When Burr Tillstrom died, he took most of an entire repertory company with him. Indeed, he took more than that. For those of a certain age, those who are members of the first American television generation, Tillstrom's death this month, at 68, severs a last link with childhood and with television's own bright youth. It isn't a magic box anymore.
It was once.
"Kukla, Fran and Ollie," the program that Tillstrom created and performed, was pure magic and pure television. It was more, much more, than just another children's show, and Tillstrom never liked Kukla, Ollie, Buelah Witch, Madame Oglepuss and the other Kuklapolitans referred to as mere "puppets." We rarely saw more of Tillstrom than his arms from about the elbows out, swathed in one of his creations, or the quick hello cameo he might do at the end of the show, but through the characters we knew him, and he made himself worth knowing.
Fran Allison, the sole visible nonpuppet member of the troupe, who would saunter out to the miniature proscenium for each day's adventures, says from Van Nuys, Calif., that she came to regard the Kuklapolitans as real, just as those of us in the loyal audience did. "Kukla and I of course had a beautiful love affair -- I adored him, and he adored me -- but I loved all of them," she says, in the rosy liquid voice she always had. "Now, not only have I come to the end of a beautiful relationship with Burr, but I've lost all my other friends as well."
The Kuklapolitans weren't preoccupied with the mission of rendering moral tales through television, though they could spin one when they wanted to, and they didn't jump through hoops to impress upon us their cuteness and charm. This was an easygoing, relaxed, conversational show, the epitome of what was then considered the Chicago school of television. In Max Wilk's 1976 book "The Golden Age of Television," Tillstrom reminisced about the birth of the Kuklapolitans at the dawn of TV.
"We made up television," Tillstrom said. "There was no influence to teach us. We weren't conforming to anything. California never bothered to develop any television techniques; they just adapted films to television. But Chicago in those days was a very special place."
The Kuklapolitan Players were as gifted a repertory company in their way as any that ever trod a board; they were the Old Vic and the Savoyards, and the chorus of cutups on "The Jack Benny Show," rolled into one. But "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" was more than theater. It was group therapy, an education in sensitivity for kids and their parents at home, a daily essay in the shrewdest, gentlest sort of observational humor. During particularly tender years, it may have seemed to us we learned as much about life from Kukla, Fran and Ollie as from any other source.
Television was just making its incursions into the roles of parent and companion then. In this case, it delivered us into good hands. Brilliant hands.
Like the new medium, Tillstrom's art was fresh and bright and nothing if not spontaneous. He didn't use scripts, in part, he explained, because he couldn't turn the pages when both hands were working puppets. Instead, Fran and the company would chat and sing and cope and make it up as they went along. The program was live in the fullest sense of the term. It was real in the fullest sense of the term. It was maximum minimalism.
The show began on WBKB in Chicago in 1947 but moved the following year to NBC-owned WMAQ, where it thrived. "I remember it was on a Thursday afternoon that the head of the station first talked to Burr about doing a show," Fran Allison recalls. She was a radio star at the time, playing Aunt Fanny, among other characters, on "Don McNeill's Breakfast Club." On the following Monday morning, Allison says, she and Tillstrom met in a coffee shop to talk about the first day's program and consider the wisdom of the venture. "Burr and I decided it would certainly be worth a try," she says. "We went on the air at 4 o'clock that afternoon and stayed on for 10 years."
During the first year, the Kuklapolitans did an hour of television a day, five days a week, and never once did they show, or even entertain the thought of showing, a cartoon. Musical performances were added along the way, supervised by Jack Fascinato. Once installed at WMAQ, the show went out over what existed at the time of the NBC Television Network, as a daily half-hour at 7 p.m. RCA, owner of NBC, owner of WMAQ, wanted to move television sets out of the nation's saloons and appliance store windows and into its living rooms. "They thought a good approach would be through children, because if children like something and want it, and their parents can afford it, they'll probably buy it for them."
With a still-childlike breathlessness, something that made her the ideal intermediary on the show, Fran Allison remembers "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" as more than a successful experiment in television. "It was a glorious adventure for me," she says. "Imagine, I got to take flights of fancy every day! We kind of grew up together. Television was young, and we were young in the sense we were learning about it. Through those conversations we had, Kukla and Ollie and the others grew and developed. We found we had many interests in common. It is something I will treasure always."
Kukla was a pragmatic but sentimental Pierrot with a bald head and a large polka-dot nose. Oliver J. Dragon was his pal, a gregarious and flirtatious reptilicus erectus with long, soulful eyelashes and one wobbly tooth at the end of his snout. With that tooth, he would frequently assault the irresistible target of Kukla's proboscis, but always playfully and affectionately. Madame Oglepuss, first name Ophelia, was a pompous aspiring diva with a pin-cushion bosom, and Buelah Witch a sassy battle-axe with a no-nonsense manner who flew in on her broomstick armed with spells and bromides. Others in the cast included Fletcher Rabbit, Ollie's cousin Dolores, and Cecil Bill, who spoke in a daffy language of his own.
Nobody talked about "superstars" then, but there were few stars as super as these. The Kuklapolitans practiced, without preaching, gentleness long before there were any consumer watchdog groups to mandate it, and long before Mr. Rogers or "Sesame Street" or the Muppets. Burr Tillstrom wore his heart on his sleeves in a sense, maybe as his sleeves, but the program never congratulated itself for being warm and humane. It just was.
WMAQ had already planned reruns this weekend of " 'Tis the Season to Be Ollie," a 1979 Kuklapolitan special; now the showings will be preceded by a brief tribute to Tillstrom and his work. On Tuesday, a memorial service will be held at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, with former FCC chairman Newton Minow delivering the eulogy, and comments from fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel. Allison hopes to attend, too.
" 'Tis the Season . . ." was produced on tape, and boasts some modern technical production stuff, but it still has the sweet, casual cadence of the old live shows. Ollie at one point imagines he has written an original Christmas story about "Randolph, the Glow-Toothed Reindeer," and when reminded that a similar story already exists, is apopleptic that he might have committed plagiarism. "Oh, the tricks one's subconscious will play on one!" he laments. Later, Fran obliges Kukla with a kiss on the nose, and Kukla responds with a rapturous, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Nick Aronson, who produced the Christmas special and two others that Tillstrom did during that period, first met Tillstrom in 1973, he says, and soon became a friend. "He was absolutely remarkable in terms of his talent and his sensitivity," Aronson says from his office at WMAQ. "No one was able to communicate the way he could. Sometimes he might have trouble with one-on-one communication himself, but with the Kuklapolitans he had no trouble at all."
He could make the characters real to the audience because they were real to him. "When I first met him and worked with him, he put in an exhausting day doing shows, and a luncheon, and at 6 o'clock, he called me to thank me for my help, and we talked about how unfortunate it was that Kukla and Ollie weren't on television any more. Then he said he was tired and that Kukla and Ollie were tired, too. He said, 'Kukla and Ollie are resting.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'They're lying on the bed. They've had a hard day, too.' He meant it. That's how he thought of them. They were an extension of him in absolutely every possible way."
Asked to describe the lasting appeal of the Kuklapolitans, Aronson says, "They were so kind, so affectionate; they were every way you'd want your friends to be. They never hurt one another. It was all based on love.
"What I can't believe," Aronson says, "is that it's over."
In 1983, the Museum of Broadcasting in New York paid tribute to Tillstrom and his Kuklapolitans, all of whom showed up to conduct seminars and host screenings. Robert Batscha, director of the Museum, remembers Tillstrom's visit fondly. "The shows never had scripts of course, and he didn't use a script here either," Batscha says. "He would go behind the booth and pull out his characters, and it was extraordinary how he would adapt to the audience and be funny and clever and witty. He was much more than a puppeteer. He was constantly innovative and spontaneous."
Batscha remembers that Tillstrom made it clear when he agreed to participate that the seminars would not be for children, but for adults and children, just as he never considered his program to be simply a children's show. He told Wilk, "I don't think we ever intended it for kids. Not for them alone, at least. We've always assumed that this family was for the whole family."
This is also the year Tillstrom was named to the Television Academy's TV Hall of Fame. "I was to have been part of the presentation," says Allison, "and will be." But Tillstrom will not be there with his arms full of creatures to accept the accolades at the ceremony next month.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie became icons of the '50s, like Ike or Dave Garroway or the NBC peacock. They ventured away from their Kuklapolitan Playhouse in Chicago's massive Merchandise Mart, where the WMAQ studios were located, on various special missions. Allison recalls that one of them was to Washington in the very early '50s, to help RCA demonstrate its compatible color television system for members of Congress and other mover-shakers. "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" was one of the first programs in color.
"We did some sort of presentation in an old hotel where the TV studio was," Allison says. "Then after doing that all day, we did our own show at 7 o'clock at night. I remember I had a red and black taffeta dress I wore, and I almost tore it up at the end of the week, I was so sick of it. Kukla had made all the plans for the trip, and we talked about it on the show the week before. Then when we got to Washington I remember Burr showed me he'd had a new Kukla made. I was shocked. A new Kukla? Burr said, 'Well Fran, be reasonable. I have to do this for color.' And you know, I was self-conscious with the new Kukla for the first couple of days."
The Kuklapolitans also made guest appearances on other shows, one of them the most momentous of all '50s spectaculars, "The Ford 50th Anniversary Show," which was broadcast on two networks simultaneously on June 16, 1953. Burr Tillstrom was to have been among the hosts for a special screening of the program, sponsored by the Museum of Broadcasting, in Los Angeles in March.
While appearances by the Kuklapolitans grew sporadic in the '60s, Tillstrom was a semiregular on the American version of "That Was the Week That Was," on NBC in the 1964-'65 season. Tillstrom introduced his concept of hand ballet, the most memorable example of which was a pantomime of two people meeting during a momentary relaxation of security at the Berlin Wall. Burr Tillstrom was still demonstrating how the seeming limitations of television could be turned into gold.
On the Ford anniversary show, Marian Anderson sang "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," and Oscar Hammerstein II talked with Edward R. Murrow about the perils of the nuclear age, and Ethel Merman sang a now-legendary medley duet with Mary Martin. After Merman finished "There's No Business Like Show Business," Kukla and Ollie appeared.
"There's no business like television, either," Ollie observed.
"It's so young, you know," said Kukla.
"Yes," said Ollie peevishly. "When will it grow up?"
It's grown up now, and grown huge, but much has been lost in the growing. "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" is playing only in our hearts.