Franklin Burr Tillstrom was born October 13, 1917 in Chicago, Illinois.
He grew up fascinated with puppetry, using teddy bears, dolls and other objects to entertain the neighborhood children.
Burr began developing his own puppets, and as a result, while attending the University of Chicago as a freshman, he was offered a job setting up a marionette theater with the WPA – Chicago Parks District Theatre.
Then in 1936, the 19 year old joined the RCA Victor Television tour of the Midwest, to demonstrate the new medium to the public using his nameless puppets.
As a result of his success, the 22 year old Tillstrom was invited to present his cast of puppets in the RCA Victor exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
One of Tillstrom’s nameless puppets became “Kukla” when Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova referred to the puppet as kukla, the Russian term for doll, when she was introduced to Burr Tillstrom at the RCA exhibit.
It was during the World’s Fair that Tillstrom developed his concept of Kukla, Ollie or Oliver J. Dragon, Beulah Witch, and Fletcher Rabbit while performing more than 2,000 live shows.
The following spring, RCA sent Burr and his cast of “Kuklapolitan Players” to Bermuda to perform on the first ship-to-shore broadcast.
Then during World War II, Burr performed benefits at Chicago area hospitals for the Red Cross, and for the USO.
During a war-bond rally in Chicago, he met radio singer Fran Allison, who would join his troupe for a trial 13-week program, but ended up staying an additional ten years.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie
From 1947 through 1957, the “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” show aired on television starring his puppets and Fran Allison.
The show is widely regarded as being the first children’s show to appeal to both children and adults, and counted Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Tallulah Bankhead, Adlai Stevenson and James Thurber among its many adult fans.
With only a few exceptions, all of the shows were improvised. After the original series ended in 1957, Burr Tillstrom continued to work with his Kuklapolitans.
Early in 1958, Tillstrom appeared with his puppets on Polly Bergen’s short-lived NBC variety show, The Polly Bergen Show.
In 1970, Kukla, Fran and Ollie appeared on National Educational Television, taped at WTTW in Chicago, for two seasons.
In 1975, Kukla, Fran and Ollie began another run on television with 13 new episodes.
In 1977, The Kukla and Ollie Retrospective Stage Show tours began, a creation of the Artist-in-Residence program at Hope College.
When Jim Henson moved to New York in 1963, Jim and his family took an apartment in the same building as his idol Burr Tillstrom and their friendship deepened.
It was through Burr Tillstrom that Jim Henson met puppet builder Don Sahlin, builder and refiner of the Muppet look.
In 1978, Kukla, Burr and Ollie joined the Broadway cast of Side by Side by Sondheim, a revue of Stephen Sondheim songs.
Tillstrom was the 1979 winner of an UNIMA Citation of Excellence Award from the American Chapter of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette.
When Burr Tillstrom was honored by the Museum of Broadcasting in 1983, Jim Henson was on hand to present a tribute at the ceremony.
With his success on television, Tillstrom then brought his characters to a 1984 book, with “The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs.”
At the time of Burr Tillstrom’s death on December 6, 1985 in Palm Springs, California, he was working on a musical adaptation of his story for television.
In March 23, 1986, he was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his numerous and significant contributions to the art of television.
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