Just as Segel cites Henson as an early comedic inspiration, the Muppets’ mastermind counts Burr Tillstrom as one of his primary creative muses. There’s a strong case to be made that Kermit and his friends would never have gained a foothold on PBS, much less graced the silver screen, were it not for the innovative (and often overlooked) Chicago-based entertainer. As Henson admitted in a 1979 profile with the New York Times, “Tillstrom had more to do with the beginning of puppets on television than we did.”
That man, born on the city’s North Side in 1917, saw puppeteering as his calling. At the tender age of eight, Tillstrom started wiring teddy bears so he could put on shows mimicking Buster Keaton movies for his parents and neighborhood friends. After graduating from Senn High School and briefly attending the University of Chicago, he picked up a job in 1935 with the Chicago Park District managing a puppet theater, an operation that was bankrolled by subsidies from the Works Progress Administration. This financial support gave him the flexibility to try more experimental pieces, choreographing puppet versions of classics like "Romeo and Juliet” and Saturday morning kids shows influenced by European Punch and Judy plays. Tillstrom was invited to the 1939 New York World's Fair and by the mid-1940s had built a steady, if humble, career starring in vaudeville revues and at private parties and shows for schools and women’s clubs.
The invention and popularization of television altered the trajectory of Tillstrom’s career dramatically. In 1947, RCA suits came to Chicago to develop a children’s show and asked Tillstrom if he’d perform for an hour, five days per week, on WBKB, the station owned by movie palace tycoons Balaban and Katz. Tillstrom agreed on the condition that he could have one human actor with him on set. At the suggestion of a WBKB official, they hired Fran Allison, a former Iowa schoolteacher turned radio singer. The pair settled on a simple premise for their show: Allison would play an exaggerated version of herself and would hold normal, improvised conversations with a series of hand puppets manipulated by Tillstrom, including Kukla (described in Life as “an earnest, strangely bald youngster”) and Ollie (an “irresponsible, one-toothed dragon”). Named “Junior Jamboree,” and later “Kukla, Fan, and Ollie,” it premiered on October 13 and became “in a little over a year and with a cast of only one visible human, one of the most popular of all TV programs.”
What made the series work? For starters, viewers who watched Tillstrom’s puppets perform alone and with minimal sets and costumes for five hours every week developed a deep attachment to the characters. “They ‘lived’ on television,” Tillstrom would later say. “It went from characters in a play to living people.” And while the humor was “tailor-made for a juve audience” (as one obnoxious reviewer for Variety put it), adults appreciated that “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie” treated its subject matter seriously and its audience with respect. (In a fan letter, John Steinbeck noted that the "show’s ease and naturalness delight me.”) For his part, Tillstrom was convinced that filming on the Third Coast as opposed to the East Coast set his series apart. "In his opinion,” wrote TV Forecast, “Chicagoans are fearless, take chances, experiment with new and original ideas, whereas New York is massive, rich, and traditional."
Tillstrom took his show off the air in 1957, 10 years after it launched. Along the way, he earned a Peabody Award and an Emmy for Best Children's Program. Yet he made arguably his greatest contribution to American popular culture in 1960 at the Puppeteers of America festival in Detroit. That’s where he met Henson, a young college graduate who still didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with his life. The two struck up an immediate friendship. Burr later introduced Henson to puppet builder Don Sahlin, who created Rowlf the Dog (Henson’s first puppet to make regular appearances on network television) and helped hone the Muppet “look.” When Jim and his wife moved to New York in 1963, they rented an apartment in Tillstrom’s building, allowing the two artists to discuss their craft with regularity. Sesame Street was optioned six years later.
For those interested in Tillstrom's career, the Chicago Historical Society houses dozens of crates filled with his puppets, props, and musical scores in its archive. Rich Samuels has posted a great collection of KFO links and videos online, too. Before you go see “The Muppets” this weekend, give them a glance.
*Nick Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), Bret McKenzie and James Bobin ("Flight of the Conchords"), Amy Adams.