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Kukla, Fran and Ollie - The First Episodes: 1949-54
Other // Unrated // November 20, 2010
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
I really love early television. Back in the days when the medium was young, no one really knew what the public would want to watch or how to bring in viewers. As a cost cutting measure the shows were more often live than not, and that meant that the performers had to get it right the first time. One of the earliest shows was a children's puppet show created by Burr Tillstrom, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. Consisting of a cast of puppets operated by Tillstrom with a live host, comedienne and singer Fran Allison, the program first aired in 1947. To give you an idea of how early that is, I Love Lucy and the first Honeymooners sketch wouldn't first appear until 1951, Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle, wouldn't host Texaco Star Theater until June of the following year and even Howdy Doody himself wasn't on the air until a couple of months after Tillstrom started his show. Running for just a few months shy of a decade in it's original incarnation, and then appearing in several new versions over the following decades, Tillstrom and his creation had a lasting impact on television. He was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1986.
Unfortunately there has been little in the way of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie shows making their way to DVD. There's a single but very fun episode include in Shout! Factory's excellent Hiya Kids! A 50's Saturday Morning Box, and there was a "clumsy, in some ways inept and overpriced" set of later episodes, released as Kukla, Fran and Ollie - 60th Anniversary Premiere Collector's Edition, but aside from that, nada. Until now. The Burr Tillstrom Copyright Trust has gathered together 20 very early shows and released them in an wonderful two disc set, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie - The First Episodes: 1949-1950. It's a great collection that will please even fans too young to remember this original series.
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 these shows) who interact with Fran, their friend. The show also has a wide cast of other puppets including the wanna-be opera diva Madame Ooglepuss, the friendly (more or less) Buelah Witch, and southern blowhard Colonel Crackie. 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. It takes a few episodes to really get the hang of the humor, but it's surprisingly amusing even now. Their rendition of Hansel and Gretel, where no one, including Buelah Witch, wanted to play the evil witch and Kukla and Ollie got in a fight over who had to play the female lead is wonderfully comic. The introductions by the confused narrator add a lot to the mayhem. Their performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado was similarly hilarious.
The best show presented in this collection has to be the one that starts off the set, A Salute to Television. In this one the trio welcomes some of the new TV stations that are just starting to receive the show, and then they warp up the show with a marvelously comic song singing the praises of television. "All hail television! Goodbye to gloom and sorrow."
All of these episodes were also ad-libbed too. 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 20 episodes, running either 15 or 30 minutes each, 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 1954, the image quality is very good for Kinescopes. Yes, the picture is a bit 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.
As a bonus there are excerpts from two other shows, one featuring Marlin Perkins (of Wild Kingdom Fame) and the other with Gene Rayburn who later went on to host Match Game. These were great extended clips and I'm glad they were included.
This is a great set that will hopefully find its way into a lot of DVD collections. 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. Highly recommended.