Kukla, Fran, and Ollie

A nod today to children’s television stars Kukla, Fran and Ollie. 

Kukla and Ollie were the creations of Chicago puppeteer Burr Tillstrom (1917-1985). Kukla (which is the Russian word for “doll”) was created in 1936, and named by Balanchine ballerina Tamara Toumanova, who met Tillstrom backstage after one of her performances. “Ollie” stood for “Oliver J. Dragon”. Tillstrom had become a professional puppeteer whole a college student at the University of Chicago, operating a marionette theatre under a WPA program administered by the Chicago Parks Department. He called his little troupe of characters “The Kuklapolitan Players”. Others included Beulah Witch, Goultar, Cecil Bill, and Fletcher Rabbit. In 1939 he performed at the New York World’s Fair. 


In 1947 Tillstrom paired with broadcast personality Fran Allison (1907-1989) on the local Chicago TV show Junior Jamboree. Two years later the show went out nationally via NBC as Kukla, Fran and Ollie. The entire show was ad libbed, and loved by adults as well as children for its clever and surreal humor. It remained on the air through 1957. Later Tillstrom performed with his characters on his own show without Fran and on Polly Bergen’s variety show. They were reunited to perform wrap-arounds on the CBS Children’s Film Festival program (1967-77). I first became acquainted with them as a child during this phase.

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.