The name Frances Allison probably doesn’t ring a bell with most people. The radio comedienne and singer was born on November 20, 1907, and became well known to a segment of the television viewing audience in the days of live programming and test patterns. To those who huddled around the TV set early evenings during the late 40s and early 50s, she was better known simply as Fran, and she was one-third (and the only human) of the trio Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, the show got its start as Junior Jamboree locally in Chicago, Illinois, in 1947. Renamed Kukla, Fran and Ollie, it transferred to WNBQ in November 1948 and aired nationally on NBC a few months later. Although the show, all puppets except for Fran, was originally targeted to children, it was soon watched by more adults than children. It was entirely ad-libbed.
Fran assumed the role of big sister and cheery voice of reason as the puppets engaged each other in life’s little ups and downs. It was a Punch and Judy kind of show but with less slapstick and broad caricature. Kukla was the earnest leader of the troupe, a bit of a nerd, and Ollie (short for Oliver J. Dragon) was his complete opposite, a devilish one-toothed dragon who would roll on his back when sucking up or slam his chin on the stage when annoyed. Joining them were Madame Oglepuss, a retired opera diva; Beulah, a liberated witch; Fletcher Rabbit, a fussbudget, and several others.
KFOs fan base included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Tallulah Bankhead, and Adlai Stevenson among many others. James Thurber wrote that Tillstrom and the program were “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television.”
Kukla, Fran and Ollie ran for ten years until 1957.