"Amazing how people react to the Kukla-politans," says master puppeteer Burr Tillstrom. "So much affection. Everywhere I go I feel like I have a large family." That he does. And a large part of that large family has long been out of its corduroy overalls, a long way from the smells of warm milk and animal crackers and crayon wax. It has grown up, the generation that shared its childhood with Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Fletcher Rabbit, Madam Ooglepuss and Beulah Witch; but it still remembers, still responds. As do the parents of that generation, the ones who bought the TV sets of the '50s, set the channel for Tillstrom's puppet show, and then found themselves lingering in the doorway, as entranced by the magic on the screen as surely as their kids.
This week the magic will spin itself out again for them and all puppet-lovers during the World Puppetry Festival sponsored by the Puppeteers of America and L'Union 2nternational de la Marionette. Even now they're gathering town, members of the House of Henson, the Clan of Baird, the Line of Lewis and many others.
"When I was starting out there were no puppetry festivals, few traveling shows, low exposure," Tillstrom recalls. In 1936 he was working for the WPA's Federal Theater, doing street-theater marionette shows in Chicago. That year the first Festival was held in Detroit and proved to be a revelation. Tillstrom saw all kinds of puppets -- rod puppets, shadow puppets, finger puppets, hand puppets -- and it was out of that Festival's creative ferment that the wise clown Kukla was born. "It was the first hand puppet I ever made," Tillstrom says. "He was a little smaller then, and I carried him around in my pocket. He didn't play in our shows but after each performance he'd come out to give a critique, just tease everybody -- and on one could get mad at me."
Puppeteers are gentle folk. Burr Tillstrom is the kind of man who leaves grassy islands in his lawn for wild daisies and resident toads. "I mow the lawn myself because I'm afraid someone else would rip through too fast and kill them," he says with a laugh. "Some people think I'm crazy, but they're good for a garden, those toads, and they're friends. One fellow kept trying to hop up on the back stoop, and now that I made him a little brick stairway he can make it."
It pleases Tillstrom that people find similarities between his puppet-world and that of the Mary Tyler Moore show. Both, he says, have a big family atmosphere: The group has its eccentrics, its stabilizer, and its members always forgive one another's foibles. Tillstrom believes that such traits as empathy, forgiveness and patience have an important place in puppets' personas, because they can influence the values of the audience, perhaps on a subconscious level. The Kuklapolitans seem to combine spry humor (derived in part from Tillstrom's love of vaudeville), with tenderness, also reflective of their creator.
The family of Kuklapolitans got its name one evening when Tillstrom brought his new hand puppet to see a friend who danced with the visiting Ballet Russe, a young Russian ballerina named Tamara Toumanova. While she put her makeup on before her backstage mirror, Tillstrom put the puppet at her shoulder so that it appeared with its face close to hers. "Ah, kukla!" she exclaimed using the Russian and Greek word for "doll," often used as a term of endearment for a child. It fit. "He was a kukla," says Tillstrom, who then went home to try to figure out how to spell the new name.
Ollie, the memorable friendly dragon, evolved "inslightly less romantic way." Tillstrom was working kids' parties occasionally after the WPA ended and he went out on his own. He thought a dragon puppet would hold the attention of small children, but he wanted to make sure it wouldn't frighten them either. "Ollie was born of the need for a gentle, wistful dragon," with velvet lips, soft fuzz instead of scales, and one wobbly tooth instead of fangs. The vulnerable, emotional dragon became the partner of the even-tempered patient clown Kukla, with Tillstrom always doing both voices and movements for the team. Fran Allison stood outside the proscenium arch and became their straight person in 1947 as the show became the first sponsored hour-length series on NBC-TV, helping to launch the network. In 1953 ABC-TV became the Kuklapolitans' new home where they appeared five days a week, in a series of 15 minutes, on the air regularly till 1958.
Kukla and Fran were live-on-camera the day Sweet William, a Zoo Parade (deodorized) skunk was a guest on the show. The skunk grew restless, needed to go out and didn't make it in time. When he left a personal memento right on the puppet stage, Fran couldn't stop laughing, caught her pearls on the set -- "the pearls broke, her mascara ran" -- and Kukla, performing before a camera that a couldn't cut away, had to exercise great presence of mind. He reached backstage for a prop that came in handy: a mop, with which he cleaned up the stage-, and the show went on. "Wouldn't you know," Kukla quipped, "this would happen the day Margaret Truman said this is her favorite show?"
Fortunately, the Kuklapolitans were used to ad-libbing, never using a script.
Sometimes Tillstrom has thought it all might have been easier had he been an actor. The late Beulah Zachary, his friend and producer, answered that with words which have sustained him since. "There are a lot of good actors," she said. "But there's only one person who could make the Kuklapolitans live."