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
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
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
"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
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
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 (?)
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
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
"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
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
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
" '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
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."