Fran Allison (Wikimedia Commons)
Today, the pop-culture landscape is rich with children's television that secretly (or not so secretly) entertains adults while still delighting children. Shows like SpongeBob SquarePants, Adventure Time and Sesame Street manage to thread that needle thanks in large part to the example set by Fran Allison on the seminal show Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Allison, who died 25 years ago today, was the only human cast member in a world of puppet friends voiced by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom. Together with Tillstrom's creations, Allison charmed viewers of all ages with songs and skits for 10 years.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie was a huge hit, receiving 15,000 pieces of fan mail per day at its peak, according to Allison's 1989 Chicago Tribune obituary. It aired nationwide at 7 p.m., five days a week, starting in 1949 and, according to additional reporting from the Tribune, fans included cultural luminaries Orson Welles, John Steinbeck and James Thurber.
Every episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie was unscripted, according to the Tribune, as Tillstrom was unable to hold a script while manipulating the puppets. Thankfully Allison was an accomplished comedian and performer, able to think on her feet before a live audience. In her New York Times obituary, Allison is quoted as saying, "On the air, you say exactly the same thing you would say if it happened for the first time, off the air." Her banter with the puppets was always natural, familiar and funny, helping to build up the puppets as seemingly living characters in the eyes of viewers. According to The New York Times, 6 million viewers tuned in to see the show in 1950, which the Times' television critic called "one of the most imaginative shows ever developed in the electronic medium."
Allison's legacy proved inspirational, providing a steppingstone for generations of producers to make quality television programming for children and adults alike. The echoes of her work can be seen through the years in programs like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Sesame Street and wherever imaginations are allowed to run free.
Written by Seth Joseph. Find him on Google+.