TILLSTROM, BURR

U.S. Puppeteer

Burr 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.

Tillstrom 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).

The 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.

Tillstrom 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.

Tillstrom 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.

After 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.

-Susan Gibberman


Burr Tillstrom

BURR 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.

TELEVISION SERIES

1948-52; 1954-57;
1961-62; 1969-1971;
1975-76 Kukla, Fran & Ollie
1964-65 That Was the Week that Was

PUBLICATION

The Kuklapolitan Players Present The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs. New York: William Morrow, 1984.

FURTHER READING

Brown, 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 1985.

Corren, Donald. "Kukla, Me, and Ollie: Remembering Chicago's Legendary Puppeteer, Burr Tillstrom." Chicago Magazine, July 1986.

Crimmins, 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.

Nix, 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.

 

See also Allison, Fran; Chicago School of Television; Children and Television; Henson, Jim; Kukla, Fran and Ollie