A Burr Tillstrom Biography


Curator's note: This document, dated September, 1961, was prepared by the promotions department of NBC when Burr Tillstrom returned to his first network with a five-minue, five-day-a-week series titled "Kukla and Ollie". The program originated in New York. Fran Allison, still a regular on the Chicago-based "Breakfast Club" show on ABC radio, was only an occasional guest on thie series. The curator thanks Dick Carter, director emeritus at WTTW, for providing him this document.

Burr Tillstrom, whose many faces range from the loveable bulbed-nosed Kukla to the flop-eared Fletcher Rabbit, with voices which vary between Oliver J. Dragon's bariton and Madame Oglepuss's operatic explosions, is still a one-man operation. His hands alone manipulate the fey characters who frolic across the television screen. His larynx is soley responsible for the swift-changing vocal tones heard during animated conversations beyween every two Kuklapolitans.

Tillstrom is no apprentice to his trade - puppeteering - though he would hardly call it a trade. It is more an irrepressible urge to create a world of magic (where tenderness and humor prevail) which began with his kindergarten days. First he tried to animate two teddy bears, then worked with toy animals on a stage made from an old orange crate, and later staged shows in the garden of a Chicago neighbor, Mrs. Charlotte Polak, sister of the great puppet master, Tony Sarg. He also learned to dramatize a story from his parents, Dr. Bert Tillstrom and the late Mrs. Tillstrom, who appeared in home talent shows in Benton Harbor, Michigan, before moving to Chicago where they continued their association with amateur theater groups.

As a student at Senn High School, Burr studied dramatics and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago. While still a freshman, he was offered a job setting up a marionette theater with the WPA-Chicago Parks District Theatre and took it.

During this period in 1936, Burr began his first serious experimentation with hand puppets. Since marionettes, maneuvered by strings according to specific plots, usually follow a script, hand puppets allowed him spontaneous expression which added an exciting and challenging quality.

At this point, Kukla was created and named by ballerina Tamara Toumanova, who explained that "Kukla" was both Russian and Greek for doll and often used as an affectionate term. Kukla was first a between-the-acts pantomimist but soon became an impromptu and quite vocal entertainer at parties. "Kukla could talk to everyone and anyone," Burr said. "When I was too young or too ignorant to have an answer, Kukla took over. What would have been naive, coming from me, sounded funny coming from Kukla."

Traditionally, all puppet show had a dragon, so Ollie joined the act in 1939. However, Burr wanted a dragon which would not frighten the most timid child, so Ollie was endowed with one tooth and a marshamallow heart. He was soon displaying his oversized tooth in the Children's Theater of Marshall Field's department storem where Burr put on a show for the youngsters while their parents shopped. It was at Field's that Burr also discovered television. An RCA demonstration was set up and, with a card table as a stage, he presented his first show with Kukla and Ollie. Thereafter, he did shows for RCA at the New York World's Fair, in Bermuda and in Chicago.

In 1942, Burr was asked to do experimental TV work for station WBKB in Chicago, and it was over this same station in October, 1947, that he began the first sponsored hour-ling, five-day-a-week series. In 1948 the program became a five-a-week half-hour series on NBC-TV.

This format lasted four years, then once a week on Sundays, for two years, until the Kuklapolitans moved to ABC-TV for a five-a-week series.

Fran Allison had joined Burr and his friends and the show was titled "Kukla, Fran and Ollie". For much of the time between 1949 and late 1957, the show was recognized as something of a national institution, winning many of TV's most distinguished honors in the interim. The show was also a pioneer of color TV, being one of the first network programs to be broadcast in color.

Since his last regular series ended in 1957, Burr and the Kuklapolitans have guested many times on such shows as "The Perry Como Show", "Jack Paar Show", "Summer Chevy Show", "Sheri Lewis Show" and "The Today Show". They have also played summer stock, theater, club dates and received rave reviews during an engagement at the Hotel Astor.

Now living in New York, Burr, a bachelor, keeps in touch with children through his many nephews and nieces and his friends' youngsters. He also retains the youghful ability to wonder and to see everyday things as though he were discovering them for the first time. His interests are wide and he seeks new information wherever he goes. While summering in Nantucket, he gathered a fund of whaling lore to rival that of the oldest native. Burr still reads the Oz books which influenced him a great deal in embarking on his career. A sports car enthusiast, he enjoys music, ballet, model railroads, swimming, biking and archeology. He explains his technical knowledge of rocket propulsion thus: "Beulah Witch has been studying up on outer space travel".

Born on October 13, Burr has light brown hair, blue eyes and weighs about 160 pounds.

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