Burr Tillstrom has immortalized the philosophic wit and gentle whimsy of his Kuklapolitan Players. As much loved by adults as children, Tillstrom's creations owe their convincing qualities to his own unquestioning belief that they actually exist.
As Uncle Sam's mail carriers make their daily visits to the Chicago studios of NBC in the huge Merchandise Mart, the heaviest bundle is invariably destined for the offices assigned to the Kuklapolitan Players, a talented, carefree troupe that holds forth five nights a week on Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Many of these letters are written in scrawls that reveal the tender age of their senders; others are from persons more advanced in years, butt equally young in heart and spirit.
Recently, in the package of mail addressed to Burr Tillstrom, creator and impresario of the sensible, reliable Kukla, and Ollie, the dashing dragon, as well as the seven other Kuklapolitans, there was a request from a harassed parent for a cleanser for a home television screen to remove the smudges made bv the children as they kissed Kukla goodnight.
Children and adults who feel the same way about little Kukla and his friends now number in the hundreds of thousands. They are a tribute to the genius of Burr Tillstrom and the talent and charm of Fran Allison, who, as Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland, shares Tillstrom's faith in this creations and helps transmit this belief to all who have fallen under their enchantment.
It would indeed be presumptuous and quite futile to try to explain the appeal of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Those who have made the acquaintance of the Kuklapolitans know the warm feeling of gentle happiness they get from watching the show. To those who haven't we merely say see it for a few days and you too will notice its tonic effect.
Besides Kukla and Ollie, the troupe includes Mme. Ophelia Ooglepuss (pronounced Oglepuss), a slightly aging diva; Col. Cracky, a southern gentleman, suh; Fletcher Rabbit, a loquacious, flop-eared rabbit who delivers the mail; Buelah Witch, a somewhat hard-of-hearing alumna of Witch Normal who thinks her broomstick should have electronic controls; Cecil Bill, the stage manager who devised his own jargon when he became fed up with everyday talk; Mercedes, a spoiled child, and Clara Coo Coo, a frivolous bird who used to work in a clock in Santa's workshop.
Kukla, a wistful, sentimental practical fellow, is the first born. Tillstrom created him for a friend in 1936, and Kukla was wrapped for shipment when Burr discovered he couldn't part with him. Thereafter he lived in Tillstrom's pocket while the boss traveled with puppet, marionette and stock shows.
It wasn't long before co-workers and friends would automatically ask: "Where's Kukla?" whenever they met Burr. From then on Kuk began to bob up everywhere Tillstrom went. He got his name when Burr, a lover of ballet, showed him to the ballerina Toumanova and the dancer exclaimed joyously "Kukla!" Literally, Kukla is doll in Russian.
Now in his early thirties, Tillstrom showed the first traces of his talents as a member of the Chicago kindergarten set when he tried to make two toy teddy-bears perform and soon after was using all kinds of toys on stages made of orange crates and old lace curtains. His first "show," during junior high school days, was a presentation of Rip Van Winkle, with dolls as stars.
When the Tillstrom family moved to a different neighborhood, two new neighbors moved his horizons far ahead. Next door lived a teacher of arts and crafts whose library contained many books on puppets and marionettes. Burr immediately began to make and string puppets, and at 14, was launched on the project that was to become his career. The other neighbor was the sister of Tony Sarg, one of the most famous marionette artists of all time. Both women encouraged Burr and his first "paid" performance was given in the garden of Sarg's sister.
On his graduation from Chicago's Senn High School, where he studied dramatics, Burr was awarded an honor scholarship to the University of Chicago. He didn't stay there very long, however, because his marionettes called him to the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 and then to the WPA Chicago Parks District Theater. During this latter period Kukla was born.
Tillstrom took his puppet to state fairs, into vaudeville and night clubs, and found time to do summer theater on the side. In 1939, he turned down a trip to Europe with a marionette show to be on his own as manager of the puppet exhibits and marionette theater at the Marshall Field department store in Chicago. The day after he said "no" to Europe, he saw his first television show and decided that TV was the medium for him. Thereafter he did television shows for RCA Victor, one of the current sponsors of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, at the New York World's Fair, in Bermuda, where he did the first TV in mid-ocean, and in Chicago.
By this time, Kukla had been joined by Ollie and Mme. Ooglepuss. Ollie's appearance was due to tradition - almost since the first puppet show was given, a dragon has been a member of the troupe. Ollie is a braggart and a prankster, but he's the most lovable dragon you ever saw. He has auburn hair, the jaws of an alligator, the body of a leopard and a single prehensile tooth. He hails from Dragon Retreat, Vermont. Here his mother, Oliver Dragon, is hostess of the popular resort where Burr and the other Kuklapolitans spend their summer vacations. Incidentally, neither Ollie nor his family are fire-breathing dragons because his father swallowed a great deal of water while swimming the Hellespoint a long time ago and extinguished the flames in Ollie's branch of the family for all time.
When Tillstrom was rejected for war service he packed up his family and gave shows as a volunteer for the Red Cross in hospitals throughout the Midwest. He became a pioneer in television with Chicago's first station, WBKB, where Kukla, Fran and Ollie originated until last year.
Aided by Beulah Zachary, producer of the show, he teamed up with Fran Allison and on October 13, 1947, the program made its debut over WBKB for RCA Victor. When network television became a reality, it was extended to the NBC hookup and became an immediate success.
(Buelah Witch is named after producer Zachary, while Cecil Bill is named after Bill Ryan, stage manager at WBKB.)
Burr's choice of Fran Allison as big sister and girl friend of Kukla and Ollie was no less than ideal. Fran's charm charm and wholesome personality are completely captivating on and off the air. An established radio star, as Aunt Fanny on Don McNeill's Breakfast Club, she found new joy in association with the Kuklapolitans.
A native of LaPorte City, Iowa, Fran studied music and education at Coe College, Cedar Rapids. In 1934, after four years as a rural school teacher, she dusted the chalk off her hands and showed up at a small radio station in Waterloo, where she was signed as a staff vocalist.
One day as she walked into the studio, a waggish announcer interrupted a program with, "Why, here's Aunt Fanny - step up to the mike and speak to the folks." Her years as a teacher had taught the naturally quick-witted Miss Allison to cope with brashness, and so with monumental calm, she created one of the most famous roles in radio out of thin air. She harangued for five minutes in the manner of a Main Street gossip. The listeners loved it and from then on her singing career slowly retreated before the popularity of the rural conversationalist.
Fran's ability to ad lib is invaluable in her work with Tillstrom because Kukla, Fran and Ollie is completely unrehearsed and Fran is totally unprepared for some of Burr's witticisms and the Kuklapolitans' costumes when a pageant is in order.
Burr begins to think of the day's show first thing in the morning. He mulls it over during the day and then talks it over about an hour before telecast time with his "sounding board" - Fran, pianist Jack Fascinato, who writes original music for the show, and director Lew Gomavitz. When the show became a national favorite, Burr was besieged with offers from manufacturers who wanted to make dolls and other toys patterned after the Kuklapolitans. In constantly refusing these offers, Burr has turned down a fortune because he and Fran would feel broken-hearted if they were to see a counter full of Kukla and Ollie dolls in a drugstore
Tillstrom has also rejected fabulous offers for theater and night club appearances because of his loyalty to his TV audience. He always finds time, however, to take his troupe for performances in hospitals, orphan asylums and other places where he can cheer the less fortunate. The director and camera crew working on Kukla, Fran and Ollie are completely enthralled with the show and its characters. Before they go on the air director Gomavitz may call from the control room: "Kukla, you'd better move over a couple of inches - the lighting's better. Ollie, turn your head a little more toward the camera, and Mercedes, change your dress before the show; the one you're wearing doesn't light up too well."
Recently, as the troupe was entertaining the crew just before a telecast, Ollie opened his mouth to its fullest. His jaws promptly locked and Kukla dived backstage to return with a hammer. Fran and the cameraman shouted: "Kukla, drop that," and dashed for the theater to rescue their favorite dragon.