Living Color, The Second Time Around

Kukla Fran and OllieTom Shales of the Washington Post recently wrote how painful it was to see Kukla, Fran and Ollie consigned to someone’s list of Forgotten TV Shows. Rest easy Tom. I remember the show just fine, and what I clearly remember is that even though the show was in color, I never saw it in anything other than black and white.

As Shales points out, Kukla, Fran and Ollie aired on NBC, the network owned by RCA. For a brief time, the only maker of color TV sets in this country was RCA. You can see where this is going. My mother and father were not what we now call early adopters. One of my earliest TV memories is watching Gabby Hayes on Saturday morning in front of a TV cabinet that had a round cornered screen. The picture was black and white and it (along with the cabinet) stayed that way for a long, long time.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie aired from 1947 to 1957, but I don’t think we got our first color TV set until the early 60s. I honestly can’t remember much about the plots of these shows but I have these hazy recollections of characters such as KuklaCol. Crackey and Beulah Witch, and of course, Fran Allison often sang songs during which I must have tuned out.

According to Shales and those involved in the production of the show, there were no scripts. Creator Burr Tillstrom adlibbed the entire show and Fran followed along, treating the puppets like her friends. Imagine a show doing that today, in an environment where even the reality TV shows are scripted. It is astonishing, looking back now, that Tillstrom was able to keep all the voices straight. Hugh Downs was the announcer for the Chicago-based show and he recollects that Tillstrom never got the voices crossed because he had a very compartmentalized mind. Indeed.

Ollie was a one-toothed dragon (who wore leopard skin for some unknown reason) and Kukla looked like a doll (the name is Russian for doll) with wicked eyebrows and clown-like rosy cheeks. Fran started out as a wholesome brunette but somewhere along the way she updated her hairstyle and went blonde. Probably around the time fashionable women of the 50s were all going blonde.

Maybe the change to blonde is a big deal because now I can actually see the shows in living color. In any case, if you want to get into the “way back machine,” take a look at some of the shows in the new DVD collection. It will take you back to another time.


Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept. He's written a mystery novel, which therefore makes him a pre-published author.

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