Pioneers Children’s Television Programming Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of television’s earliest and most endearing shows, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie made the gentle banter of puppets with one human performer the unlikely formula for an early hit television show.

Summary of Event

If by the end of World War II Chicago had declined as a radio broadcasting center, within a few years it had become a thriving source of some of television’s earliest hit shows. While Garroway at Large, with Dave Garroway, and Studs’ Place, with Studs Terkel, provided the intimacy of good conversation, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie provided a company of puppet players in gentle conversation with one on-camera human performer, the actor Fran Allison. Almost entirely improvised, the low-budget show was fresh and lifelike, and it offered the promise of good conversation among a likable set of friends. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (television program) Television;children’s programs[childrens programs] Puppets [kw]Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers Children’s Television Programming (Nov. 29, 1948-Aug. 31, 1957) [kw]Children’s Television Programming, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers (Nov. 29, 1948-Aug. 31, 1957)[Childrens Television Programming, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers] [kw]Television Programming, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers Children’s (Nov. 29, 1948-Aug. 31, 1957) Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (television program) Television;children’s programs[childrens programs] Puppets [g]North America;Nov. 29, 1948-Aug. 31, 1957: Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers Children’s Television Programming[02690] [g]United States;Nov. 29, 1948-Aug. 31, 1957: Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers Children’s Television Programming[02690] [c]Radio and television;Nov. 29, 1948-Aug. 31, 1957: Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers Children’s Television Programming[02690] Allison, Fran Tillstrom, Burr

Burr Tillstrom, the show’s puppeteer and the voice of all the puppets, created the character of Kukla in 1936. Tillstrom gradually added an entire troupe of puppets to fill out his repertory company. The gentle Kukla (Russian for “doll”), who consisted of little more than a tennis-ball head and a smaller red ball for a nose, was the show’s stable center of low-key good sense. Kukla found an ideal complement in the boisterous extrovert Oliver J. Dragon, who clearly relied on the soft-spoken Kukla to restrain his imaginative and aggressive nature. With his single floppy and occasionally threatening snaggletooth, Ollie would often swat Kukla with his beak or bite Kukla’s tempting nose in exasperation, but the bond between the two unlikely friends was deep and enduring.

The third pillar of the company, Fran Allison, would often introduce the topic of conversation and guide the debate on moral or topical problems between the two puppets. Originally a schoolteacher and radio singer in Iowa, she portrayed the obstreperous “Aunt Fannie” on Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club (radio program)[Don Macneills Breakfast Club] on Chicago radio in the mornings before joining the puppets for the evening’s television show.

Although the show was occasionally criticized for its lack of development and action, the critics were generally as enthusiastic as the public, which consisted equally of children enjoying the puppets’ antics and adults who found the compatibility and intelligence of the conversation among Fran and the puppets soothing. In 1949, a reviewer for The New York Times celebrated the show’s upbeat tone: “The puppets, manipulated by Burr Tillstrom, are astonishingly lifelike and informal in their bantering with Miss Allison, who has a knack for treating them as humans yet always keeping her tongue in cheek.”

The show’s run—from November 29, 1948, to August 31, 1957—almost exactly coincided with the period in which television captured the hearts and living rooms of the American public; in this time, televisions were installed in two-thirds of all American homes and became the primary source of home entertainment. Among the earliest and more naïve hopes for television were that it would renew family life by keeping family members at home and that it would unite the family after the dislocations of the Great Depression and World War II. In this period, the primary site of spectator amusement moved from the motion-picture theater to the home, and television was welcomed as the best approximation of live entertainment.

The theater was very much the model for early television shows, and while the legitimate theater clearly inspired early anthology drama showcases such as Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90, vaudeville was the model for variety shows such as the Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle and Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar. Jack Benny spoke for many when he said that television was an extension of the stage. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie accepted the theatrical convention by clearly placing the puppets within a miniature proscenium arch puppet stage, with Fran Allison always standing outside the stage to the left of the puppets. When she occasionally sang, the puppets would remain onstage to watch her and applaud her performance; Ollie would fall over backward in an amusingly erotic swoon. Burr Tillstrom appeared at the show’s end to take a bow with the puppets.

The show embraced the theatrical metaphor by supplying an entire troupe of puppets to support Kukla and Ollie. Cecil Bill, the company manager, spoke a sweet but unintelligible language of his own, while Colonel Crackie, the troupe’s emcee, was florid and long-winded in the manner of a stereotypical Southern senator. Madame Oglepuss was the company’s haughty opera singer; for some years, the puppets did a stylized annual version of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado: Or, The Town of Titipu (pr., pb. 1885), with Kukla as Nanki Poo.

Others of the puppets implied a domestic life for the group. Fletcher Rabbit was a harried mailman who always promised to have his ears starched so as not to fall over his eyes. Dolores Dragon, Ollie’s niece, was a smaller version of Ollie with curly hair, and Beulah the Witch provided an occasional note of menace. The troupe, though, left the general impression of a large, boisterous but affectionate family. With modesty unthinkable in today’s media, Tillstrom never developed his puppets into commercial properties, despite the enormous sales that Ollie puppets or Kukla games might have generated.

Significance

It is possible for someone growing up with television to remember with great affection the form of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie without remembering much of anything of its content. The puppets bickered and occasionally even resorted to violence, as when Ollie attacked Kukla’s nose or when Beulah appeared with her broomstick, but viewers mostly recall the gentleness and the affection among the puppets and their human companion. The show, in its remarkably low-key way, demonstrated the potential of television for generating affection for its characters, even for relatively crudely realized puppets like Kukla and Ollie. The show was always performed live, and the idea of filming the show for later use would have been as repugnant to its creators as writing out the scripts would have been.

As the novelty of the medium wore off and as audiences in the early 1950’s increasingly demanded more realism and sophistication from the shows, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie survived the complaints that gradually eliminated the variety shows. Audiences began to demand that such shows provide greater unity than that afforded by the vaudeville show formula and insisted that situation comedies provide more realistic characters.

The puppets may not have looked particularly lifelike or realistic, but they clearly served as a positive family model, though without the oppressive wholesomeness that made so many early television families later seem cloying and unwatchable. Usually shown at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie did help unite families around the television set during the dinner hour and provided a model of a diverse, occasionally squabbling and unruly, and affectionate family. In an age when television tapped a white, middle-class image and when minorities were either invisible or treated as comic stereotypes, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie implied both racial and social complexities. Despite his essentially benign nature, the rambunctious Ollie was, after all, a dragon, and his presence hinted at a world of aliens and “others.”

Through the charm of several appealing puppets and Fran Allison, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie helped wean the American public from radio to television. As radio comedian Fred Allen, commented, “When you see Kukla, Fran and Ollie come alive on that little screen, you realize you don’t need great big things as we had in radio.” Without the glitz or big budgets of the variety shows and the dramatic anthologies of early television, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie realized the full potential of television to attract audiences by warm relationships and good-natured improvisational play. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (television program) Television;children’s programs[childrens programs] Puppets

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Provides a full list of the “Kuklapolitan Players,” including such rarely seen figures as Ollie’s mother, Olivia, who doubled Ollie’s number of teeth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Inglis, Ruth. The Window in the Corner: A Half-Century of Children’s Television. London: Peter Owen, 2003. Comparison of British and American children’s television programming from their beginnings to the turn of the twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNeil, Alex. Total Television. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. Commends Kukla, Fran, and Ollie show for making a great achievement on a minimum of resources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sigler, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Without mentioning Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, discusses the transitional period from 1948 to 1955, when television changed from a futuristic possibility to the dominant mode of home entertainment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sternberg, Joel. “Television Town.” Chicago History (Summer, 1975): 108-117. Notes Chicago’s role in the explosion of television programming in the late 1940’s with shows such as Garroway at Large and Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiner, Ed, et al. The TV Guide TV Book. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Commends Kukla, Fran, and Ollie for its candor, warmth, and spontaneity.

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