The lady and the dragon

August 11, 2009

KUKLA, OLLIE, and FRAN ALLISON

KUKLA, OLLIE, and FRAN ALLISON

The stamps the Postal Service issued today under the title “Early TV Memories” omit broadcasting legend Gertrude Berg but do include the influential puppet show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” which first appeared 60 years ago. The show adopted the medieval format of hand puppets on a miniature stage, but added on-camera human being Fran Allison to interact with the characters. The major figures were Kukla — a bald creature inexplicably dressed as a clown, and Ollie – a dragon. They were joined as the situation dictated by about a dozen others, including Beulah Witch, Madame Oglepuss, Colonel Crackie, and Fletcher Rabbit, a letter carrier who was always singing “Buffalo Gal, Won’t You Come Out Tonight?”

The show, which was live when it first appeared, was done without a script. While Fran Allison was sort of an innocent, many of the puppet characters were wise-crackers. The impromptu gags often brought on audible laughter from the crew — with whom the characters frequently exchanged remarks. There is an instance of that kind of interaction — a gag about ad agencies — in the 1951 episode at the link below. That episode also has an example of a commercial — this one for a brand of shampoo — that is worked into the story line, a common device in early televison. There is also a more conventional commercial for Tide at the end of the program. The half-hour show included only those two commercials.

KUKLA and OLLIE

KUKLA and OLLIE

“Kukla, Fran and Ollie” was the brainchild of Burr Tillstrom, who appears briefly at the end of the episode I have linked to. Tillstrom worked all the puppets and provided their voices. What is most striking about his concept in this show is that it was not played for slapstick laughs and it was not condescending to children. It was conducted on such a thoughtful level, in fact, that its audience among adults was reputed to be at least as large as its audience among children. In the episode I have linked to, the characters make several references to “Tallulah” and “Tallulah’s place in New York.” Those were references to the stage and film actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was one of many public figures who were enthusiastic followers of the show.

BEULAH WITCH

BEULAH WITCH

The leisurely pace of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” was in sharp contrast to the frenetic programming that dominates television today. Tillstrom’s show relied heavily on character, and that was an important part of its attraction for adults. In this and other respects, the show foreshadowed — and, in fact, led to — the Muppets. The simple and silly figure of Oliver Dragon — who could be at turns romantic and manipulative — became as real and sympathetic to his audience as Burt and Ernie and Kermit became to theirs. Tillstrom and Allison recognized that; in fact, Ollie unblushingly discusses his charisms in the episode at this link:

http://video.google.com/videosearch?gbv=2&hl=en&q=kukla%20fran%20and%20ollie&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=iv#

A Los Angeles Times story about the release of a DVD collection of later episodes of “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” is at this link:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-kukla11-2009aug11,0,1322349.story

KUKLA, BURR TILSTROM, FRAN ALLISON, and OLLIE

KUKLA, BURR TILSTROM, FRAN ALLISON, and OLLIE

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