Remember 'Kukla, Fran And Ollie,' The TV Show That Time Forgot?
Do you remember watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie? The live television series, which aired from 1947 to 1957, was groundbreaking in a quiet and understated way. And with puppets. The television series was a fan-favorite and appealed to both children and adults. Let’s look back at Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
A Chicago TV Show that went National
Kukla, Fran and Ollie was the brainchild of Burr Tillstrom, a puppeteer. In fact, he was the only puppeteer on the show and controlled both puppets--Kukla, a marionette-looking puppet, and Ollie, a dragon. Fran was played by Fran Allison, a former radio entertainer. The show ran on WBKB in Chicago, and NBC affiliate. Kukla, Fran and Ollie was the first NBC show to be broadcast in color and one of its first to have a national syndication.
One Human in a Sea of Puppets
Fran was the only human on the TV show. She served as a big sister-like character for her puppet co-stars, Kukla and Ollie. She was noted for being calm, pleasant, and always cheerful as she offered common-sense solutions to the problems the puppets were encountering. The TV show was filmed with a single, stationary camera so Fran did a lot of pivoting…facing the puppets as she interacted with them, then turning to face the camera when she spoke to her.
Puppet Guest Stars
Kukla and Ollie weren’t the only puppets on the show. Other puppet characters often joined in on the action, including Beulah Witch, a modern witch, Colonel Crackie, a Southern gent, Madame Oglepuss, a retired opera singer, Fletcher Rabbit, the local mailman, and Cecil Bill, a mumbling stagehand. Tillstrom controlled all the puppets from behind a curtained puppet show stand.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie Was Popular Among Celebrities
By today’s standards, Kukla, Fran and Ollie is a tame and only mildly-humorous, but during its time, with amassed a loyal following of devoted fans, many of whom were celebrities in their own right. Thorton Wilder, Orson Wells, and Jack Benny were all avid fans, as were Adlai Stevenson, John Steinbeck, and Edward Albee. According to one story, actress Tallulah Bankhead had to miss several episodes of Kukla, Fran and Ollie while she was traveling so she asked friends to take notes on the episodes she was going to miss, just so she could keep up with what was happening on the show.
The majority of the storylines of Kukla, Fran and Ollie involved the group of puppets planning and rehearsing for stage shows and plays. In fact, the characters staged scenes from Shakespearean plays, historical re-enactments, and at least one original show called St. George and the Dragon. The characters refused to acknowledge that they were actually puppets on a show and instead, acted like characters who were presenting a show. It was a strange and quirky twist that audiences loved. It laid the groundwork for other similar shows, such as The Muppet Show.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie Blurred the Lines Between Childhood and Adulthood
Most of the characters in the show were supposed to be adults, yet they all exhibited childlike qualities. They were cheerful, funny, and exuberant, much like children. Ratings showed that only half of the viewers were children. Adults were drawn to the running gags and enjoyed watching the characters grow. The puppets often engaged with current events which helped to keep the material fresh.
The Dialogue was Ad-Libbed
Much of Kukla, Fran and Ollie was unscripted and unrehearsed. Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison met with the show’s producer and music director each day to sketch out a rough outline of the week’s plotlines and the discuss songs. But the lines were ad-libbed on the spot. Watching the shows now, viewers can see mistakes and flubbed lines, as well as background noise from the stage crew and awkward pauses in the action. All of that would be edited out of a modern show, but it was left in on Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Heartbroken Fans when the Show was Cancelled
When it was announced that Kukla, Fran and Ollie was canceled in 1957, heartbroken fans responded in droves. The studio got thousands of letters from upset viewers. In fact, many viewers threatened to toss their TVs out the window unless the show returned. One viewer wrote, “Since they have been off the air, life has seemed to lose some of its sweetness and charm.” For many, the loveable puppet characters had become such a familiar part of life that their absence was strongly felt.