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Correction to This Article
The Tom Shales column incorrectly said that the television show "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" ran five days a week on NBC from 1947 to 1957. The show ended its run on NBC in 1954, and it aired only once a week on NBC between 1952 and 1954. The show then moved to ABC, where it resumed a five-day-a-week schedule through 1957.

Tom Shales reflects on 'Kukla, Fran and Ollie'

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By Tom Shales
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How painful to see "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" consigned to somebody's slapped-together Internet list of "Forgotten TV Shows." Forgotten? Not by untold thousands for whom the adventures of Kukla, Fran and Ollie were once as integral to a day as eating breakfast, going to school or teasing your sister.

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For some boomers, "K, F and O" may have been the first television show they ever really loved -- not some prefabricated folly to be lumped in with "Holmes and Yo-Yo" or "Baggy Pants and the Nit-Wits" or others in the ranks of the forgotten.

To help keep it remembered, fans of the show and colleagues of its creator, the gifted Burr Tillstrom, have reissued five episodes from a latter-day revival and packaged them in a five-disc 60th anniversary commemorative-edition DVD set. Faithfully enough, these episodes are in color, unlike most of the clips available on YouTube and other sites; the Kuklapolitans were on one of the first regularly scheduled color shows, mainly because they appeared on NBC, which was owned by RCA, which originally made all the color sets sold in this country.

Technically, "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" was a kids' show, but adults watched almost religiously -- and we're talking adult adults, celebrated adults -- including James Thurber, Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Adlai E. Stevenson and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The famous actress Tallulah Bankhead was such a fan that when Fran Allison, the human member of the cast, got sick, Bankhead came in and replaced her for the two weeks she was incapacitated.

There doesn't seem to be any old kinescopes or films or videotapes of that momentous oddity lying around, and in fact, not much of "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" still exists, considering it aired five days a week on NBC for the first 10 years of television, 1947-'57. You won't find any surviving scripts, either, because there weren't any in the first place. Tillstrom, who dreamed up the show and worked all the puppets, ad-libbed every performance.

Allison, a former schoolteacher who'd achieved some fame as a singer and as wacky Aunt Fanny on "Don McNeill's Breakfast Club" (the only radio show yours truly truly remembers), followed cues and suggestions she got from the puppets, only she never related to them as puppets. They were her friends, and ours -- beamed through the air as visions of light, apparitions on the family's 14- or 21-inch console TV set.

Those early sets and that early television brought the family together -- literally close together; because the picture was so small, the family had to scrunch together near the set for everyone to see it. "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" aired weekdays, live from neither New York nor Los Angeles but Chicago, in those days poised to become a major television production center. Poise is one thing; the dream never quite came true, and as the '50s ended, television migrated from New York to L.A., flying right over Chicago as if it didn't exist.

(Years later, an arrogant network executive, identity unknown, achieved anonymous infamy when he haughtily referred to viewers in the Midwest as "the people we fly over," which helps explain how television got the way it got).

The Chicago School, which original "Today" show host Dave Garroway also typified, was a gentler and kinder television but also as cool as jazz and very independent-minded. It was mostly real-time television, attuned to the rhythms not of movies or radio but of the real world. "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" occurred in real time and was a benign and bewitching example of pure television.

It was perhaps more similar to a conference call than to the typical TV show of then or now. We couldn't actually participate in the call, of course, but the degree of intimacy and bonhomie achieved by the puppets and Allison's interlocutions was a charismatic marvel: There is nothing like it now, but there was nothing like it then, either -- other puppets, sure, but none with the same sweet status and homey appeal.

Kukla, the leader of the pack -- his name taken from the Russian word for "doll" -- was a cherubic but savvy chap with a down-to-earth outlook and a touch of sophisticated skepticism. His arched eyebrows and look of alarm led a brilliant Style writer of the '90s to declare that then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher was a dead ringer for him. She was right.

Oliver J. Dragon was the naughty-boy rebel of the company, a one-toothed reptile with a leopard-skin body, for some reason, and a pair of soulful, doleful, heavily lashed eyes. There were other supporting players, too, chief among them Buelah Witch (named for one of the original producers, Beulah Zachary), opera singer Madame Ophelia Oglepuss, Southern windbag Col. Crackey, and Cecil Bill, who talked in a language that only Kukla could decipher. Like this: "Doo-doo-DOO-doo-doo-doo."

Okay, it sounds too too precious. Even advertising for the show would advise viewers to watch it more than once in order to readjust one's perceptions appropriately. But once hooked, you were theirs for life. TV critic Harriet van Horne announced that she was moving dinner at home to 7:30, a half-hour later than it had been, so she would never miss "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" at 7.

The accolades were extravagant, and remained so for years. Tillstrom continued to work with his puppets after the show was canceled, returning in such vehicles as a "CBS Children's Film Festival" on Saturday afternoons. In the '60s, he created eloquent hand ballets for NBC's satirical show "That Was the Week That Was," one of them a hands-only (and of course hands-on) interpretation of two people meeting at the Berlin Wall and being forced to part.

The new DVD's are available from KuklaFranandOllie.com. It's not possible to re-create the circumstances of those original viewings so many unforgiving years ago, but the Kuklapolitans on home video do at least plunk responsive chords.

And that may be as far as it is advisable to go. A character who dies in the third act of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" is allowed to leave the grave, return to consciousness and live any one day of her life over again, exactly as it was. She tries, but the happiness and poignancy overwhelm her. It is, she says, "too wonderful" to bear. So it is that some of us keep trying, full knowing we must never succeed.


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