Kukla, Fran & Ollie: A Nation of Immigrants

Burr Tillstrom—the puppeteer behind the Kukla, Fran & Ollie children’s show—is my family’s claim to fame.

I missed his centenary last autumn.  Franklin Burr Tillstrom was born 13 October 1917 in Chicago, Illinois, and had an older brother Richard (1911-2008).  Their mother was Alice Burr and their father was Bert Frank Tillstrom, a doctor.  They lived on Lakewood Ave in Chicago when Dr. Tillstrom registered for the World War I draft in September 1918. At the time of the World War II draft in 1942, the Tillstroms lived on Sherwin Ave. in Chicago.  Bert & Alice returned to their native state of Michigan in retirement.

Bert Tillstrom’s grandfather, Nils Peter Nilsson, is my 3rd great grandfather, on my dad’s side.  Nils Peter was born in 1818 in Småland, near Kalmar in Sweden, and emigrated to Michigan in 1880.  Gunnar Karlberg, a Stockholm cousin and Kukla, Fran & Ollie fan, traced the family history in Swedish, Steenssons (Joen) attlingar fran Kristdala socken Norra Kalmar lan.  I don’t know Swedish, but Google translate & some online family history helped guesstimate the family tree back to Steen Danielson (c.1640-1702), with many generations between in military service to the crown when Sweden was considered a Great Power.

Nils Peter was a farmer, not a soldier, and his eldest son August Nilsson emigrated to Michigan after the Civil War, where there was good farmland to be settled.  August adopted the Americanized surname Tillstrom and crossed over the big stream to build a life on the shores of the Great Lakes.  Burr’s grandfather (Bert’s father) Frans Oscar Nilsson was the youngest son, and emigrated with Nils Peter in 1880, adopting the Americanized name Frank Tillstrom.  They also had two other brothers, Carl Johan and Sven Magnus, who emigrated to Michigan, and two sisters, Maria and Johanna, who stayed with their families in Sweden.

Burr Tillstrom was an inspiration to me and a heck of a lot of other people.  -Muppets creator Jim Henson in The Golden Age of Chicago Children’s Television (2004).

So Burr Tillstrom is my 2nd cousin twice removed.  He left the University of Chicago in the Depression to work for the WPA-Chicago Parks District Theatre, and later at the Marshall Field’s flagship store on State Street downtown.  He pioneered children’s television programming, participating in the 1939 New York World’s Fair with RCA Victor, then on Chicago local TV, and in 1949 nationally on NBC with former school teacher Fran Allison (1907-1989).  His brother Richard was also a puppeteer and went on to host his own show in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In 1953, the show was one of the first experimental broadcasts in color television.  Kukla, Fran & Ollie won two Emmy awards, in 1954 and 1971, and inspired a generation (or two) of children and their families.

Burr Tillstrom maintained ties to the family with a summer home at Saugatuck, a small arts & tourist destination on Lake Michigan. He passed way in 1985, in Palm Springs, California.  From the forests of Sweden to the farms of Michigan and live TV in the Windy City and beyond, each generation has spread their wings to find their own way.  Some stayed close to home, others ventured far afield.  All dared to live the American Dream.  We are all a nation of immigrants.

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