There she is, Madame Ophelia Oogelpuss, encased in glass and part of an ongoing exhibition at the Chicago History Museum. Her famous puppet friends, Kukla and Ollie, are not on public display. They “live” elsewhere in the building, resting on white muslin mats inside blue boxes on shelves in a massive storage area in building, surrounded with millions of other items of the past.
“No, you can’t play with them, they are too fragile,” said the CHM’s head of collections, Julie Wroblewski. She and some colleagues had carefully brought the puppets to a private space so that they could have their photos taken.
She, like most people, is too young to have met the puppets in their prime but she has come to understand their appeal, saying, “I am fond of all our artifacts. But these are, I will admit, special.” Over the years, many of the puppets have been on public display, as is currently Madame Ogelpuss and Wroblewski has observed, “How just seeing them brings so much joy to people.”
Some of those puppets who populated the influential and beloved realm known as “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” will be celebrated Saturday in “Back With You Again: Celebrating 75 Years of Kukla, Fran, Ollie, and Chicago Children’s TV.” The watch-party event, co-produced by the Newberry Library, Public Media Institute and the Museum of Broadcast Communications, will “show clips of the show, discuss the history of puppetry here and the legacy,” said director of exhibitions Paul Durica. (It’s also available for viewing at lumpen.tv).
But let’s travel back, to 1947 and a man named Burr Tillstrom, who was born and raised here and got his start in theater at Senn High School. In 1935, he dropped out of the University of Chicago after one semester so he could join a puppet theater company run by the city’s parks department and funded by the Works Progress Administration. That is where he began to create the many characters that would become his Kuklapolitan Players, a gang of such puppets as Kukla, Ollie (more formally known as Oliver J. Dragon), Beulah Witch, Madame Oogelpuss, Colonel Richard Crackie, Doloras Dragon, Cecil Bill and the charming others.
After World War II, he became intrigued by the relatively new means of communication called television and he thought that the puppets he made and maneuvered would work in that realm. He also felt, as he would later put it, “the need for a girl out front, who can talk with the Kuklapolitans, interview guests and sing a song.”
That “girl” would be Fran Allison, a singer and radio performer who met Tillstrom when they were both on a war bond-selling tour. She would be perfect. As Tillstrom put it, “‘she laughed, she sympathized, loved them, sang songs to them. She became their big sister, favorite teacher, babysitter, girlfriend, mother.”
Allison would in later years say, “Kukla, Ollie and the others are as real to me as people. I don’t want to see them as mere cloth any more than I want to look at something dead.”
“Junior Jamboree” went on the air here at 4 p.m. on Oct. 13, 1947. There were only an estimated 3,000 television sets in Chicago and most of those were in taverns. Renamed “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” the show was an immediate hit and the following year it was on for 30 minutes, five days a week, the first public color broadcast and one of the first shows to air nationally. It later moved to one hour every Sunday and later became a 15-minute daily program.
The show was filmed live and with the barest of scripts, leading to an exciting improvisational feel all but nonexistent today. It would win every award in the business. But eventually the networks determined that the show was more expensive than animated cartoons, and it left network air in 1957. It reappeared on PBS in 1970 for a 26-part series produced by WTTW-Ch. 11, and can still be seen on YouTube.
It is hard now to fully grasp the show’s influence and popularity.
Tillstrom tried, shortly before his death in 1985, saying, “We try to maintain a basic honesty and consistency with the characters. They’re all individuals. They have personalities and they all work together. I think that has something to do with the show’s appeal. It’s pure and it represents love.”
It was also a stunning combination of adult wit and gentle ways, of fun and frolic. It was a great hit with kids, though many of its biggest fans were adults such as Helen Hayes, John Steinbeck, Mary Tyler Moore, Orson Welles, Sid Caesar, Tallulah Bankhead and James Thurber, who would write that Tillstrom was “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television.”
When Kukla first blew his nose on the air, young fans sent in dozens of handkerchiefs and at the height of the show’s popularity, the “cast” received 15,000 letters a day.
Tillstrom willed his collection to the Chicago History Museum. The puppets are there, of course, and such other handmade items as tiny boxing gloves, a small piano, birthday cake and many letters.
When he died, the Tribune’s Richard Christiansen wrote:
“He was always looking ahead to the next work, and because of his expectations, he sometimes chafed under the burden of being the target of so much nostalgia. Honors came his way by the dozen, and he was delighted to hear from the younger generation of puppeteers, such as Jim Henson of the Muppets. But the important thing in his life was not so much those memories of the old shows, but the new projects he hoped to initiate in the theater.”
He’s right but still, those memories of the old shows live on.
“Back With You Again: Celebrating 75 Years of Kukla, Fran, Ollie, and Chicago Children’s TV” is 3 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.; free, registration and more information at www.chicagohistory.org