IT'S JUST two blocks away from my own home, but I paid my first visit to Burr Tillstrom's new quarters after every last cup, saucer and spoon was in place. I had no intention of being un-neighborly, but there's a limit to the amount of construction commotion any woman can stand, and for the past year, I've been caught squarely between two Mr. Blandings, each building his dream house.
When men begin taking houses apart and putting them together again in their own pattern, they certainly go all out. At home, my husband, Archie, glancing up from his newspaper, would stare fixedly at the wall and remark, "Now do you think we should have paint, paper, or knotty pine?"
Studio conversation was parallel. In the midst of a story conference, Burr would suddenly get the same far-away look in his eyes and ask, "Fran, should my furniture be last-word modern, or should I stick to antiques?"
Burr got the remodeling fever largely because Kukla and Ollie outgrew both an apartment and an office. To those of you who are off the coax or kine, I should explain that although Kukla and Ollie officially are puppets, they and the rest of the Kuklapolitans have such lively, fully developed personalities we, who work with them or watch them, are very sure they are real. In the studio, we always refer to them as "the kids."
Being real, they have wants just as demanding as any human's. If Kukla needs a new train, or Ollie requires a prop for a pageant, some one has to make the things and that requires workshop space.
They also have sponsors, sponsors have advertising agents, and all of them like to sit down and talk things over with Burr in a spot where phones don't ring every five seconds. The staff, too, needs dream-up time. The staff consists of Beulah Zachary, producer; Lewis Gomavitz, director; Jack Fascinato, musical director; Joseph Lockwood, costume designer, and Mary Dornheim and Cathy Morgan, our secretaries. We're a tightly-knit group, we like each other and we spend much more time together than the cast and staff of most shows.
His own home would not serve. The apartment near the Evanston boundary, comfortable and just the right size for Burr and his parents, Dr. and Mrs. B. F. Tillstrom, has, on occasion, stretched to accommodate the whole crew, but its chief handicap has been distance.
The Tillstroms, to add an extra hour to Burr's day, decided to buy into a cooperative apartment now under construction close to the studio, but that still left Kuke and Ollie homeless. It would, Burr concluded, be a nice idea to find them a coach house of their own.
Archie and I have a coach house, too, and that's how I happened to spend the last year as chief listener to two Mr. Blandings.
We moved into ours at the end of the war when my husband stowed away his uniform and returned to being Archie Levington, publisher's representative for Leeds Music Company. His work requires that he spend most of his evenings calling on orchestra leaders and vocalists. At the same time, my eight a.m. date as Aunt Fanny on the Breakfast Club, meant I must be up early.
We solved our problem by buying this coach house on Chicago's near north side, close to the loop and the studios. Our predecessor had remodeled and furnished it, so all my mother Nan, and Archie and I had to do was hang up our clothes, buy some groceries and set up housekeeping. A year later, when Kukla, Ollie and company became a part of our lives, it turned into a convenient gathering place.
Burr wasn't so lucky, for after the time we bought, coach houses became fashionable. Others, too, were discovering how convenient they were, and the few existing ones were snapped up fast. For more than a year, Burr searched, but none of those that were available met any of his requirements.
I thought he had just about given up when, one day, he rushed into our place sounding very much like Ollie in the throes of a major enthusiasm. Breathlessly, he told us, an agent who was a fan of the show heard Burr was house hunting and got in touch with him. (Kukla and Ollie win the hearts of the nicest people.) Located down State Parkway a little ways, it was almost equidistant from our place, Beulah's and Joe Lockwood's. Other members of the staff and many of Burr's friends also lived nearby.
It even looked romantic, Burr reported. To enter, you went down some steps, walked through a narrow passage, and there it was, like a miniature one-turret castle facing a tiny garden. Of slightly later vintage than ours, its first floor where the high-wheeled limousines once had stood would make an ideal place for both workshop and puppet theater. The basement below gave additional storage space.
Since Burr sounded like Ollie, I began to suspect an Ollie gimmick was involved somewhere. A little impatiently, I asked, "What about living space? How many rooms do you have on the second floor?"
"One," said Burr blandly, "but it's huge. It used to be the recreation room. There's a terrific fireplace, high enough to stand inside, and the floor is wide oak planking fastened together with wedges."
It sounded great, but Burr wasn't through yet. "Of course," he confessed, "I'll have to do a little remodeling, such as building a bathroom, a kitchen, and a stairway from the first floor."
Altogether, it sounded like an appalling amount of remodeling to me, but Archie's reaction was just the opposite. That's when his speculative look appeared for the first time as he said, "Now I think that's just fine. You're always better off when you start at the beginning and rebuild it to suit yourself I wish we had done that here."
I was remembering how grateful I'd been to get a roof over our heads during the worst of the housing shortage, but Archie was glancing around our living room as though he were taking inventory. "Yes," said Archie, "we could make a lot of improvements. There's space wasted by that big dining room when what we need is a guest room. The kitchen is too small, too. When Nan and Fran both are in there, I haven't got enough room left to get to the stove to see what's cooking."
"Burr's given me an idea. I think this would be a good time to start remodeling this place, too."
Archie and Burr had a magnificent time advising each other about contractors, recommending decorators, choosing household equipment, and the accomplished results are wonderful, but it certainly kept us all upset.
It's been worth the wait. Burr's decorating scheme is both effective and livable. You enter through the garden door, climb a tiny narrow staircase, and arrive first in the workshop and puppet theater. That's the utilitarian section, the place where Burr, the genius at creating new characters, turns into B. Tillstrom, skilled technician. There's a well-equipped work bench along one side, and across the back are miniature stages. At present he is interested in developing a new show which will have marionettes, the string operated puppets, rather than hand puppets like the Kuklapolitans. It's one of those things which will see the light of day only when Burr, who lives with his characters, has dreamed up the final facet of personality of the least important marionette, and until then, they'll dangle from their stands behind the stage sets.
Kukla, at present, has only one evidence of his residence. To get to the stairs you have to walk around his miniature railroad system which stands on trestles in the middle of the floor. Burr, of course, is just as much of a railroading enthusiast as Kukla, but when he gets extravagant about equipment, he always justifies the expenditure by saying he bought it for Kuke.
Yes, Burr built the stairs. The treads are covered with hemp matting, and presiding over the first landing is a huge spread-winged golden eagle, carved of wood. No story accompanied it when he purchased the creature in a New England antique shop but Burr is certain it must once have graced the prow of a clipper ship.
In the living section Burr has achieved a skillful blend of modern and ancient. Two Lawson sofas, upholstered in brown, face one of the biggest coffee tables I've ever seen in my life, and the white wool shag rug beneath them is strictly 1951 American. The side tables however, are at least a hundred years old, and on them are lamps made from Cathay-trade tea canisters.
The floor is stained dark, the walls are white, and the draw curtains at the casement windows are plain yellow. Along one side of the room, an antique mirror hangs over a long side table. Flanking it are a pair of old high-backed, carved chairs. Across from them, there's an antique chest which holds table linens. The piano fits into a nook at the head of the stairway.
As Burr still really lives with his family, he didn't build a bedroom.
Instead, at the far corner of the floor, he placed two studio couches at right
angles with a square storage cabinet built between them. Nights when
he chooses to stay at the coach house, or use it as quarters for out-of-town
guests, deep innerspring mattresses assure comfortable sleep, and by day,
banked with big square bolsters and attired in slip covers, the beds turn
into grandstands for those who kibitz those who are cooking.
The kitchen unit is directly opposite. It's strictly a bachelor's kitchen. Archie built almost the identical one for me, and I've found it saves steps and work, so I'm all in favor of design by those who have no intention of making a career of housekeeping. They have a trick of reducing it to the simplest common denominator.
Stove, sink and automatic dishwasher line the wall. Above them are white enameled cabinets - for dishes. At the side, there's a set of low shelves. A small work table rolls on casters to the spot where it is needed.
Burr used the small hallway built between the kitchen and bathroom to construct an additional closet. Flat and shallow against the wall, it holds cleaning equipment and a folding table which is labeled "for canasta" but which actually doubles in a multitude of uses.
The bathroom is something. Serving as dressing room also, its floor is covered with a cotton shag rug of mixed brown and white. The double dresser is gray-beige enamel and above it is a huge mirror. Although the mirror appears extravagant it actually is utilitarian, for there's where Burr rehearses Kukla and Ollie. He tells me that his best ideas always come while shaving. When a brainstorm strikes, he'll drop his razor and turn puppeteer. Manipulating his hands before that mirror, he'll work out things which he wants Kuke and Ollie to do on the show.
Burr frequently invites Archie and me to come over and just visit, but enjoyable as that is, the times I like best are those when the staff gathers around. Archie joins us and we all relax, do as we choose, and have fun.
Festivities usually start with Mary filling the percolator, for we're all terrific coffee drinkers. Gommy and Archie set up the motion picture projector. The white, uncluttered wall serves as a screen, and soon we all sit back, coffee cup in hand, to watch the kinescope recordings of past shows.
Just about then some one decides to cook. When Burr officiates, it's usually chicken and rice pilaff because he knows I love it. Again, keeping things as simple as possible, he always buys the cut-up chicken so that all he has to do is open the package, roll the pieces in flour, and brown them in a frying pan holding a half-and-half mixture of butter and shortening. As soon as they reach that golden brown crusted stage, he adds about a half cup of water, covers the pan and turns down the flame to let the chicken simmer slowly.
pilaff is an Armenian dish which one of Burr's former girl friends taught
him to make. You start it by browning a package of cooked fine noodles
in four tablespoons of butter. Wash one cup of uncooked white rice
and put it in a pan with two cups of water. When it is hot, mix in
the noodles, add salt and pepper, set on a medium flame, put the lid on the
pan, and don't touch it for thirty or forty minutes.
Nothing could be more informal than the way the meal is served. Because he's the tallest, Joe Lockwood takes down the dark pottery plates and places them on the low shelves, ready for dishing up. Whichever one of us is most ambitious gathers up the magazines from the coffee table and puts on straw place mats and silver. Then we plunk down and sit on the floor, backs against the sofas. Conversation stops while we eat, for all of us like good food.
It flares up again as the plates are cleared and the ice cream and the coffee comes on. Little Cathy Morgan curls up with a magazine. Gommy fetches the corn popper, Mary gets a bowl and butter, and with such fare, the party goes for hours.
Inevitably, we all gravitate toward the piano. Perhaps Archie has a tune which is just being introduced, or Jack Fascinato has a new composition, or perhaps we all have an urge to sing "Sweet Adeline." Secure in the isolation of the coach house, we raise our voices and laugh as loudly as we please, knowing we're not disturbing neighbors in the next apartment.
Burr calls the place his hideaway, but from the way everyone who visits there has fun, I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be the secret place which has a well beaten path to its door.