, stepped into the niche vacated by Cecil Bill and became the escort of Mme. Ooglepuss. Miss Clara Coo Coo, the official timekeeper of the North Pole, flew in one day to pester poor Ollie. And Doloras Dragon, with all the problems of youth, arrived to give Cousin Ollie more of a sense of responsibility.In 1941 the Kuklapolitans appeared on WBKB. But it was not until six years later that Tillstrom knew he had proven himself to Captain William Crawford Eddy, the director of the station. Eddy offered the puppeteer a Monday-through-Friday hour-long series. At first the job seemed impossible. James Petrillo, head of the Chicago local of the American Federation of Musicians, had temporarily barred union musicians from television. The show was to be done live, leaving no room for serious mistakes. Nevertheless, Tillstrom recognized his first real break and accepted. The program was given the name Junior Jamboree and the old reliable sponsor RCA Victor.
Tillstrom asked Lewis (Gommie) Gomavitz, the director of Junior Jamboree, and Eddy for a girl to work out in front of the puppet stage to lessen his burden. They suggested Fran Allison, with whom Tillstrom had worked a few times in the past. Tillstrom was forever delighted over the choice.
Fran knew little about the Kuklapolitans when she went out cold for that first telecast on October 13, 1947 (a fine present, as this was Tillstrom's birthday). Tillstrom and Fran reacted to one another like children playing "pretend." The more Fran became involved with the characters the more their distinct personalities emerged. Within months the inevitable happened - Junior Jamboree became Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
This first version of Kukla, Fran and Ollie lasted for a year, with guests, movies and cartoons, the announcement of viewers' birthdays and elaborate pageants filling the hour. In the fall of 1948 the Midwestern cities were connected by coaxial cable and, on November 29, Kukla, Fran and Ollie went on that early version of the NBC network. The following January the Kuklapolitans went to the full network, this time sponsored by Sealtest ice cream on Tuesday and Thursdays and on other weekdays by RCA Early in 1951, Kukla, Fran and Ollie had an impressive list of sponsors - Procter and Gamble, Life magazine, Ford and RCA Victor.
Besides their regular programs, the Kuklapolitans presented spectacular adaptations of The Mikado, a Thanksgiving story of the Pilgrims, a version of George Washington crossing the Delaware (starring Ollie as Washington) and The Arabian Nights.
On Valentine's Day, 1951, Buelah decided to bake a special cake, using her witch's wiles to add a few ingredients not called for in the recipe. She began to mix the frosting. Kukla was contributing to the festivities by malting an enormous valentine for Fran. He began to mix the paste for the card when the two batters got interchanged. When Fran tried the frosting she found her jaws suddenly pasted shut.
KUKLA: Fran, Fran, what's the matter?
FRAN: (mumble, mumble.)
KUKLA: Speak to me, Fran!
FRAN: (mumble, mumble.)
KUKLA: Ollie, Ollie, come up quick! Something terrible has happened!
OLLIE (entering in a rush): What, what. . . what's happened?
KUKLA: It's Fran. She can't talk.
OLLIE: Fran, Fran, what's the matter? Tell me, tell me?
KUKLA: I told you she can't talk, Ollie.
OLLIE: Kukla, I don't believe she can talk!
KUKLA: That's what I've been trying to tell you. Honestly, Ollie! (Furious.)
OLLIE: Well, well, let's not lose our pretty ways, Kukla. Nothing is gained by panicking.
KUKLA: WHO'S PANICKING??
OLLIE: YOU ARE, THAT'S WHO! (Bites his nose.)
FRAN: Ollie, Ollie, stop that!
OLLIE: I'm not going to take . . . hey, wait a minute. I thought you couldn't talk.
FRAN: Well, I couldn't. But I can, now.
KUKLA: Thank goodness! Oh, Fran, I was worried.
OLLIE: What happened, Fran?
FRAN: Well, Buelah was making a cake and...
OLLIE: You tasted the wrong batch! And your mouth stuck together.
FRAN: Right!! But it's all right now. Everything's fine.
OLLIE: Oh, I'm so glad! Say, how did it taste?
FRAN (looks around, whispers): Better than Buelah's cake, but if you say I said that, I'll deny it, I'll deny it!
KUKLA & OLLIE: We won't! We won't! (Laughing.)
Ollie's chomping mouth finished off the "paste" of the valentine. As always, the episode ended happily, with Fran assuring everyone that no real damage had been done.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie finished its run on NBC on June 13, 1954, where it had been going on Sundays For two years. On September 6, the show moved to ABC as a daily, fifteen-minute series, because NBC could not offer Tillstrom the time slot which he felt right for the Kuklapolitans. The show remained there until August 30, 1957.
During their stay on television as a regular series, Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran and Ollie won two Emmys and one Peabody award. (Tillstrom later won an Emmy and a Peabody Award for his "Berlin Wall" hand ballet on the show That Was the Week That Was.)
In their many years on television, the Kuklapolitans have appeared on such programs as the Perry Como Show, Jack Paar Show, Summer Chevy Show, Shari Lewis Show, NBC Children's Theatre, the Today Show, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. More recently the Kuklapolitans have hosted the CBS Children's Film Festival and created a new twenty-six-week series of Kukla, Fran and Ollie for the PBS network. And there are new series being planned for the famed theatrical troupe.
Because of Burr Tillstrom's skill and love for both his characters and his audience, Kukla, Fran and Ollie the Dragon are still on the air. That makes Kukla, Ollie and the other Kuklapolitan players most happy. They should be, for they are, after all, real people.Since Kukla, Fran and Ollie was done live and without scripts, it was impossible to obtain vintage dialogue from the show for this book. Recalling the old episodes, Burr Tillstrom has written all the "script" pertaining to them especially for this chapter, based on the actual story lines of the vintage programs - a gesture for which the authors of this volume are forever grateful. Enclosed with the pages of dialogue was an additional script, with the handwritten message at the top, "Here's a show just for you, Don. Best from Kukla & Ollie & Burr." Since it would have been criminal to file away this special "show," it follows:
Fade up on Fletcher Rabbit on stage alone. He is carrying his mail sack, and wearing his mailman's hat.
FLETCHER: Hoo hoo! Mailman. Hoo hoo! Anybody home? (Blows his mailman's whistle.)
KUKLA: Hi, Fletch . . . any mail for me?
FLETCHER: As a matter of fact, Kukla, I do have one . . . well, actually it's for the three of you . . . Fran and Ollie and you, that is, but I suppose it's not against regulations to give it to you alone.
KUKLA: Well, I wouldn't want you to do anything against your mailman's code, Fletcher.
FLETCHER: No, it's all right. Here (hands him letter) ... it's from that chap in California.
KUKLA: You mean the one who's writing a book on TV?
FLETCHER: Yes . . . I couldn't help noticing. I hope you won't think I've been snooping, Kukla.
KUKLA: Don't give it a second thought, Fletch.
FLETCHER: I’d like to hear what it says, hut it's time for me to be up and on my appointed rounds. See you, Kuk. (Exits.)
KUKLA: See you, Fletch. (Opens letter and reads. Calling to stage left and backstage.) Fran! Ollie! I need you.
FRAN: (off stage) I'm coming, Kukla. (Enters.) Hi, Kukla.
OLLIE: (off stage) What's up, Kuk? (Crash enters.) Is it an emerggency or something? Tell me! Tell me, little buddy! (Crowding him, pushing into his face.) Is it an emerggency, hmmmmm?
KUKLA: No, no, it's not an emergency, Ollie. Take it easy. (Pushes him away.)
OLLIE: Well, if it's not an emerggency, then I'll go hack to the kitchen. I'm about to pop some corn. (Starts to leave.)
KUKLA: No . . .I need you. Now just stay.
FRAN: Yes, just stay, Ollie. You can pop your corn later.
OLLIE: Well, ok, but make it snappy. I can only give you three minutes. I'm very busy today.
KUKLA: I'm just not going to bother, if you're going to be like that. Forget it.
FRAN: Now, Ollie, calm down. Kukla called us because he needs us. Let’s hear what he has to say.
OLLIE: Okay (impatiently), but hurry!
FRAN (warningly): Ollie!
OLLIE (on her shoulder, full of the old charm): I was just teasing, cutie. Go ahead, little Kukla, I'm all ears.
KUKLA: We got a letter from our friend in California who is writing a book on TV. And he wants a sample of script from one of our shows.
OLLIE: But we don't use a script, Kuk. We ad-lib. You know, ipro...ivmo...impro...
FRAN: Make it up as we go along.
KUKLA: Well, that's why I need you. I thought we might make up a little dialogue . . . just a little sample.
FRAN: I'll get my pencil and pad and maybe I can put it down - if we don’t go too fast.
KUKLA: I'll get my tape recorder.
OLLIE: I'll get my typewriter and type it all up nice and neat.
FRAN: How is your typing these days, Ollie? Did you ever take that speed course you were talking about?
OLLIE: No, Fran, I never got around to it. I still use my old hunt and tooth method. I'm up to three and half words a minute.
FRAN: It must be wonderful to have a prehensile tooth, Ollie.
OLLIE: Oh, yes . . . very handy . . . for for many things . . . like dialing the telephone. But I’ll be glad when we get a touch phone.
FRAN: How come?
OLLIE: Dialing is very hard on the enamanel.
KUKLA: You mean enamel, Ollie.
OLLIE: That's what I said, enamanel. (Brightly) Well, shall we start?
KUKLA: (suddenly worn out): Fran, you know what?
FRAN: What, Kukla?
KUKLA: I've got a better idea. Let's go downstairs and pop some corn.
FRAN: I'm with you, Kukla. Meet you in a second. (They leave.)
OLLIE: (backstage to Kukla) Wait for me! (To camera) Sorry, kid.. I guess you'll have to make it up yourself. (Goes down.)