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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
54-57, 61-62, 69-71, 76-76 Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (host)
1967 Damn Yankees
1972 Miss Pickerell
Susan Heller. "Fran Allison, 81, the Human Side of 'Kukla, Fran
and Ollie' Show, Dies." The New York Times, 14 June 1989.
B. "Allison in Wonderland." Colliers (New York), 4 March
Allison." Variety (Los Angeles), 21 June 1989.
C. "Kukla and Ollie's Real-Life Heroine." Coronet (Chicago),
Rick. "Fran Allison, of 'Kukla, Fran & Ollie.'" Chicago Tribune
(June 14, 1987). 2, 14:5.
J. "Dragon's Girlfriend." American Magazine (March 1950),
Life of Fran Allison." McCall's (New York), March 1953.
School of Television; Children
and Television; Kukla,
Fran, and Ollie; Tillstrom,