The Burr Tillstron Trust has released a third, and possibly the final, volume of rare early television with Kukla, Fran, and Ollie - The First Episodes Volume Three. The first two volumes were excellent, and I'm glad to report that this two-disc collection is just as entertaining and fun as the previous two.
For those who aren't familiar with the trio, Kukla and Ollie are puppets, (Ollie is a dragon and Kukla is "a Kukla" as Ollie reveals in one of the shows) who interact with their human friend, Fran. The show also has a wide cast of other puppets including the wanna-be opera diva Madame Ooglepuss, the friendly (more or less) wizard, Buelah Witch, and southern blowhard Colonel Crackie among others. (All of the puppets were created and preformed by the driving force behind the show, Burr Tillstrom.) The thing that makes the show so special, and causes it to stand head and shoulders above other kids shows of the era, is the slightly bizarre, off-kilter sense of humor that permeates the program. Though it's a program aimed at kids, they don't talk down to their audience and even assume that they're more cultured than they really are.
A highlight in early television, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie are woefully ignored today, and hopefully this set will expose a new generation of viewers to the amusing comedy of this fantastic show. The show was incredibly popular back when it aired, and that's illustrated by in the program itself... they hold up copies of magazines that cover the show and there are more than a few times that they earned a cover shot. Mentioning the positive press they were receiving, they would even show smaller regional publications, was a brilliant idea: They put a national spotlight on the magazines that were reviewing the show, and ensured that more periodicals that wanted some free publicity would come knocking at their door to give the show some free coverage.
Like the previous two collections, this volume is filled with funny and sometimes surreal sketches that really make the show a blast to watch. My favorite episode from this batch is one where Ollie, after reading some trade publications, decides that he could help guide people who want to start a new TV show since he's been on the air for four seasons. He starts a business: Oliver J. Dragon, Television Consultant. There a wonderful soliloquy where he lists off the advice that he could offer including keeping the boom mike out of the shot, and not having a camera roll over cables while it is filming since that makes a horrible racket on an otherwise quite set. This final bit of advice caused the stage hands and cameramen to break out in laughter. It definitely sounded like this was advice that Tillstrom wanted to give his own crew.
There are other great installments in this collection too. It's hard not to enjoy the shows where the group acts out some of the great works of literature and the stage, and this time we're treated to performances of Hamlet and Oliver Twist, both of which are hilarious. There are some pretty astounding guest stars too including Dennis Day, who was a supporting character on Jack Benny's TV and radio show, flamenco dancer and choreographer Jose Greco, and jazz guitarist Earl Backus.
This set also features 10 recently discovered shows from the program's run on ABC. The show ran on that network from 1954-57 after moving from NBC. Included is the last known surviving episode of Kukla, Fran and Ollie from February 11, 1957.
One of the neat things about these shows, and the reason that they're still so entertaining decades later, is that they were ad-libbed and live. That's right, they went on live television without a script, just some vague ideas of what they were going to do and let the show unfold as it would. You can hear the piano player and stage hands laughing at times, but even more amusing is when Fran isn't sure what Burr (operating the puppets) is going for. There were a couple of times where Fran excuses herself only to have Kukla say something to the effect of 'no stay here Fran." This gives the show a free wheeling and spontaneous feel that is totally lacking in shows of today.
The shows included in this collection are:
9/29/49 Tooie Talk
12/1/49 Salute to Utica
9/12/50 Oliver J. Dragon, Television Consultant
12/8/50 Oliver Twist
2/12/52 Jose Greco
4/1/52 April Fool's Day
4/16/52 Buelah's Electronic Hair Dryer
6/20/52 Buelah Goes To The Aragon
1/4/53 Female Trouble
2/15/53 Dennis Day
3/22/53 H. V. Kaltenborn
11/8/53 The New Neighbor
12/13/53 Cecil Bill Trims the Tree
9/12/55 Kukla's Secret
9/14/55 Tea Party
9/15/55 Kukla Tells Fran
9/16/55 The Big Reveal
9/26/55 Packing Fran
9/27/55 Fran in California
9/28/55 Fran Comes Home
9/29/55 Keep It Gay
9/30/55 Earl Backus
2/11/57 The Four Jacks
The 24 episodes are presented on a pair of DVDs that come in a single-width double case.
All of these episodes were broadcast live, but these were saved thanks to Kinescope copies. In these days before videotape the only way to preserve a live show was to point a camera at a monitor showing the broadcast and film it. Needless to say there was some loss of quality inherent in this method. All of the shows in this set are Kinescopes but they've been cleaned up and look and sound better than I was expecting.
The mono soundtrack does have some hiss and pops and the dynamic range is very limited, but these DVDs reproduce the show better than the small screen and scratchy single paper cone speaker would back when they were first broadcast. The dialog does get a bit muddled in a couple of parts, but in general it's easy to hear the dialog and follow the show. I never had to strain to follow the shows, so I was very happy with the audio on these.
Recorded between 1949 and 1957, the image quality is very good for Kinescopes. Yes, the picture is soft and the contrast isn't as strong as it could be, but the shows are generally clear and easy on the eyes. It's easy to tell that these have had work done on them since they look better than most Kinescopes from this time frame.
There are some great bonuses included with these shows. The first disc features black and white clips from two shows that were broadcast in an experimental RCA color system. This was the first show to be publically broadcast in color, and while the system didn't work, it's interesting to see what they did for such an auspicious occasion never the less. There's also a reel of director Lewis Gomavitz's home movies, some footage in color. This silent film is mated with an audio interview with Burr Tillstrom from 1980. One of Tillstrom's final recordings, an audio-only musical The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs is also on the discs.
If you've never seen the original Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, you're in for a treat. It's a slightly surreal yet immensely fun children's program from the 50's that doesn't talk down to its audience and never takes itself seriously. This third volume of shows is just as entertaining as the first two. $15 for two discs filled with classic (and very rare) television is a steal! Highly recommended.