Burr Tillstrom (Chicago, Illinois, 1917- Palm Springs, California 1985)
Burr Tillstrom was the first puppeteer to reach millions of American television viewers with shows that were witty, charming, and sophisticated enough to appeal to adults as well as children. In 1976 Kukla was named “America’s Punch.” Burr worked as a solo performer. His hand puppets were always simple and sets and props were minimal. With a dozen whimsical eccentric puppets Burr improvised hundreds of hours of television. His work was distinguished by the depth and subtly of his characterizations, his sly comments on modern life and culture, and a caring warmth and humanity. His gifts included superb timing and a beautiful way with a song. Burr was born in Chicago. He made his first marionettes following Edith Flack Ackley’s pattern. He was inspired by the Tattermans, and encouraged by a neighbor, Tony Sarg’s sister. Rufus Rose became a mentor in 1933. Burr’s first puppet job was with the government sponsored WPA. Under the direction of Don Vestal, Burr performed a play by Gertrude Stein at the first puppet festival in Detroit in 1936. His new hand puppet was given the Russian name “Kukla” by ballerina Tamara Toumanova. Burr appeared at the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York. In 1941 he did pioneering television work. In 1947 Fran Allison was invited to do a television show with Burr Tillstrom. Fran stood in front of the puppet stage talking to her puppet friends, a dragon, a witch, an opera diva, a rabbit and Kukla. Kukla, Fran, and Ollie first aired as a locally in 1947 and was broadcast nationally 1948-1957. In 1970-71 Kukla and Ollie appeared on public television with 26 new half-hour episodes in color. The show won two Emmys and the prestigious Peabody award. There were hundreds of guest appearances. In 1960 Kukla and Ollie covered the political conventions for the Today Show. Television specials included St George and the Dragon 1953, Many Moons (James Thurber) 1954, The Reluctant Dragon 1968. Burr made a few recordings and wrote a children’s book, but mostly he resisted commercial offers. In 1964 Burr did guest spots on an adult satire show, That Was the Week That Was. His powerful hand ballet The Berlin Wall (1965), created for the show won great recognition. Jim Henson and Shari Lewis always acknowledged the enormous influence that Burr Tillstrom had on their work. In 1980 he appeared at the gala opening of the Washington UNIMA Festival. Although most famous as a TV star, Burr Tillstrom loved live performance. He appeared at 11 national festivals from 1936 to 1984. Ollie made his New York theatre debut in 1953. The Kuklapolitans played Broadway in 1960 and again in 1978 in Side By Side by Sondheim. The Chicago Historical Society is the home of the Burr Tillstrom archives.
To young puppeteers Burr Tillstrom offered this advice.
“Read! Write! See as many performing arts as you can. Begin to understand characterization, and motivation and emotion. What is it that moves you? Touches you in some way? What delights you? What makes you mad? Take time to understand
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