Tillstrom, the creative talent behind the extraordinarily successful
Kukla, Fran and Ollie, was one of television's earliest pioneers
and principal participant in a number of television "firsts." In
the late 1930s, Tillstrom joined the RCA Victor television demonstration
show for a tour throughout the Midwest and, at the completion of
the tour, was invited to present his Kuklapolitan Players at the
1939 New York World's Fair, where he demonstrated the new medium
at the RCA Victor exhibit. In the spring of 1940, RCA sent Tillstrom
to Bermuda to do the first ship-to-shore telecasts. The Kuklapolitans
were also featured at the 1941 premiere broadcast of the Balaban
and Katz station WBKB in Chicago. By drawing large audiences for
television puppetry, Tillstrom opened the door for future puppeteers
and their puppets, such as Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, Shari
Lewis and Lamb Chop, and Jim Henson and the Muppets.
demonstrated his improvisational talents at an early age when he
entertained neighborhood children using teddy bears, dolls, and
any other objects that he could animate to mimic performances and
film stories. After one year of college during the mid-1930s, he
joined the Chicago Parks District's puppet theater, created under
the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and developed
his own puppets and characters after work. Kukla, the puppet who
was the first member of the Kuklapolitan Players, was actually designed
and constructed by Tillstrom for a friend in 1936, but Tillstrom
found he couldn't part with his creation. The character remained
nameless until a chance meeting with Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova
who, upon seeing the puppet, called him "kukla" (Russian for "doll"
and a term of endearment).
format for Kukla, Fran and Ollie had its roots in Tillstrom's
work at the 1939 World's Fair. Tillstrom's puppets, who served as
an entr'acte for another marionette group, made comments to the
audience, and interacted with actresses and models (spokespersons
for the new medium) invited onto the stage. Tillstrom performed
more than 2,000 shows at the Fair, each performance different because
he disliked repetition.
continued to hone his craft by performing with other marionette
troupes and managing the puppet theatre at the Marshall Fields department
store in Chicago. He performed benefits for the USO during World
War II and at local hospitals for the Red Cross. During a bond-selling
rally in Chicago, Tillstrom met a young radio singer and personality,
Fran Allison, who joined his troupe for a trial 13-week local program,
a trial that lasted 10 years and attracted millions of fans.
created each puppet on Kukla, Fran and Ollie by hand and
was the sole manipulator and voice for 15 characters. He shifted
easily--usually with only a momentary pause--among characters and
created unique personalities and voices for each "kid" (as he referred
to his creations), ranging from the sweet voice of Kukla, a baritone
singing voice for Ollie, the flirtatious Buelah Witch, to the indistinguishable
gibberish of Cecil Bill. Standing behind the small stage, Tillstrom
could observe the on-stage action through the use of a small monitor,
a technique that was later adopted and expanded by Jim Henson for
The Muppet Show.
Although he is most closely identified with the Kukla, Fran and
Ollie, Tillstrom was featured on the series That Was The
Week That Was (TW3) in 1964 without the Kuklapolitans. He won
a special Emmy award for a hand-ballet symbolizing the emotional
conflicts caused by the Berlin Wall crisis. His work on TW3 was
cited by the George Foster Peabody committee which, in 1965, decided
to recognize distinguished individual achievements rather than general
program categories after chiding the radio and television industry
for "a dreary sameness and steady conformity" in its programming.
success on television in various reincarnations and syndicated specials
of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, including a Broadway production,
annual holiday productions at Chicago's Goodman Theater, and a sound
recording (for which he was nominated for a Best Recording for Children
Grammy in 1972), Tillstrom brought his characters to the printed
page in his 1984 work The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs. A
generous spirit who enjoyed sharing his knowledge and experience
with future performers, Tillstrom served as an artist-in-residence
at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. At the time of his death in
December 1985, he was working on a musical adaptation of his story
for television. In March 1986, he was inducted posthumously into
the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences
for his significant contributions to the art of television.
TILLSTROM. Born in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., 13 October 1917.
Attended the University of Chicago, 1935. Puppeteer from the early
1930s; created the puppet Kukla, 1936; manager of the puppet exhibits
and marionette theater at Marshall Field and Company in Chicago,
1938; joined the RCA Victor television demonstration show, 1939;
produced television show on Chicago television station WBKB with
his "Kuklapolitans," 1947; program picked up by NBC, 1948-52; show
moved to ABC, 1954-57; revived for PBS, 1969; staged a Broadway
production with the Kuklapolitans, 1960; hosted the CBS Children's
Film Festival in the 1970s; appeared on NBC series That Was the
Week that Was, 1964-65. Recipient: more than fifty entertainment
awards, including five Emmys. Died in Palm Springs, California,
U.S., 6 December 1985.
1975-76 Kukla, Fran & Ollie
1964-65 That Was the Week that Was
Kuklapolitan Players Present The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs.
New York: William Morrow, 1984.
Joe. "Burr Tillstrom's Intimate World." Washington (D.C.) Post,
22 December 1982.
"Burr Tillstrom Dies at 68; Creator of 'Kukla, Fran, Ollie.'" Variety
(Los Angeles), 11 December 1985.
Christiansen, Richard. "Burr Tillstrom: An Innovator Who had His
Hand in Here-And-Now Projects." Chicago Tribune, 15 December
Donald. "Kukla, Me, and Ollie: Remembering Chicago's Legendary Puppeteer,
Burr Tillstrom." Chicago Magazine, July 1986.
Jerry. "Burr Tillstrom, 68, Originated 'Kukla.'" Chicago Tribune,
7 December 1985.
"The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs (book review)." Publishers Weekly
(New York), 24 February 1984.
Crystal. "Burr Tillstrom, Puppeteer, Dies." New York Times,
8 December 1985.
Shales, Tom. "A Troupe's Worth of Talent Died With Burr Tillstrom."
Chicago Tribune, 18 December 1985.
School of Television; Children
and Television; Henson,
Fran and Ollie