Fran Allison, Star of TV’s ‘Kukla, Fran & Ollie,’ Dies
Fran Allison, who as the winsome straight man for a bulb-nosed clown named Kukla and a one-toothed dragon called Ollie made up one of the most popular and beloved triumvirates in TV history, died Tuesday morning.
She was 81 and died at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital after a long struggle with bone marrow failure, an inability to produce enough blood cells, said Clark Dennis, her longtime friend.
She had been admitted to the hospital near her Van Nuys home on May 23.
Miss Allison was a veteran radio comedienne, hostess and singer when she became the only visible human member of the late Burr Tillstrom’s captivating contingent of hand puppets.
Each evening about 7, she would sally forth to begin her always patient dialogues with Kukla, the pragmatic imp with the oversized nose, and Oliver J. Dragon, a talkative serpent from a long line of non-fire-breathing lizards.
Their fragmented discourses, always extemporaneous but centered on themes that Tillstrom and Miss Allison had discussed before air time, were cheerful homilies offering guidance for young minds.
From Nov. 29, 1948, when the show first went on national television--after being on the air for a year or two in Chicago--until Aug. 31, 1957, when it ended its national run to later move to public television, its cast of characters provided parents with wholesome respite.
But the charming, soft-spoken island of sanity she became on “Kukla, Fran & Ollie, " (kukla means doll in Russian) was not the character that first brought Frances Allison to prominence.
Born in La Porte, Iowa, she gained her early radio experience in that state with a character she called “Aunt Fanny,” a gossiping spinster who thrived on publicizing the best-kept secrets of her neighbors.
The manager of the station in Waterloo, Iowa, where she was showcasing Aunt Fanny, sent a transcription to Don McNeill, host of radio’s popular “The Breakfast Club.”
Aunt Fanny, who came to the microphone as “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” played in the background, took her tattling to the huge national audience that made McNeill’s mixture of sentiment and comedy a staple of the Depression Era.
She also was heard as both comic and vocalist on such other variety radio shows as “Smile Parade,” “Uncle Ezra’s Radio Station” and “Meet the Meeks.”
When “The Breakfast Club” moved to television in 1950, Aunt Fanny went along. But McNeill’s TV effort was short-lived, and in 1954, Miss Allison, a jazz aficionado with a wide range of interests, joined the highly respected panel of “Down You Go,” a word game.
She also was a part of “It’s About Time,” a historical TV quiz show of that same year, and “Let’s Dance,” a big-band spectacular that featured orchestras from both New York and Chicago.
But her enduring legacy will be as the voice of charm and reason for Tillstrom’s puppet entourage, which also included Fletcher Rabbit, the mailman who had to starch his drooping ears for formal occasions; Beulah Witch and her rocket-propelled broomstick; Col. Crackie, the long-winded Confederate, and many more.
She first met Tillstrom, who died in 1985, at Chicago station WBKB where he was developing a television format for the puppets he had exhibited at the 1940 New York World’s Fair.
The two of them mapped out 10 ideas that they believed would fill half an hour of air time. Over the years, the show ran alternately in 30-minute, 15-minute and 5-minute segments before moving to PBS from 1969 to 1971. It also ran in syndicated form from 1975 to 1976. Tillstrom provided all the puppets’ voices but was never seen, while Miss Allison managed the running commentary.
Most recently she had been seen on a local senior citizens program called “Prime Time,” broadcast over KHJ-TV, Channel 9.
Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that she is beginning a seminar on children’s television next Tuesday at the Museum of Broadcasting in New York with clips from “Kukla, Fran & Ollie.”
Concern for Children
“I am using it as an example of the concern that the broadcast industry used to have for children and their families,” Charren said. “It was one of those wonderful ideas that happens rarely, when something that appeals to children also appeals to adults.”
Miss Allison’s marriage to music publisher Archie Levington ended with his death in 1978. Survivors include her brother and two nieces.
She will be buried next to her mother in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said niece Nan Calvin, who added that a local memorial service is pending.