Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The 2011 Christmas Annex: Kukla, Fran, and Ollie

(For those of you who missed it, 2010’s monumental screaming rush through a all 49 holiday-themed episodes on a $5 DVD set is still up, even if some of the videos are broken.)

As far as The Dunciad is concerned, a large chunk of the year passed by without a thank-you-kindly. (Here’s a hint: I’m a lot more mouthy on my Google+ feed, even if you can’t exactly monetize it yet.) There’s no way I’d skip Christmas, though, and although I don’t have a master plan yet, I do have the other Mill Creek holiday collection to pick over, but I’ll introduce you to that sometime in the next few days, as well as a few other dips and dabs sitting on the shelf.

The plan? At the moment, there is no plan. We’re just going to play it by ear, and hopefully use that momentum to get back to the @#$^&*! mystery movies in the New Year! See? I never forget a failure!

But first…
The traditional KFO tight shot pose.
Just Enough Information: The story of Kukla, Fran and Ollie as we’re familiar with them began on October 13, 1947, when Junior Jamboree launched over WBKB Chicago, but as the marvelous Kuklapolitan Website explains it, the full story began roughly ten years earlier when a young puppeteer named Burr Tillstrom created a balding puppet with a big red nose for a friend but couldn’t bear to send it away. The friend ended up getting another puppet, and Tillstrom got a performing partner for life.

Since you should really get the full story from the people who know how to tell it well, this will stick to the “100 words or less” version: In dips and dabs over the next decade, Tillstrom created the rest of the group that would come to be known as the Kuklapolitan Players, including Oliver J. Dragon, the handsome devil with the bedroom eyes whose name takes up the bottom half of the title. Fran Allison, who was a regular singer and comedian on Don McNeill’s radio show The Breakfast Club, was brought in for the TV show to interact with “the kids”—Burr never called them puppets—and her easy rapport with the Kuklapolitans helped put over the whole enterprise.

Even more amazing was that the show, like many of the programs from what the first generation of television critics called “the Chicago school”, was improvised as they went.  While the production team planned out the programs to the extent that musical arrangements, props and costumes could be put together, the dialogue was never rehearsed. 

James Thurber, in one of the many celebrity fan letters Burr received over the years, put it best: “You are one of the few people helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television.”


The Christmas Episode:  “Making a Christmas Tree Stand”. Original airdate: December 20, 1949 live over NBC.

It’s a pretty simple situation, really. Company member Buelah Witch has flown up from North Carolina with a freshly cut Kuklapolitan-size Christmas tree (strapped to her broom, as if you had to ask), and Kukla takes on the task of building a stand for it. But like anything that sounds deceptively simple in print, it’s not what happens, but how it happens.
For instance, when I say that Kukla builds the stand, I mean Kukla builds the stand. Live and on the air.
First with the saw......and then with the rest of the tool box.
Ollie was going to chip in, but when he spotted Kukla with that saw, he decided discretion was the better part of getting out of Dodge, or whatever you care to call it. Fortunately, stagehand Cecil Bill is around, and really, he should’ve been in on the project to begin with since we can assume he’s with the union.
Real hammer, real chisel, real hands inside the characters, both belonging to the same guy who’s lining all of this up on a video monitor. That’s what you call bravery in the face of television.

And it keeps going like that for about six or seven minutes. But Burr knew where he was going, so just relax.

“Where he’s going” is to music director Jack Fascinato’s piano (well, not literally), where they finish the show by singing a few Christmas songs.  Roll the clip:

Have I mentioned that I’m totally in love with this show? You’ll might have to watch a few episodes to click with the show’s natural rhythm and sense of humor, but it’s worth doing.

But Don’t Take My Word For It:  Well, there are a few complete KFO shows available for streaming on the Museum of Broadcast Communications website (“Collection -> Search the archives”, then register…it’s free), but not this one. This episode, along with 19 others, is on the first Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The First Episodes DVD set, which is available for purchase right now at a reasonable price through Amazon and the Chicago History Museum. Volume 2 (which—who saw this coming—includes another Christmas-themed episode) will be ready to order by the end of the week, and the fact that we can talk about a Volume 2 proves that if you support this type of small label release, they’ll make more. If the result is more vintage stuff to watch, you shouldn’t fight it. If you’ve got a sweet spot for early television, you really should have both of them.

Next: Me trying to figure out where we’re going next…

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