Kukla and Ollie Live! at the Goodman Studio Theatre, 1979–1983
by Mark Larson
“When I got to Chicago,” Gregory Mosher, then artistic director at the Goodman Theatre, said, “everybody told me you've got to get Burr Tillstrom on stage. Board members would grab me when they saw me and say, ‘You've just got to get him. It won't be easy; he says he'll never go back on stage again but just keep trying.’ I thought, Wow! Yes, sure. What a great idea. I knew there would be [a potential audience] here who would have watched his show when they were kids.”
Burr Tillstrom’s annual Kukla and Ollie Live! played each December between 1979 and 1982, across the lobby from the Goodman’s recently launched A Christmas Carol on the Mainstage. I was hired as Burr's “special assistant,” a role I filled, off and on, until his death in 1985.
In 1947, Kukla, Fran and Ollie premiered on WBKB in Chicago, and two years later was picked up by the NBC network. In 1947, they moved to ABC where they remained until 1957. The show’s creator and only puppeteer, Burr Tillstrom, and his co-star, Fran Allison, didn't know it at the time, but they were among the leaders of what would become known as Chicago Style Television that included Garroway at Large, a witty, laid back half hour program starring Dave Garroway who later became the first host of the Today Show, and Studs Terkel in the mostly improvised, Studs Place.
Even before David Shepherd’s Compass Players opened in 1955, Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison were improvising—you might even call it “long form”––on live television. For 10 years, they went on the air live without a script and with only the slimmest idea of what was going to happen. Although the emerging Chicago television and theater scenes operated distinctly from one another and without a lot of obvious overlap, in style and ethos they bear striking similarities. Chicago style television would foreshadow the spontaneity, intimacy and authenticity that would soon and thereafter become some of the hallmarks of Chicago style theater.
“Kukla, Fran and Ollie”, writes Thomas Dyja, “exemplified two fundamental aspects of Chicago television—improvisation and intimacy, ‘The main thing about the ‘Chicago school’ of TV, said Look, ‘is this: The viewer doesn’t always know what’s going to happen next and next and next and nor do the players’ […] When Ollie offered a thought that Fran batted back with a little spin, and then Kukla jumped in—the energy came through the screen.” That sounds a lot like “yes, and” to me.
Over time, night-by-night, they sketched out the histories of and relationships between several puppet characters, that became very real to audiences and one another. The Kuklapolitan Players included Kukla, the level-headed and diplomatic impresario; Ollie, an impulsive, fame-loving dragon; Fletcher Rabbit, who was in charge of the mail room; Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss, an opera aficionado, and her perennial beau, the gentlemanly Col. Richard Crackie. There was also the high flying, feminist- ahead-of-her-time, Buelah Witch. The Kuklapolitan Players’ casual, improvised, everyday repartee that dwelled on the small things in our lives—petty misunderstandings and making up, preparing for the arrival of a guest, baking cookies, practicing for a play—captivated audiences of all ages and all strata of American life.
Viewers felt a part of the show. When Kukla complained that his nose was cold, he received knitted nose cozies in the mail which he modeled on the air. When Ollie, impetuous as always, expressed his envy, he received knitted tooth cozies for his prominent single front tooth. Kukla, Fran and Ollie also appealed to the likes of John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, Margaret Truman, and Lillian Gish. Tallulah Bankhead was a particular fan of Buelah Witch and would often call the studio after a show. Stephen Sondheim, as a young man, once sent Burr a song which was rejected by the producers before he could even see it. Years later, though, when Burr performed with Kukla and Ollie in Side by Side by Sondheim on Broadway, Sondheim again gave him the song, “The Two of Us,” which Burr performed in that show.
In this puppet, Kukla, his dragon friend, Ollie, and their “big sister” Fran Alison, America met one of the paths that culture could take, a style of television unique to Chicago that defined the technical grammar of the medium and explored its possibilities in ways done nowhere else. “Chicago…was an extraordinary, vital, exciting time for television,” Mike Wallace said. “This was the birth of television.”
Thomas Dyja, The Third Coast
In 1957, Kukla, Fran and Ollie went off the air, but Tillstrom continued to find assorted home bases and time slots that included a stint on PBS. He also worked in various other formats, including a 1960 Broadway show, An Evening with Kukla and Ollie at the Astor Hotel, and in 1967, Kukla and Ollie introduced the CBS Children’s Film Festival each Saturday morning. Burr was an artist who needed an outlet for his constant flow of creative impulses.
In 1978, as he was preparing for the live Goodman show as well as a Christmas special for NBC (Tis the Season to be Ollie), he needed a driver and an assistant for both. The position was offered to an actor and puppeteer friend of mine who turned it down, and suggested I interview for it. I went to Burr’s apartment at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive. His door, at the far end of the hall on the left, opened and his elderly black and white border collie, Emily, appeared as if she’d opened it herself. She trotted down the hall to meet me, and I kneeled to greet her. Later I would learn that that was when I passed the first test. The next day we had lunch at the Art Institute and talked about my responsibilities. I was never offered the job, I just began doing it.
Ostensibly, I would be his driver and the guardian of the “Kids”, as the Kuklapolitans were called. They resided in two black carrying cases, which I protected as if they were the presidential atomic football. I also soon would become Burr’s ceaseless note-taker, interference-eliminator, sounding board and constant companion—someone to have lunch with and muse on the phone with. In time I became what he sometimes called his amanuensis and other times his Boswell. Everywhere we went, we were in the process of writing his memoir.
Chicago Reader critic, Anthony Adler, sat in on the process of creating one of the three seasonal television programs Burr did for NBC, and referred to me as Burr’s “fatherly son,” which I suppose I was, just as Burr was a son-like father to me. He liked to comment on our common Swedish heritage and the fact that we both had a gap between our front teeth. I took care of him, and he took care of me, once paying $300 for my accrued, past due parking tickets.
He gave me the keys to his apartment so I could enter at will and not disturb his preparation for departure to the Goodman. His small, two-room apartment overlooked Lake Shore Drive with an expansive view of Lake Michigan. The living room was dominated by a black baby-grand piano, the top of which was crowded with photos and awards: A couple Peabody Awards, one for his “Berlin Wall” hand ballet on That Was The Week That Was, five Emmys and assorted others. And there were favorite mementos, like a small pewter cup from Tallulah Bankhead inscribed to Buelah Witch, and, in a vase, a bouquet of folded paper Ollie heads on stems given to him by a fan who had rushed up the aisle to present them during the curtain call for Side by Side.
“When it came time to decide how many performances a week there would be and what we were going to pay him, ” Gregory Mosher said, “I called him and asked, ‘So who's your agent or manager or lawyer or whatever?’ He said, ‘You can do that all with Kukla.’
“So, Burr (and Kuk in his box) arrived in Roche [Schulfer]'s office. Then Burr had Kuk out so there were now four of us in the room. We said, ‘So, Burr, we imagine you don't want to do eight shows a week. Would seven be OK?’ He said, ‘Talk to Kukla.’ Roche said, ‘So, Kukla, what do you think of seven?’ Kukla said, ‘Six would be better.’
“Burr could have sold enough tickets to play on the [Mainstage],” Mosher said, “but why would we do that? It just made no sense. [The Studio] was a perfect little space for him.” The 125-seat Goodman Studio Theatre with its auburn brick walls was indeed perfectly suited for the intimacy of Burr’s show, which was a live version of the classic television show, minus Fran, that older audiences would remember watching in their own living rooms.
Burr told me once that when he visited friends, he would look at their television sets and imagine these friends watching his show. Then, when he was doing his broadcast, he’d imagine he was performing for the people in that small room. Here, at the Goodman, he could do the same but hear their laughter and applause, and the Kids could respond to them in real time.
The Goodman shows were born out of some old scenes from long ago––a xylophone duet played by Fletcher Rabbit (right hand) and Kukla (left), favorite songs––some humorous (“Dragon Prep”) and some bittersweet (Sondheim’s “Little Lamb”)––and all of it was laced together with improvised conversation between the Kuklapolitans and the musical director. For years one and two, it was Donald Corren, who went by the stage name Cosmo White in those days, and for years three and four, Rich Maisel). Often the banter was based in what was happening to and around us that day. Comments about how cold it was backstage were common because it was cold backstage. Burr and I would gather around an orange glowing space heater that had to be turned off at curtain because it hummed and clicked. Burr wore a Goodman sweatshirt over his shoulders, which, just as the show began, I would remove, as if he were a boxer.
“I always liked to check in on that show every night,” Mosher said, “so I would go back and see how you guys were doing. I'd say, 'Jeez it's a little chilly back here, Burr. Are you OK?' He'd say, 'No, it's fine.' 'Sure?' 'Yeah, it's OK.' I'd say, 'Anything we can do for you?' 'No, we're good.' Then I'd stay to watch the first 10 minutes of show, which always meant I ended up watching the whole show because it was so good. And Kukla would come on and say, "It's freezing back here! I don't understand why management can't get any heat backstage. If any of you [in the audience] know management, could you please talk to them?"
One night, as we drove to the theater, I mentioned that my Gestalt therapist, who had long been a Kukla, Fran and Ollie fan, had a ticket for that night’s show. So, of course, at one point when Ollie had gotten himself worked up about something, Kukla admonished him to be careful how he behaved, and then sotto voce: “because Mark’s shrink is in the audience, tonight.” When my parents, Swedes both, attended, Ollie led the audience in a special cheer in their honor: “Lutefisk! Lutefisk! Rah, rah, rah!”
After the performances, I would drape the sweatshirt back over his shoulders, and he would sit on the edge of the stage to sign programs. Sometimes, older fans would bring photos or memorabilia that they had received in the mail when they were younger and had written to Kukla and Ollie c/o NBC. Many would introduce him to their grandchildren who were the age they themselves had been when they sat before the TV and watched the Kuklapolitan world unfold in their living rooms.
One night, a few years after the last show had closed, Burr called me. He said he was moving to Palm Springs, at last, mostly to escape Chicago’s cold, which he endlessly complained about. He’d bought a home there with a swimming pool. His friend, NBC set designer, Jack Hakman, did his interior decorating. I promised that my wife, Mary, and I would gladly come out to visit him as soon as we could. And then he said, in a sentiment that neither his nor my Swedish reserve would normally permit, “We did have some good times, didn’t we?”
It was the last time I talked to him. The obituaries reported that he had died at the age of 68 on December 6, 1985, beside the pool of his Palm Springs home. I always believed that detail did him a disservice. Although it was factually true, it told a lie about who he was and how he had lived. He had not been a Palm Springs man with a pool, he had been a man of the Midwest who cherished simple pleasures––a trip to the hardware store for nothing in particular, putting the garden to bed, breakfast with friends—and he had made all of it the stuff of his art, reflecting our own lives in gentle, intimate improvisations.
He was posthumously inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame on March 23, 1986. Jim Henson, who considered Burr a mentor, developed a video for the broadcast that included just about every major Muppet character, plus Shari Lewis with Lamb Chop, and Bil Baird with Charlemagne, singing, “Let’s Sing a Song About Burr.” Fran accepted the award on Burr’s behalf. Although he did not live long enough to accept it himself, we were pleased that he had known about the award. In fact, he had called to tell me the day he found out. I said, “That’s just wonderful, Burr.”
He said, sounding a lot like Ollie, “Well, at last!”