Fran and Ollie was the first children's show to be equally popular
with children and adults. The show's immense popularity stemmed
from its simplicity, gentle fun and frolic and adult wit. Burr Tillstrom's
Kuklapolitan Players differed from typical puppets in that the humor
derived from satire and sophisticated wit rather than slapstick
comedy. At the height of the show's popularity, the cast received
15,000 letters a day, and its ratings were comparable to shows featuring
Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan.
basic format of the show was simple: Fran Allison stood in front
of a small stage and interacted with the characters. The format
was derived from the puppet act Tillstrom performed for the RCA
Victor exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Acting as an entr'acte
for another marionette show at the World's Fair, Kukla and Ollie
would comment on the activities, sometimes heckle the announcer,
and coax the actresses and models acting as spokespersons for the
exhibit to come up onto the stage and talk with them. Never working
from a written script, Tillstrom improvised over 2,000 performances
at the Fair, each one different because of his personal dislike
of routine. During World War II, Tillstrom and his Kuklapolitan
Players performed in USO shows, at army hospitals, and for bond
drives, where he met radio personality Fran Allison.
1947, the majority of television sets were located in taverns and
saloons. Network executives were looking for a television show that
could be watched at home and decided the Kuklapolitans would be
the perfect "family fare". The group was contracted for 13 weeks
on daytime TV and stayed for the next ten years.
first episodes were aired daily from 4:00 to 5:00 in the afternoon
on local Chicago television station WBKB, which was later acquired
by NBC. When the network completed its New York-Chicago transmission
lines in 1948, Kukla, Fran and Ollie began to air nationwide.
By its second season, the growing adult audience prompted the network
to move the show to a 7:00 P.M. half-hour time slot. By its third
season, the show had six million viewers. In 1951, NBC cut the half-hour
format to fifteen minutes, which, ironically, caused the ratings
to soar even higher because audiences craved more of their favorite
characters. After several seasons, the daily program was shifted
to a weekly program on Sunday afternoons. When the series switched
from NBC to ABC in 1954, it returned to a daily broadcast. When
the series was canceled in 1957, it was one of the longest running
programs on television, second only to Kraft Television Theatre.
few exceptions (e.g., elaborately staged versions of The Mikado
and an original operetta of St. George and the Dragon),
all of the shows were improvised. Pre-show preparation consisted
of a meeting between Tillstrom, Allison, director Lewis Gomavitz,
musical director Jack Fascinato, costume designer Joe Lockwood,
and producer Beulah Zachary to discuss the basic premise for that
popularity of the show stemmed from how it created its own unique
world of make-believe. The characters were not caricatures, but
rather well-developed, three-dimensional individuals with distinct
histories, personalities, eccentricities and foibles. In the show's
initial episodes, the Kuklapolitans were strong characters, but
not individuals. In the simple banter between Allison and one of
the "kids" (as Tillstrom, Allison and others referred to them),
audiences learned more of their individual histories: where they
went to school, their relatives, how an ancestor of Ollie's once
swam the Hellespont and took in too much water and thereby drowned
the family's fire-breathing ability, and about the time Buelah Witch
was arrested by Interpol for flying too low over the United Nations
leader of the troupe was Kukla, a sweet-natured and gentle clown
who was something of a worry-wart. Oliver J. Dragon (Ollie), atypical
of traditional puppet show dragons, was a mischievous, one-toothed
dragon with a penchant for getting into trouble. Other members of
the Kuklapolitans included grand dame Madame Ophelia Oglepuss, Stage
Manager Cecil Bill (who spoke a language comprehensible only to
the other Kuklapolitans), Colonel R.H. Crackie, a debonair Southern
gentleman, floppy-eared Fletcher Rabbit, Buelah Witch (named for
producer Beulah Zachary--with the intentional misspelling), Ollie's
mother Olivia Dragon and niece Dolores, whom audiences saw grow
from an noisy infant into a typical teenage dragonette, and many
others. Their human qualities endeared them to their audience. It
could be said that Allison acted as "straight man" to this cast
of characters, but her role was much more. A quick wit in her own
right who could maintain the pace set by Tillstrom, Allison served
simultaneously, according to Tillstrom, as "big sister, favorite
teacher, baby-sitter, girlfriend and mother." Allison was equally
responsible for adding to the characters' histories. She was the
first to mention Ollie's mother and prompted Tillstrom to create
the character for a future show.
The Kuklapolitans returned briefly for one season in 1961 for a
daily five-minute show without Fran Allison. Kukla, Fran and
Ollie was revived for two season (1969-1971) for PBS, and from
1971 to 1979, the Kuklapolitans and Allison served as hosts for
the Saturday afternoon CBS Children's Film Festival. The
characters continued to appear in syndicated specials in the early
1980s. In all of these series and formats, the essential elements
of the original series remained the same.
its initial ten year-run, Kukla, Fran and Ollie received
a total of six Emmy nominations for Best Children's Program but
won only once, in 1952. It was awarded a Peabody as the outstanding
children's program of 1949. In a tribute to creator Burr Tillstrom,
co-worker Donald Corren (Chicago, July 1986) said, "The acceptance
of television puppetry as a form of entertainment and communication
exists because Kukla, Fran and Ollie was as much a part of
the original television vocabulary as were 'station identification,'
'the six-o'clock news,' or the chimes that identified NBC." Because
the Kuklapolitans were such vibrant characters, Tillstrom specified
in his will that they are never to be put on display inertly unless
they are moving and speaking as he intended them to be seen.
DIRECTOR Jack Fascinato
Ollie (Oliver J. Dragon)
Mme. Ophelia Oglepuss
Dolores Dragon (1950-1957)
Olivia Dragon (1952-1957)
Burr Tillstrom, Beulah Zachary
November 1948-November 1951 Monday-Friday 7:00-7:30 November 1951-June
1952 Monday-Friday 7:00-7:15
September 1954-August 1957 Monday-Friday 7:00-7:15
Corren, Donald. "Kukla, Me, and Ollie: Remembering Chicago's Legendary
Puppeteer, Burr Tillstrom." Chicago, July 1986.
"End of the Affair." Time (New York), 9 September 1957.
Richard B. "Mr. Oliver J. Dragon...and Friends." Theatre Arts
(New York), October 1950.
George Gleve. "Kukla, Fran and Fletcher." New York Times,
30 June 1989.
"Kukla, Fran and Ollie." in Wilk, Max, editor. The Golden Age
of Television: Notes from the Survivors. Mount Kisco, New York:
Moyer Bell, 1989.
"Shed a Tear for Them." Newsweek (New York), 9 September
"The Tillstrom Kids." Newsweek (New York), 22 August 1949.
"Top Hat Dragon." Newsweek (New York), 7 December 1953.
"You've Got to Believe." Time (New York), 2 January 1950.
School of Television; Children
and Television; Tillstrom,