Kukla, Fran and Ollie was an early television show using puppets, originally created for children but soon watched by more adults than children. Like many early shows, it did not have a script and was entirely ad-libbed.
Burr Tillstrom was the creator and only puppeteer on the show, which premiered as the hour-long Junior Jamboree locally on WBKB in Chicago on October 13, 1947. The program was renamed Kukla, Fran and Ollie (KFO) and transferred to WNBQ (the predecessor of Chicago's WMAQ-TV) on November 29, 1948. The first NBC network broadcast of the show took place on January 12, 1949. It aired from 6–6:30 p.m. Central Time, Monday through Friday.
Fran was Fran Allison, a radio comedian and singer who was usually the only human to appear onscreen, filling the role of big sister and cheery voice of reason as the puppets engaged each other concerning their foibles. The design style of puppets was in the style of Neapolitan puppet shows, or Punch and Judy without the slapstick, but their personalities were less caricatured. The puppet cast included Kukla, the earnest leader of the troupe (who looked like a clown but wasn't one); Ollie, or Oliver J. Dragon, a roguish one-toothed dragon (who would slam his flat chin on the stage in frustration or roll on his back to be endearing); Madame Ooglepuss, a retired opera diva; Buelah Witch, a liberated witch; Fletcher Rabbit, the troupe's mailman and resident fussbudget; Cecil Bill, the troupe's union stagehand who spoke in "tooie talk;" Colonel Crackie, a Southern gentleman; Doloras, Ollie's cousin, and a number of others.
Like Jack Benny's radio program, KFO's humor relied on building a relationship between its characters and the audience over time. The humor was quite tame by the standards of later comedy. There were few laugh-out-loud jokes per show—KFO relied on the humor of familiarity, much like The Honeymooners.
KFO evoked not only loyalty but also a deep belief in its characters from regular viewers. Fans became so attached to the show that when it was cut back to 15 minutes in November 1951, letters of outrage poured in to NBC and The New York Times. The Bob & Ray Show was the replacement 15-minute program and had considerable vitriol heaped on it by angry KFO viewers. From August 1952 to June 1954, KFO ran as a weekly program on Sundays from 3–3:30 p.m CT. It was then picked up by the ABC network and returned to the 15 minute daily format until the last regular program aired on August 30, 1957, a continuous run of nearly ten years.
During that time, KFO was a hugely successful show that counted Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Tallulah Bankhead, Ben Grauer, Milton Caniff, and Adlai Stevenson among its many adult fans. The show had sponsors like Life magazine and Ford Motor Co., who surely weren't trying to reach children. James Thurber once wrote that Tillstrom was "helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television."
After the original series ended in 1957, Tillstrom continued to search for a place for the Kuklapolitans, doing a daily five-minute show for NBC, and even appearing on Broadway. In 1967, KFO began hosting CBS Children's Film Festival. In this context, their conversations were restricted to a brief introduction, commercial segues and a summary of the film, and could only provide a hint of what had made KFO so popular. Many people know the troupe only from this filmed show and their later taped series for PBS.
KFO can claim a number of television firsts, including the first ship-to-shore telecast. The first publicly announced network broadcast of a program using the NTSC "compatible color" system was an episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie on August 30, 1953. Burr was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1986 for his many contributions to the medium. Tillstrom influenced and mentored many later puppeteers, including Shari Lewis and Jim Henson.
Unfortunately, KFO is no longer officially available on either VHS or DVD, though used copies and bootlegs do exist.