BURR TILLSTROM was once introduced to Ezio Pinza as “the young man who does the Kukla, Fran and Ollie show on television.”
“Delighted to know you," boomed the famous basso. “Tell me, who does the voice of Ollie? Ollie's sustained notes are magnificent.”
Burr explained that with the exception of Fran Allison, he is the whole show – his hands manipulate the puppets and his voice is the voice of each one.
“Impossible, young man!” said Pinza – and forthwith gave a good imitation of Oliver J. Dragon singing one of his songs.
Some people call Tillstrom an extrovert and others call him an introvert but most of them agree that he is a genius. He is a soft-spoken man, 32 years old, whose fame and income are derived entirely from the new medium of television.
Show Was Intended for Children
The Kuklapolitan Players, seen on the NBC network five nights weekly, got their start on station WBKB in Chicago, intended as a show for children but greeted with all-out enthusiasm by the adults. Their fans, who are not at all backward in writing fan letters, now include Fred Allen, Tallulah Bankhead, Milton Caniff, Lillian Gish, Beatrice Lillie, Robert Sherwood, Margaret Truman, Fred Waring, and dozens of other famous people throughout the country.
Two small teddy bears set Tillstrom on his career.
They were given to him while he was still in kindergarten, and he immediately pounced on them and tried to make them live. His mother found him one day, carrying on a conversation with the bears. She sat down to listen, and the bears started talking to her.
After this success, Burr started giving puppet shows for his playmates. He would stand in the window of the Tillstrom's ground floor apartment on Chicago's North Side and perform with the teddy bears and borrowed dolls. The kids would stand outside, yelling for their favorites.
Burr's parents are down-to-earth people. Their income at that time was not large, but enough to give the family a comfortable home.
By the time he was 14 and a freshman at Senn High School in Chicago he had started making his own puppets. These were not hand puppets, as are the Kuklapolitans, but string marionettes. Burr worked up enough of an act to put on a show at a neighborhood lawn party, netting $8.10. But most of his performances, which took up every spare moment, had only his mother and father, brother and sister-in-law as audience.
At 18, Tillstrom had decided beyond question that he was going to be a puppeteer. At his parents' insistence, he attended the University of Chicago briefly, but he soon left to take a whirl at big time puppeteering with the' WPA-Chicago Parks District Theater, and it was then that Kukla was born.
Young Tillstrom had become smitten with Tamara Toumanova, a famous ballerina who was then appearing in Chicago. Toumanova was kind to him and when she left the city invited him to her dressing room to say goodbye.
Burr knew she liked puppets and decided to make one as a farewell gift. He made a saucy little figure with quizzical eyebrows, a ruff of black hair, a cherry nose and a rosebud mouth. With the puppet in a green paper bag, he called on Toumanova.
But when he got to her dressing room he was shy and tongue-tied. Toumanova was chattering along, trying to put him at ease, when she suddenly heard a strange voice answer her. She turned and found a bright-eyed pixie peering over the top of a chair.
“Kukla!” she exclaimed, which is Russian for “doll.” And so Kukla got his name. What's more, he never was given to Toumanova. Burr made another one for her and kept the original.
Ollie, the one-toothed dragon, didn't arrive on the scene until a couple of years later, when Tillstrom was putting on his show at the New York World's Fair. In the meantime the WPA project had faded and he had worked as a salesman in a department store while managing the children's theater in the same store.
During this time, he got his first look at a television demonstration and decided immediately that it was the one medium he wanted.
Tillstrom was rejected for military service, but spent the war years putting on puppet shows for the Red Cross before wounded servicemen all through the midwest.
Brought Fun to Servicemen
“The puppets could bring the guys a laugh,” he says. “They could sympathize with them without getting sticky. They did a terrific job.”
Tillstrom is not boasting. He thinks of the puppets as living creatures, and so do all the other people connected with his show. Off the air or on, if somebody speaks to one of the puppets it is the puppet who replies – not Tillstrom.
Fran Allison, who worked with him before he got on television, had an easy way with Kukla, Ollie, Madame and the rest. “You could tell immediately that the kids liked her,” says Burr.
Each puppet is highly individual. Kukla, the impresario of the troupe, worries and frets, but is patient, understanding, kind and dependable. Ollie is bumptious, but with a heart of gold. He has grandiose plans and always considers himself a bon vivant and beau brummel.
Then there are Mme. Ooglepuss, a prima-donna; young Mercedes; Col. Crackie, a southern gentleman; Fletcher Rabbit; Beulah Witch; Cecil Bill, and several others.
The program is completely unrehearsed. Beulah Zachary, the producer and Burr's closest friend, arrives at their NBC office in the morning. Lewis Gomavitz, the director, gets in before lunch and they do the routine work. Designer Joseph Lockwood, musical director Jack Fascinato and Fran Allison get in around 2:30 PM.
Around 4 o'clock they have a program meeting during which they pick the songs and general theme of the show. And that's all. Fran is entirely unprepared for some of Burr's witticisms and her replies are also ad lib. Tillstrom gets his program ideas from everywhere – from a gift some child has sent Kukla, from a chance remark, or from his own imaginative mind.
Tillstrom is an expert swimmer, likes to take long tours on a bicycle (he covered the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada one year) and wishes he had time for a hobby. If he did have time, he thinks he would study archaeology or build models of ships, trains and planes. But his spare time goes into props and costumes for the puppets.