Burr Tillstrom. While his name is sadly not as well know in the 21st Century, Chicago puppeteer Burr Tillstrom certainly left his stamp on puppetry. His work entertained and inspired many of his fans, myself included.
It is possible that I may be among his younger group of fans who enjoyed watching Kukla, Fran, and Ollie host the CBS Children’s Film Festival on Saturday mornings in the late 1960s and 1970s. Back then I had no idea that the clown and dragon puppets were superstars of early television. I remember wishing that they had more screen time, beyond introducing the films shown during the program. It was the personalities of the characters that I loved, My memory is sometimes foggy, I do recall mixing up the names of the puppets. Shame on my younger self!
Rediscovering Burr’s work
When puppetry found it’s way back into my life in 2001, I made it a point to watch and read about the puppeteers who’s work that I enjoyed as a boy. Sure there were plenty of videos and books available of Jim Henson and the Muppets and a bit about Fred Rogers’ puppet characters. Yet there was very little recorded work of Burr Tillstom’s available. How terrible!
As digital media and the internet’s ability expanded, I would encounter video clips of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. The feeling was wonderful and similar to that of finding old family movies made before you were born, you knew who the people (or puppets) were, but had no actual memory of them. It was “new” KFO, well at least new to me. Then in 2010, the same year that I began to perform in public, the first volume of official Kukla, Fran, and Ollie was released on DVD! Watch this fun clip on the official Kukla, Fran, and Ollie YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/LwjYb5xhGuU
Inspired by Burr
As an adult, I ask myself what was it that caught my eye as a child watching Burr Tillstrom perform his characters? Was it their appearance? Their voices? Maybe it was their personalities? Giving this some thought, I think that it must be all of these, otherwise, I would have lost interest. If you analyze Tillstom’s actual puppeteering skills, it’s not very flashy. There were no stage effects and very few props. Some may get hung up on this. However, if you take into consideration that he performed nearly two dozen different characters, live and solo, it gives the viewer a fresh appreciation for his skills.
Watching the program as an adult, I am drawn in by each character’s unique voice and personality. These puppets appear to have souls, which for me is the crowning achievement of Burr Tillstrom. He gave his puppets heart by sharing a bit of his with his audience. In return they adored him. What more can a puppeteer ask for? His work continues to inspire and entertain me to this day. Happy Birthday, Burr.
Want to learn more about Burr Tillstrom? Visit the fantastic kukla.tv website