The beloved puppet show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” the creation of puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, had millions of ardent fans, among them Orson Welles, John Steinbeck and James Thurber. The show was also a major influence on future generations of puppeteers, such as Jim Henson. In fact, the Muppets’ creator publicly said, “We owe everything to Burr Tillstrom and ‘Kukla, Fran and Ollie.’ ”
The classic series is celebrating its 60th anniversary with the release today on DVD of 39 episodes of the show that aired on PBS and in syndication from 1969-71 and the unveiling of a new stamp commemorating the series, which was among the first to appeal to both children and adults.
Tillstrom, says Martin Tahse, the producer of some of these color episodes, liked cerebral comedy, “but from the very beginning, he said let’s do this for the parents and the kids. It was a two-tier comedy for the parents and the kids and they would watch it together.”
“Kukla, Fran and Ollie” looks like a vintage Punch and Judy show with a small stage where the puppets would perform and interact with Fran, played by Fran Allison, the only “human” in the cast.
The series began nationally on NBC on Jan. 12, 1949. It first appeared in Chicago as “Junior Jamboree” in 1947 -- where it aired live five days a week at 7 p.m.
Tillstrom manipulated all 12 puppets collectively known as the Kuklapolitans and was the talking and singing voice for his dozen creatures including Kukla, the guiding spirit and worrywart of the Kuklapolitans; Oliver Jethro Dragon III, a.k.a. Ollie, the single-toothed dragon from Vermont who adores Fran; Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss, the singing diva; and Beulah Witch, who studied electronics. (Playwright Edward Albee based the character of Grandma in his play “The American Dream” on Beulah.) Fran would stand next to the stage and interact and sing with the Kuklapolitans.
Amazingly, it was all improvised; Tillstrom and Allison never used a script. “Burr was the manipulator of all of those 12 characters, so he had a puppet on each hand, so he couldn’t hold a script,” says Tahse.
When the show was live, he says, Tillstrom and Allison “would meet at 3 p.m. every afternoon and discuss the show and rehearse a song or two. At 5 they had dinner and at 7 they were live on the air five days a week. They worked exactly the same way with this series.”
The reason the show was humorous to adults as well as kids is that the humor is authentic, Tahse adds. “When Fran starts to laugh it’s because she’s hearing the line for the first time. They had a wonderful humorous relationship between the two of them.”
Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media, programmed a tribute to the show in New York in the early 1980s.
Tillstrom “saw himself as an artist and he wanted to communicate to both adults and children,” noted Simon.
“That was always apparent. In the early days, he would have Kukla teach film editing or teach science. He was dealing with important topics. It was sophisticated and also funny.”
Tillstrom, who died in 1985, “was a very quiet amazing guy,” says Tahse. “But when he got up on the stage, he became the puppets. He became the puppets so much that when he died, in his will -- all the puppets are at the Chicago History Museum -- there is a codicil saying that nobody can put their hands in his puppets and use them, because he was the puppets and when he died they died.”
The DVD is available only at www.kuklafranandollie.com.