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Fran Allison

A native of La Porte City, Iowa, Fran Allison probably had no idea she would become one of early television's most famous performers. Graduating from Coe in 1928 with a teaching certificate, Allison taught in several small Iowa farm towns for four years. At this point, she accepted a position at WMT radio in Waterloo. "There she almost ran the place, doing spot announcements, cooking lessons, commercials- anything that came along. She didn't know it at the time, but she was acquiring experience that would make her one of radio's most versatile performers," the October 1951 Coronet magazine reports.

It was in Waterloo that the character of Aunt Fanny was born. Pulled unexpectedly onto an on-air show, Allison quickly created the gossipy old lady character that would win her initial fame and take her to Chicago, working a staff job and filling in wherever needed. Throughout the 1930's and '40's, Allison found fame and happiness n radio work.

In 1947, Burr Tillstrom, the famous puppeteer, decided to put together a puppet show for television, but knew he needed a human character to ad-lib with the puppets he would control. According to Coronet, "When Burr Tillstrom was searching for the perfect foil for his puppets, he said: 'What I need is a girl who can talk to a dragon.' Fran Allison is that girl." And so, "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie" was born. Praised in the March 4, 1950, Collier's magazine as "the hottest television team on the coaxial cable," these puppets and their human counterpart stayed on the air for 10 years, winning every major award in television, including the Peabody and the Emmy. The show was put back on the air in the mid-'70's to become one of the longest running children's shows ever.

One of the most fascinating features of the show was that it was completely live and performed without a script. Allison once said, "On the air, you say exactly the same thing you would say if it happened for the first time, off the air." This spontaneity was one of the most appealing things about the show because of its appearance of reality, mainly provided by Allison herself. "Upward of 5,500,000 video sets per week are channeled in on their five half-hour programs of song and whimsy over the National Broadcasting Company network. And not only children stop, look, and listen to K.F. and O. Adults find the life-like dolls with the real-life doll just as fascinating," said Collier's.

Allison, however, was not just acting on "Kukla, Fran and Ollie." Perhaps the highest praise of her personal character was summed up best by Burr Tillstrom, her co-worker, when he said in Coronet, "She is one of the most sincere, heart-warming persons in show business. Her great understanding and love for people are reflected in her work, and inspire everyone who comes in contact with her."

From Gazette article (5 March '39): "At present she is heard on the Smile Parade Thursdays at 3 p.m., Sunday Dinner at Aunt Fanny's on Sundays at 1 p.m., Club Matinee program Saturdays at 3 p.m., National Farm and Home hour Tuesdays at 11:30 a.m. and on musical programs as soloist with an orchestra."

Maternal grandmother, Bridget Bannon Halpin, a soloist in a Dublin cathedral.  As of '39 her parents still lived in La Porte City where Fran was born.  Fran's brother Lynn was a professional musician, played with the Glenn Miller band.  Her father was a grocer who was ill most of her childhood.  She and her brother spent most of their time with the grandparents.                       

From Coe she received a Teaching Certificate; she studied Music and Education.

Activities at Coe: Vesper Choir, Girls' Glee Club, Alpha Gamma Delta, and Carleton.  But she never had the nerve to try out for a play at Coe. 

Her first performance on radio in '27 while a student at Coe College.  Her version of the story as told to the Gazette: 

"Radio wasn't so much in those days, but a resident of Cedar Rapids, Harry Parr, had a little station in his home.  Its call letters were KWCR.

"One day KWCR wanted to broadcast but lacked a singer.  Coe college was petitioned and I was sent over.

"Now everything would have been love, I'm sure, but Mr. Parr loved pets.  He had monkeys, parrots and a number of other birds and animals.  These things would turn up in the improvised studio at the most unexpected moments.

"Fortunately none of the pets attempted to share time with me during the first broadcast.  But the thought of such a possibility did very little to ease my nervousness."

After her time at Coe, she taught for 4 years at a one-room schoolhouse in Schleswig and at  Pocahontas.  In 1931 she moved back to CR to sing professional, working again at Station KWCR for the summer.  To develop her dramatic skills for radio she enrolled in the National Producing Company School of Dramatics at Kansas City and then worked for the company as a home talent play director.  Description of this experience by Mary Kandzor, Teen Guest Editor in a clipping in Allison file: 

"An 'ad' calling for a woman with dramatic talent brought Fran to Kansas City, only to find that the promising 'career' was a two week course in play producing with an included matriculation fee of $50.

"Graduated, and with a play called 'Ghost House,' Fran took a one-way bus ride to Carthage with hopes of success.  The first six months' intake, after the sponsor took 60 per cent and the agency took 20 per cent, left her with $21.60.  The show proceeded to lose money, so Fran packed up and headed for home-La Porte City, Iowa."

And she was soon back in CR and KWCR again.  She helped support herself by selling hats in a department store.

Summer of 1932 or 1933: she became a "sustaining artist at Station WMT in Waterloo.  Her program went on once a week and the rest of the time was spent in selling advertising and handling the switchboard for the Cedar Rapids Gazette."   In a DM Register article (Aug 2 '67) she said: "I was paid $10-a-week, plus 10 per cent commission on the show's advertising.  The hitch was that as soon as the show was over I had to hit the street, sell the ads and collect the money."  The commuting was too difficult, so she moved to Waterloo, and helped support herself by selling air time.  During this period she "created her comical Aunt Fanny character, a role she is making famous on the networks today."  According to Nora Ephron article: "She moved to the urban center of Waterloo, Iowa, where her brother was working with a radio band.  Several twists of fate later, she had her own show: six half-hour shows a week, singing and reading advertisements she sold and wrote herself, for $10 a week.  'It was a magnificent job,' she said, laughing, 'but I'm so glad I did it, because I knew all the ends of the business when I went to Chicago."

She did Aunt Fanny for 30 years: a "gossipy, tart-tongued spinster"; ageless, gossipy, homespun, folksy.  She is "a small-town rural gossip who gabbles endlessly about all the other ladies in the organizations to which she belongs" [Nora Ephron's description.]  On Don McNeill Breakfast Club for almost 30 years.  Her fictional friends included Nettie Kennicutt, Doolie Dinglinger, Doody Floop and Beulah Bungwart.

Allison on Aunt Fanny: "When I was growing up at my grandparents, my grandmother was the clubwoman of all time-she was in the Women's Relief Corps, Eastern Star, Ladies Aid, the Missionary Society.  She and my grandfather kept two cows and they used to sell the milk to neighbors, and it was the greatest indignity of my life to have to deliver milk.

"But there was one consolation.  When we delivered the milk to one of my grandmother's friends, my grandmother came along.  The two of them were at sword's points with every officer in every organization, and it used to just kill me to listen to them.  At that age, I thought it was the funniest thing I've ever heard.

"Another thing about Aunt Fanny-there isn't anything that she doesn't think she knows, but she doesn't quit."

In Chicago, in addition to Breakfast Club, she became a well-known radio personality on such shows as "KC Jamboree" and "Meet the Meeks".

From Kandzor article: "While her husband, Archie Levington, a Midwestern 'song plugger,' was in the Army as an infantryman, Fran went on War Bond selling tours as Aunt Emmy.  Burr Tillstrum happened to be at Great Lakes Training Center with Ollieand the gang, when Fran met him for the first time.  Fran's easy going manner and quick comments while talking to Ollie brought a remembrance in the memory of Tillstrum one afternoon in October, 1947, when Captain Bill Eddy, then Chicago's TV station WBKB director, decided to use Burr Tillstrum and his fabulous puppets as a regular show."  Tillstrum knew he wanted Fran Allison to join the team.

Puppeteer Burr Tillstrom: was starting a show for Chicago's WBKB-TV in '47.  Asked Allison to join him.  Creation of the Kuklapolitan Players.  Show originally called "Junior Jamboree."

"Kukla, Fran and Ollie": an unrehearsed, half-hour show that ran five days a week.  She was the human friend of the puppet characters: red-nosed Kukla and one-toothed dragon Ollie.  Kukla is both Russian and Greek for "doll" and is often used as an affectionate term.  The name was given the puppet by the Russian ballerina Tamara Toumanova

Fran's task was "to bridge the gap between reality and whimsy." Tillstrom: "Because of her complete belief in the characters, it makes them perhaps more real than human beings could be.  She is to our show what Dorothy was to Oz, or Alice to Wonderland."  Show ran for 10 years.  Other characters on show were Madame Oglepuss (described by Allison as "a retired opera singer-type"), Beulah Witch, the sailor Cecil Bill, Col. Crackie, Fletcher Rabbit ("if four words would do it, Fletcher uses 40") , and Mercedes, the troupe's ingenue.  Total of 9 puppets; Allison was the only human.  Show revived in 1970 on educational television.  Fran commented on working with Kukla after the three year separation: "Once we were about to rehearse after not having worked together for three years.  I was a ;ittle worried, wondering how my reactions would be.  I walked into the studio and Ollie was onstage.  He shouted 'FRAN-ces!!' and it was just as if there had never been any separation."

Tillstrom on Fran: "Fran was the first person to talk to puppets.  When we started, people didn't talk to puppets--puppets talked to themselves."

Show won two Peabody Awards, three Emmys, and induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.  Jim Henson, creator of Sesame Street's troupe of Muppets, acknowledge told the Associated Press that "Kukla, Fran & Ollie" were "my major influence in terms of puppetry."  Henson continued: "You have a person who takes those characters as real, and that helps make the characters more believable.  We have continued to use that technique."

Allison stood in front of the stage; engaged the characters in unscripted, sincere dialogue.  Kukla, a bald, gentle clown.

From article by Nora Ephron, 8 Apr '67, in New York Post (on occasion of her appearance as wife in Damn Yankees, special on NBC TV): "There was always such a wonderful feeling of complete love.  I adored Kukla and Ollie-they were never anything but real to me.  Even Fletcher Rabbit.  It never seemed strange at all to be talking to a rabbit."

Show appealed to adults just as much as children.  From CR Gazette article (16 April 1950) by Nadine Subotnik: Adult fans include Toscanini, Ezio Pinza, H. Allen Smith, Robert Sherwood, Robert Preston.  "Mr. Pinza of 'South Pacific' fame sent Dragon Ollie a fan note, complimenting him on his strong voice and his pear-shaped tones and suggesting he might fill in in 'South Pacific.'  To which Ollie gave the it's-only-to-be-expected attitude that seems to be his forte.  'I may have to head East soon,' he told the rest of the puppets and the video audience loftily."

In the late 1950s, after the cancellation of the "Kukla, Fran & Ollie" show she hosted the 'Fran Allison Show," another Emmy-winning production.  For the Chicago market, described as "the most ambitious show in Chicago's decade of television.  Described in the Chicago Tribune (14 Jun '89) as the "First Lady of Chicago Broadcasting." From 1967 to 1977 she and puppets hosted the CBS Children's Film Festival on Saturday or Sunday (?)  afternoons.  In the 1980s she hosted a program for senior citizens, "Prime Time" in Los Angeles.  She also performed in "Reluctant Dragon" and "Damned Yankees" and many TV commercials.

Volunteer work for the National Mental Health Association.

In '72 she was given an Alumni Award of Merit.

In spring of '78 she did a radio show in C.R., perhaps at Coe.  This would have been shortly after the death of her husband.

From memo in the Allison file from Coe College News Service, probably written by Florence Winkler, News Bureau Director; dated 29 Nov '76:

Discussion of tapes and kinescopes of her shows.  "I asked if she would give just a few to Coe for our archives so that we would remember her as "Aunt Fanny" and "Kukla, Fran and Ollie."  She seemed to get excited at the idea, and remember two in particular that would have special significance to Coe-a Don McNeill's Breakfast Club show that was done in Sinclair Auditorium, and a Kukla, Fran and Ollie, where Ollie went back to Dragon Tech for Homecoming, and the show was based on Fran's coming back to Coe's homecoming experiences.  Also, the song, I want to go back to Coe again was sung on the program."

Another role she did: Miss Pickerell, a retired teacher with a pet cow

Allison: in 1942 she married Archie Levington, a music publisher.  When he went off to war, she went on a war bond-selling tour and that's when she met Billstrom. Then lived in Englewood, N.J.  She traveled once a month to Chicago to do her Aunt Fanny role.  He died in '78.

Excerpts from Coronet article by Carol Hughes (Oct '51).  "Kukla and Ollie's Real-Life Heroine."

20 million people watch the show each week on NBC.

Father paralyzed; unable to work; Fran and brother lived with grandparents.  Her mother, Nan Allison, came down with TB and had to move into a sanatorium.  "Doctor's were pessimistic about Nan's chances of recovery, but after a year, having 'prayed herself' well, she returned to her family.  When Fran was 11 years old, she and her brother Lynn were back home."  From her mother, Fran learned to "fight hard for life" and how to overcome unbelievable obstacles.

Started teaching: $100 / month

Working for local radio station, the announcer for the program called out to her: "Well, folks, look who's here.  Our old Aunt Fanny!  Come on up, Aunt Fanny, and tell us what's new."  Unprepared, Fran "gave an impromptu take-off of a gossipy, garrulous old spinster, thus creating a role that has been her bread-and-butter stand-by ever since."

Break through came when she sang at her high school's homecoming program.  She met Bennet Chapple, an executive of the American Rolling Mills.  He arranged an audition with NBC in Chicago.  She got a staff job, including becoming a girl vocalist on the Breakfast Club.  She also did soap operas and singing commercials.

While working in Chicago, she was in a terrible car accident near Des Moines, result of a head-on collision with a speeding car.  Very close to dying.  Fran felt she was saved by her mother's prayers.  Her face was badly scarred.  She eventually returned to the radio show, but she was very timid about any public appearances.  She did meet Archie Levington, and though they had different religious faiths, they got married (the Coronet article says in '40).  In the 40s she started working with a facial surgeon in Memphis, Tennessee and eventually had her face restored without any trace of scars.  Also she became pregnant; she planned to quite work and become a mother, but she lost the baby.  She comments: "If it hadn't been for Archie, I would never have pulled through."

From 1950 newspaper article: Radio Daily poll had Allison ranked as the #3 television personality in the country, only surpassed by Milton Berle and Arthur Godfrey.

Notes from "Allison in Wonderland" by Bill Fay (Collier's):

Show seen on over 5 million TV sets per week.  One of the hottest shows on TV.

Aunt Fanny once told her listeners on the Don McNeil show that she was around 25 years old, and then added, "Course, it's the second time around."

"Ordinarily, people do not worry much about what happens to dragons, but you can't help worrying about a friendly, hard-working character like Ollie, who is fond of buttered popcorn and occasionally puts his hair up in curlers.  He also edits a newspaper, punching out copy on a typewriter with his tooth.  In addition, Ollie works tirelessly to improve his diction, repeating over and over in pear-shaped tones, 'Gloria, come back.  I can forgive but never forget.' "

"When Kukla and Ollie are occupied elsewhere, Fran sings a song, or visits with the other Kuklapolitan puppets who inhabit Tillstrom's Wonderland: Fletcher Rabbit, the mailman who starches his floppy ears; Madame Ophelia Ooglepuss, the haughty retired opera singer; gallant Colonel Cracky of the deep South, who calls every woman...his fragile magnolia blossom; Beulah Witch, who patrols the air on a gold broomstick; beautiful-but-dumb Clara Coo Coo; Mercedes, a very naughty girl, and stagehand Cecil Bill, who speaks a language only Kukla understands."

Mother Nan lives from Fran and her husband.  She has served as an "adviser and consultant ever since Grandfather Allison secured his grandchild's first professional engagement at a meeting of the G.A.R. of Black Hawk County, Iowa" when Fran was 4 years old.  Nan also provides assistance for Aunt Fanny's character.  "...when Fran needed a pithy description of a neighborhood gossip, Nan suggested, 'There was a woman back home who was just about the talkingest person I ever met.  She could stay longer in half an hour than anybody else could in a whole afternoon.' "

More information on the Kansas City job: "Fran was graduated with highest honors, two trunks containing an adequate supply of white muslin shrouds and other basic production equipment for a drama entitled Ghost House, and a one-way bus ticket to Carthage, Missouri.

" 'Down in Carthage,' explained the dean of the Kansas City school, 'there's an orchestra that's trying to raise some money.  They'll sponsor your play and provide local amateur talent.  You direct and produce and we split the profits-60 per cent for the sponsors, 20 per cent for us, 20 per cent for.' "

"Fran worked a month in Carthage to earn $21.60.  Then during the next three stops her show lost money.  The inevitable telegram finally arrived: NO FURTHER ASSIGNMENTS AVAILABLE.  She took the long bus ride home to La Porte City, Iowa, arriving on Thanksgiving Day with 50 cents and her battered production trunks.  Next came low-paying singing jobs at radio stations in Cedar Rapids, Ottumwa and Waterloo."

Story of the creation of Aunt Fanny.  In response to announcer Joe DuMond's request for Aunt Fanny to tell us what's new, "Fran did a take-off on a good-natured, garrulous spinster she had once met.  'Well, Mister DuMond,' she said, 'I dropped by to see Daisy Dosselhurt yesterday and her Junior came to the door and I said real nice, "junior, is your mother home?" "No, she ain't," he said.  "Is your father home?" I asked.  "No, he ain't," he said.  Well, I had hear about enough ain'ts, so I said, "Where's your grammar?"  He answered quick, "She ain't here, either."

"It was a pretty bad joke, but the way Aunt Fanny told it made it sound pretty good.  After that impromptu skit with DuMond, Fran created her bread-and-butter character out of the old maid."

Allison died of a blood disorder in 1989.

Notes on Tillstrom: his first job as a puppeteer for the WPA in the 1930s; major breakthrough came in 1939 when he did a puppet show that was broadcast by RCA at the television demonstration during the World's Fair.  Kukla, his first hand puppet, created in the mid 30s. 

From a Chicago Tribune article, Oct 17, 1997: "It was the antics of these two pupets that fans loved so dearly.  Kukla, a wise little man-child, always knew what to do, and could be counted on in a pinch.  Ollie, with his larger-than-life ego, didn't have a bashful bone in his body.  Ollie could be counted on to regularly give Kukla fits, but their hilarious disputes over everyday problems were always resolved peacefully, with Kukla's patient, reasonable approach prevailing.

"Tillstrom's puppeteering genius was seen in his skillful use of humor, ranging from subtle to downright hilarious.  Just as important was his intelligent use of irony, which was as amusing to kids--when they 'got' it--as it was to their parents.  Newspaper headlines were particularly fair game for his sophisticated but gentle brand of satire.  Tillstrom also created sticky situations that struck the audience as realistic--and he invented clever solutions."

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