Burr Tillstrom, 68, a television pioneer whose creations, the hand-held puppets Kukla, a clown, and Ollie, a one-toothed dragon, were the stars of a prime-time children's hit, "Kukla, Fran & Ollie," was found dead Dec. 6 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif.
A spokesman for the Riverside County coroner's office said that the cause of death had not been determined but that it appeared to stem from natural causes.
The hostess of the famed show was the singer-actress Fran Allison. The only "live" person on the program, she was its straight man. The show ran Monday through Friday on NBC from 1948 to 1952, and then on ABC from 1954 to 1957.
"Kukla, Fran & Ollie" first appeared on the old WBKB television station in Chicago in 1947 and was picked up by network television. It garnered an enthusiastic audience and the praise of critics. Along the way, Mr. Tillstrom earned five Emmy and two Peabody awards.
The program was never scripted, ran live, and relied on the wit, charm, and ad-libs of Allison and Mr. Tillstrom. Mr. Tillstrom, who was never seen on the program, made all the puppets by hand, and did all the voices.
Kukla was a solemn and oft-perplexed fellow while Ollie was a one-toothed Vermonter with a lovable devil-may-care air. And no, he was not a fire-breathing dragon. Mr. Tillstrom once explained that "Kukla was my version of Punch, and Ollie was my version of the crocodile in the old Punch and Judy shows."
He said he purposely made Ollie as gentle as possible so he wouldn't frighten children. "I don't recall a child ever being threatened by Ollie, and that's because he's foolish and civilized," he said.
In addition to Kukla, Oliver J. (Ollie) Dragon, and the sane and pleasant Fran Allison, the cast of the characters, known as the Kuklapolitan Players, included Fletcher Rabbit, a mailman with droopy ears; Ophelia Oglepuss, a former opera star, Beulah Witch, who rode a jet-powered broomstick and patrolled the network's coaxial cable, and Col. Richard Cracky, a southern gentleman company's emcee.
Other members of the troupe included Olivia Dragon, Ollie's mother, who had two teeth and a pronounced New England accent, and Dolores Dragon, the infant daughter of Ollie's long-lost Uncle Dorchester.
The show had more than its share of fine moments. In addition to the everyday wit and charm, it also featured several special events. These ranged from an August 1953 showing that was one of the first network experiments in compatible color to a series of musicals and satires. Viewers were introduced to "Martin Dragon, Private Tooth," and saw such operettas as "The Mikado" with Kukla as Nanki Poo, Fran as Yum-Yum, and Ollie as the Lord High Executioner. "St. George and the Dragon" featured the live musical accompaniment of Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.
The show was brought back on public television from 1969 to 1971 and was rebroadcast in a syndicated version during 1975 and 1976.
Upon learning of Mr. Tillstrom's death, NBC Chairman Grant Tinker said "NBC is particularly indebted to Burr Tillstrom. When television was just beginning and there was a curiosity about how good it could be, we were fortunate to have his unique skills to establish a standard of excellence the medium has worked to equal ever since."
Mr. Tillstrom was a native of Chicago. He dropped out of the University of Chicago to work in the Works Progress Administration's Marionette Project. His first creation was the bulbous-nosed "Kukla," which means doll in Russian. By the end of 1940, he had toured state fairs, appeared on vaudeville and in nightclubs, and had worked in a Chicago department store theater. He also had toured with his puppets to demonstrate television for NBC and had appeared in the network's exhibit at the New York World's Fair.
He had moved to California from Chicago earlier this year. In recent years, he had conducted seminars and wrote children's stories.
Survivors include a brother, Richard.