Burr Tillstrom (1917-1985) was a puppeteer best known as the creator of the early television series Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. Tillstrom created his first puppet, a clown character who would be named Kukla following an encounter with a Russian ballerina, in 1936. His troupe of "Kuklapolitans" expanded in 1938 to include Oliver J. Dragon ("Ollie").
The group performed on early television broadcasts in 1939 and 1942. With the addition of Chicago actress Fran Allison, the program premiered as Junior Jamboree in 1947 and was soon renamed Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, remaining on the air until 1957 and with several subsequent revivals. Tillstrom also performed on the satirical political series That Was the Week That Was, winning an Emmy for his Berlin Wall hand ballet.
The premise of Kukla, Fran and Ollie was not dissimilar to that of The Muppet Show years later. It centered on the Kuklapolitan Players, a motley theater group, with Kukla as the general straightman and voice of reason. Ollie considered himself the star actor (performing in the annual Gilbert and Sullivan productions and other major acting and singing parts). Other troupe members included Madame Ooglepuss (the diva), Col. Crackie (the Southern emcee), stagemanager Cecil Bill, and electronics expert Buelah Witch, among many others.
On Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, Tillstrom developed the technique of watching the on-stage action through a small monitor as he performed the puppet characters, while standing behind a scrim through which he could also see. Jim Henson would adopt and alter this technique by having his puppeteers hold their puppets above their heads, which became a key component of Muppet performance.
In 1960, Tillstrom met Jim and Jane Henson at a puppetry convention in Detroit. Tillstrom introduced Jim Henson to Bernie Brillstein when the latter needed an agent as well as to puppet builder Don Sahlin (who had rebuilt many of the Kuklapolitan characters for a Broadway show that year). The Hensons also resided in Tillstrom's apartment building before moving to Greenwich in 1964. In Henson's 1966 "Idea Man" short, Kukla is one of the images floating through the mind of Limbo.
Henson mentioned Tillstrom's work when he spoke at Edgar Bergen's funeral service in 1978:
Four years later, Tillstrom and Henson were both honored at the 1982 Detroit Institute of Arts convention. Henson again discussed the influence of Tillstrom's work in a 1979 interview, as cited in Henson's own New York Times obituary:
“Burr Tillstrom and the Bairds had more to do with the beginning of puppets on television than we did.. But they had developed their art and style to a certain extent before hitting television. Baird had done marionette shows long before he came to television. Burr Tillstrom's puppets were basically the standard hand-puppet characters that went back to Punch and Judy. But from the beginning, we worked watching a television monitor, which is very different from working in a puppet theater.”
Tillstrom was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1986, the year after his death. Jim Henson offered a salute on the Hall of Fame broadcast on April 21st, though critic John J. O'Connor claimed it was "almost totally overshadowed by what looks like another episode of The Muppet Show." The Henson characters were also joined by Shari Lewis's Lamb Chop and Bil Baird's Charlemane for the salute. Fran Allison accepted the award for Tillstrom.
At one time, Disney-MGM Studios had three tile mosaic portraits featuring Tillstrom, Fred Rogers and Jim Henson in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. All three have since been removed.
- In Episode 3156 of Sesame Street, it is mentioned that the Furry Arms hotel has a "Tillstrom Suite."
- Brillstein, Bernie. Where Did I Go Right?. p. 53
- Culhane, John. "Muppets In Movieland." The New York Times Magazine, June 10, 1979.
- Blau, Eleanor. Jim Henson obituary. The New York Times, May 17, 1990.