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
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
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
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
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.