U.S. Television Personality

Fran Allison is perhaps best known for playing the warm-hearted human foil to the Kuklapolitan Players, a troupe of puppets familiar to almost every viewer in the early days of U.S. television. Allison appeared with the puppets on the children's program Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which aired regularly from 1947 to 1957, and in subsequent reunions in the late 1960s and mid-1970s.

Born in Iowa, Allison began working as a songstress on local Waterloo, Iowa radio programs and eventually moved to Chicago in 1937, where she was hired as a staff singer and personality on NBC Radio. Audiences became familiar with her from numerous radio appearances, first as a singer on such programs as Smile Parade, The Ransom Sherman Show, and Uncle Ezra's Radio Station (also known as Station EZRA), and later on The Breakfast Club as the gossipy spinster Aunt Fanny--who loved to dish gossip about such fictitious townsfolk as Bert Beerbower, Orphie Hackett and Ott Ort--based on a character she first created for a local Iowa radio program. Allison appeared on both the radio and television versions of Don McNeill's The Breakfast Club for more than 25 years. The Aunt Fanny character was briefly spun off on her own 1939 30-minute radio program, Sunday Dinner at Aunt Fanny's. But it was on Kukla, Fran and Ollie that Allison became the "First Lady of Chicago Broadcasting."

While her husband, Archie Levington, was serving in the army, Allison worked on bond-selling tours, during which she met and became good friends with puppeteer Burr Tillstrom. When the time came to choose an appropriate sidekick for his new television series, Tillstrom wanted to work with "a pretty girl, someone who preferably could sing," someone who could improvise along with Tillstrom and with the show's informal structure. According to Tillstrom, when he and Allison met four days later, she was so enthusiastic about the show and working with her friend that she never asked how much the job paid. With only a handshake, they went on the air live for the first time that very afternoon.

Shortly before his death in 1985, Tillstrom tried to capture the nature of the unique relationship that Allison had with his puppets: "She laughed, she sympathized, loved them, sang songs to them. She became their big sister, favorite teacher, babysitter, girlfriend, mother." More than just the "girl who talks to Burr [Tillstrom]'s puppets," Allison treated each character as an individual personality, considered each her friend, and, by expressing genuine warmth and affection for them, made the audience feel the same way. She once remarked that she believed in them so implicitly that it would take a few days to become accustomed to a new version of one of the puppets.

It was through Allison that the Kuklapolitans came to life as individual personalities with life histories. Each show was entirely improvised. The only prior planning was a basic storyline. Characters discussed their backgrounds, where they attended school, and their relatives. Allison was the first to mention Ollie's mother Olivia and niece Dolores, and Tillstrom added them to their growing number of Kuklapolitans. In addition to prompting the characters to talk about themselves, Allison herself invented some of the characters' histories, such as announcing that Buelah Witch's alma mater was Witch Normal.

Allison's radio and television work continued after the initial run of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. In the late-1950s, Allison hosted The Fran Allison Show, a panel discussion program on local Chicago television, telecast in color and considered, at that time, "the most ambitious show in Chicago's decade of television." She also continued to appear on television musical specials over the years, including Many Moons (1954), Pinocchio (with Mickey Rooney in 1957), Damn Yankees (1967) and Miss Pickerell (1972). Allison was reunited with Burr Tillstrom and the Kuklapolitans for the series' return in 1969 on Public Broadcasting and as the hosts of the CBS Children's Film Festival on Saturday afternoons from 1971 to 1979. In the 1980s, Allison hosted a local Los Angeles (KHJ-TV) program, Prime Time, a show for senior citizens.

Allison was nominated once for an Emmy Award as "Most Outstanding Kinescope Personality" in 1949, but lost to Milton Berle. In 1988, she was inducted into Miami Children's Hospital's Ambassador David M. Walters International Pediatrics Hall of Fame, which honors men and women of medicine and laypersons who have made a significant contribution to the health and happiness of children everywhere.

-Susan R. Gibberman



Fran Allison


FRAN ALLISON . Born in La Porte City, Iowa, U.S. Attended Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S. Began career as radio singer, Waterloo, Iowa; staff singer, various shows on NBC Radio, Chicago, from 1937; star of radio show, Sunday Dinner at Aunt Fanny's, 1939; regular guest, Don McNeil's Breakfast Club, radio and television program, throughout 1940s and 1950s; joined Burr Tillstrom, puppeteer, with Kukla, Fran and Ollie television program, Chicago, 1947; host, with Tillstrom's puppets, Children's Film Festival, PBS, 1971-79; in local radio and television from 1970s. Died in Sherman Oaks, California, U.S. 13 June 1989.


1948-52, 54-57, 61-62, 69-71, 76-76 Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (host)


1954 Many Moons
1957 Pinocchio
1967 Damn Yankees
1972 Miss Pickerell


Anderson, Susan Heller. "Fran Allison, 81, the Human Side of 'Kukla, Fran and Ollie' Show, Dies." The New York Times, 14 June 1989.

Fay, B. "Allison in Wonderland." Colliers (New York), 4 March 1950.

"Fran Allison." Variety (Los Angeles), 21 June 1989.

Hughes, C. "Kukla and Ollie's Real-Life Heroine." Coronet (Chicago), October 1951.

Kogan, Rick. "Fran Allison, of 'Kukla, Fran & Ollie.'" Chicago Tribune (June 14, 1987). 2, 14:5.

Long, J. "Dragon's Girlfriend." American Magazine (March 1950), p. 28+.

"Triple Life of Fran Allison." McCall's (New York), March 1953.

See also Chicago School of Television; Children and Television; Kukla, Fran, and Ollie; Tillstrom, Burr