The Suitcase Lady


January 20, 2015, 7:34 pm

My mother only had one punishment that worked on me when I was a kid. If I misbehaved (in today’s parlance, “made a bad choice”) I couldn’t watch my favorite television program, the puppet show, Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Since that was unthinkable, I shaped up.

To this day, I love hand puppets. How else can you get another personality without being bipolar or in constant celebration of Halloween? I am not as big a fan of marionettes. A good basic rule in life is to avoid things with strings attached.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie was created by the amazingly gifted puppeteer, Burr Tillstrom. The show ran from 1947 to 1957 in television’s early years. Mr Tillstrom created, did the voices and operated nine puppets. Kukla was gentleness personified, Ollie was the enthusiastic one toothed dragon and Fran was Fran Allison the person who stood in front of the stage and ad libbed the entire show with Burr Tillstrom. They were all Midwesterners; the show originated in Chicago.

What began as a children’s program was soon watched by more adults than children. The characters made references to theater, opera and current events. Orson Welles and John Steinbeck were counted among its fans. And James Thurber said Burr was “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not to invent, the quality of television.”

Many years ago, in the early 1980’s when Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison were still alive, I dragged my husband to a rare revival of my beloved childhood program at the prestigious Goodman Theater in Chicago. I was scared to death. Could this simple, untechnical, no special effects puppetry be as good as I remembered it?

Yes, in fact, it was even better than I remembered, and my husband who never saw the program as a child became an instant fan. Our troubled world could use a giant dose of Kukla, Fran and Ollie right now.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie, like all great art, does not work well in sound bites. The viewer slowly gets to know and love the personalities of the puppets. Hopefully, this short sample will give an inkling of the show’s appeal.


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