'Kukla, Fran and Ollie': Beloved old friends, new DVD look

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A happy childhood is a dangerous thing. It can lead one to make awfully discouraging comparisons once well into adulthood. It can inspire an ironically sorrowful longing for a much less complicated existence - a time when, if you had a good parent or two, you might well have felt as sheltered and loved as you might never quite again.

My childhood was almost criminally happy, for which I have to thank, most of all, my sister, who flattered me with laughter and rapt attention when I wrote stories for her, whether she wanted them or not. We also managed to entertain ourselves almost endlessly merely by dropping her stuffed animals - a dog, a cat puppet, a sock monkey - either off the roof or down the clothes chute that ran from the second floor, where our bedrooms were, to the basement, where Mom did the laundry when not doing other work to supplement the family income.

And we had television. "It was all new and wonderful then," as no less an icon than Bob Hope said in a 1959 documentary. Imagine - 1959, TV was barely more than a decade old, and already it seemed to have lost all innocence. But in the earlier days, especially on local channels, the TV shows that were made for us, the first generation of tube-babies, had a magically accessible homemade quality, the entertainment equivalent of comfort food.

In the Chicago TV market, where I grew up, Uncle Johnny Coons was king at midday with "Lunchtime Little Theater," a mishmash of skits and cartoons, although there was, shall we say, enormous competition on another channel from Dick "Two Ton" Baker, a playfully obese man (obesity was not yet a crime in those days) who sat at a piano, pounding out songs and interacting with puppets.

As Charles Dickens had in his "heart of hearts" a favorite child named David Copperfield, so I had in mine a group of favorite friends acquired vicariously through television: "Kukla, Fran and Ollie." They were unfailingly good company, unlike real friends, and seldom was heard a discouraging word from any of them. They were discouragement-proof, and so were you while in their presence.

Talk about simplicity itself: a miniaturized proscenium in which appeared Kukla, an androgynous sprite of a puppet with a ping-pong-ball nose and eyebrows arched in surprise; Ollie, a vain but malleable dragon with one tooth dangling from the end of his long snout; and Fran Allison, not a puppet but a beautiful singer who also starred on the Chicago-based radio show "Don McNeill's Breakfast Club." She would stand in front of the little stage talking to "the gang" for 30 minutes (later shortened to 15) every weekday.

The cast of characters included not only the two eponymous stars but also such characters as Buelah Witch (named for producer Beulah Zachary, though obviously with the spelling of her first name slightly changed); the imperious Madame Oglepuss, who personified adult pretentiousness; Fletcher Rabbit - hail bunny well met - and many more. They were the inspired creations of puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, a boyishly handsome genius who appeared briefly at the end of each show.

If that sounds familiar even if you never saw the show, it might be because you read about it in this very column earlier this year. The occasion then was the release on DVD of some "KFO" episodes from much later years (than the early '50s); they were atypically in color and produced not live but on videotape. Now, after decades of never being seen except in a museum, some of the earliest and most authentically classic episodes are being released: 20 shows from the years 1949-54, and they are, encouragingly, as wonderful as a former fan is likely to remember them.

Mark Milano, who produced the DVD and helped in the restoration of the black-and-white kinescopes (pale films made off TV monitors), says that Tillstrom himself selected these episodes as among his favorites (he died in 1985). Much more can be gleaned at the Web site www.kukla.tv , which is selling the discs on behalf of the Burr Tillstrom Trust. (Other, unauthorized old shows on DVD are available in several places on the Internet.)

There were, of course, no kids' channels or networks as such in those days - no Nickelodeon or Disney Channel with their polished, pricey-looking kidcoms. But at certain hours of the day, children were in charge of the set, and programs were geared toward them. "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," however, attracted a sizable adult audience as well, and famous fans included James Thurber, Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Tallulah Bankhead, Adlai Stevenson and little Stephen Sondheim, who in 1952 submitted a song to the show but had it rejected by the executive producer.

According to Sondheim, Tillstrom finally performed the song - "The Two of You" - much later in life, in a 1978 production of "Side by Side by Sondheim," with Kukla on his arm. Sondheim said in published reminiscence that he believed it to be the first time Tillstrom ever let it be seen that Kukla was but a puppet, instead of the real creature we fans thought he was.

The charm and wit of the Kuklapolitans were recognized by the earliest TV critics, including Jack Gould of the New York Times. "Without any question whatsoever it is the most charming and heartwarming excursion into pure make-believe that is to be found on television today," he wrote of the show, all the way back in 1948. Kukla and Ollie actually predated TV by having performed at, among other venues, the 1939 World's Fair.

Tillstrom specialized in gentle humor, yet among the highlights on the two-disc set is a genuinely uproarious visit from a then-young Marlin Perkins, Chicago zookeeper and later host of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom." He brought a de-scented skunk along to visit; it turned out that the skunk had another way of, well, stinking up the joint. Kukla had to mop up with a Kleenex. As often, you can hear the camera operators, stagehands and musicians roaring with laughter.

It was, in its way, a kind of reality show - each day you visited this odd crew of characters who performed almost always without a script, just ad-libbing their conversations with Allison and each other. When they sang together, there can only have been two voices - Allison's and one of the puppets - but even today it still sounds as if Tillstrom miraculously did two himself, simultaneously. Kukla and Ollie also seem to overlap when arguing - and when, of course, making up.

A lifelong devotee yearns to express the joy and pleasure that spending time with the Kuklapolitans meant, especially in those much-examined formative years, but it's a fairly futile exercise. They have to be experienced in their own time-filtered context. Kukla, Fran, Ollie and Tillstrom weren't doctors but subscribed to the Hippocratic Oath as sometimes reduced to "First, do no harm." They were incapable of harm to each other or to those of us at home watching, and laughing, feeling utterly transported, and wondering if life could ever get better than this. And now some of us know: It couldn't.

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