On the eve of its 50th anniversary, Kukla, Fran and Ollie is venturing into licensed products for the first time.
The recent home video release of Kukla, Fran and Ollie episodes is the first step in what rights-holder Martin Tahse Productions hopes will be a line of products that will appeal to the show’s original fan base, as well as a new generation of viewers.
The creation of Burr Tillstrom, Kukla, Fran and Ollie debuted in 1947. Never positioned as a Saturday-morning kiddie show, the live and mostly improvised program introduced a family of ‘Kuklapolitans’ who went on to entertain viewers for over 21 years. The show later ran on PBS and in syndication. Currently, it airs on the Starz! cable channel
How big was the series? In 1947, when TV sets were scarce, taverns would stop serving alcohol so families could come in and watch the program.
According to Martin Tahse, president of Martin Tahse Productions, Burr Tillstrom was never fond of licensing. Tillstrom had a bad licensing experience in the early 1950s when a company produced inferior replicas of his puppets. ‘They were so bad that Burr swore there would never be anything else ever made,’ says Tahse. Tillstrom put a codicil in his will that the puppets could be displayed, but never manipulated (he was the only one ever to have operated and voiced them).
When Tahse acquired the rights to the show in the 1970s, he approached Dick Tillstrom, the executor of his brother’s estate, about producing licensed product. In 1995, Dick Tillstrom finally relented. ‘Burr’s intent was that as long as you didn’t make hand puppets that someone could manipulate, you were upholding the spirit of what he wanted,’ explains Tahse.
The centerpiece of the licensing program is the home video release from New Kid Home Video, a Martin Tahse Productions subsidiary. Five episodes debuted last October, with another 34 to come. Each video features a complete episode along with 15 bonus minutes, such as ‘The Best of Buelah Witch.’
‘What we are picking up on from a licensing perspective is that there is a very broad audience who would like to remember those simpler days,’ says Rand Marlis, president of Creative Licensing Corporation, the licensing agent for the property. His initial efforts will be concentrated in collectibles.
To coincide with the show’s 50th anniversary in October, a special exhibit at the Chicago Historical Society is planned. Tahse says he has been approached by several broadcast networks and cable channels that are interested in doing a TV special.
Long-range plans include an animated special based on a book that Tillstrom penned, called The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs, an animated feature film and a new animated series that employs the soundtracks from the early kinescope shows.
Tahse says that the show’s lasting appeal is that it was about family. All the characters knew each other’s foibles, shortcomings and problems, just like real families.
‘We’ve taken on a big thing, and I wish we had the resources of a Disney to make it happen faster, but we’re making it happen,’ says Tahse.