Burr Tillstrom was born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 13, 1917. He attended Senn High School and began pursuing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago, before dropping out in 1936 after being given a job offer from WPA-Chicago Parks District Theatre. Tillstrom’s career centered on marionette theatre, and his most popular creation, Kukla, was invented when he landed his job at WPA-Chicago Parks District Theatre. In 1947, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the television show based on his original design, premiered on Chicago’s WBKB-TV. The show earned Tillstrom five Emmys and over fifty other awards. PBS aired the show from 1969-1971. Tillstrom spent some time at Hope College in 1972, participating in both the theatre department and the communication department as guest faculty, or an artist-in-residence. He befriended faculty members such as Ted Nielsen, of communications, with whom he stayed in touch after leaving Hope. As a result of his time as artist-in-residence, in 1977 a tour called The Kukla and Ollie Retrospective Stage Show began. Tillstrom then continued his media career in Chicago by appearing on newscasts and re-entering the theater in 1979. Before Tillstrom’s death in 1985, he was working on creating a television musical from a children’s book called The Dragon Who Lived Downstairs, and was petitioning for a Guggenheim Grant to create a video autobiography of his experience making Kukla, Fran and Ollie. After Tillstrom’s death, Ted Nielsen of Hope College attempted to take on the task of completing his video biography.
Repository citation: Hope College, "H97-1302.10. Tillstrom, Burr (1917-1985). Papers, 1947-1997. 2.00 linear ft." (2020). Collection Registers and Abstracts. Paper 1735.
November 24, 2020.