1 9 4 7 – 1 9 6 2 (USA)
Kukla, Fran and Ollie began as a local show on WBKB in Chicago on 13 October 1947 (originally as Junior Jamboree) and moved to a nightly half-hour on NBC on 12 January 1949.
Burr Tillstrom was the creator, puppeteer and provider of voices. He first created Kukla in 1936 while he was performing all over Chicago with the WPA Parks District Theatre.
The two main puppet characters were Kukla (Russian for ‘doll’), a bald worried-looking puppet with a big bulbous clown nose and a high voice, and Ollie (full name Oliver J Dragon) – an amiable creature with only one tooth.
Singer/actress Fran Allison was the hostess and only visible human on the show. Together, the three sang songs and enjoyed improvised conversations for nearly 15 years.
Each show was entirely improvised. The only prior planning was a basic storyline.
Other puppets amongst the Kuklapolitan Players included the wiry and clever Fletcher Rabbit; long-winded southerner Colonel Crackie; the crackle-voiced but likeable Beulah Witch who rode a jet-propelled broomstick; the overbearing but kind-hearted diva Madame Ophelia Oglepuss; and Cecil Bill, a stage manager who used only the sounds “doi-de-doi-doi”.
Fantasy, whimsy, satire and parody abounded, with a lot of in-jokes and offstage laughter by crew members. The personalities of the puppets – and the sophisticated levels of wit and whimsy – were more suited to adult viewers, who, in fact, watched the programme in great numbers.
It was through Fran Allison that the Kuklapolitans came to life as individual personalities with life histories. Characters discussed their backgrounds, where they attended school, and their relatives.
Allison was the first to mention Ollie’s elderly mother Mercedes Olivia Dragon, whose hair was a staggering 75-feet-long and his young niece Dolores, and Tillstrom added them to their growing number of Kuklapolitans.
In addition to prompting the characters to talk about themselves, Allison herself invented some of the characters’ histories, such as announcing that Buelah Witch’s alma mater was Witch Normal.
Thanksgiving pageants, Christmas musicales and operetta spoofs of shows such as The Mikado became classics and are fondly remembered by people of a certain age.
The show ended its NBC run on 13 June 1954. The program then moved to the ABC network on 6 September 1954 and remained there until it left the air on 30 August 1957.
In 1967 the trio began hosting the long-running, critically acclaimed CBS Children’s Film Festival. Simultaneously, from 1969 to 1971, Kukla, Fran and Ollie was revived for PBS.
Hopes for another revival existed all the way up until 1985 when puppeteer Burr Tillstrom died, and the final curtain closed on the Kuklapolitan Players.
Fran Allison died in Sherman Oaks, California, on 13 June 1989.
Ollie (Oliver J Dragon)
Jack Facsinato Orchestra