The Exploding Accordion


1932 circa Chicago Barn danceThe year is 1932. Jack Erschen, (stage name “Jack Rich”)  was making his mark on the vaudeville stage with his silly invention,  a tricked out accordion, his “gimmick” as he would say.  It would play only a few notes before he would hit a secret button,  causing it to fly apart all over the stage, accordion keys and parts everywhere, sending loads of candy into the delighted audience!


This was Vaudeville!


The word “vaudeville” is said to have been derives from “voix de ville,” or “voice of the city.” Or possibly the French vau-de-vire, referring to the Valley of the Vire in Normandy, where itinerant singers amused the crowds . Vaudeville theaters in America featured musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, animal acts, magicians, ventriloquists, strongmen, impersonators, acrobats, jugglers, one-act plays and more!

If you had the right stuff, you picked up the dance steps, the vocal style, the comic timing that could make you a star. In 1919  vaudeville was truly an important industry in Chicago. the sidewalks on the corners of N. Dearborn and W. Randolph Sts. were crowded daily with vaudeville performers seeking work at a number of the vaudeville booking agencies

Continue reading “The Exploding Accordion”

The Voice of Buelah Witch

6779333_1032456574He died on December 6th 1985 in Palm Springs,  California at the age of 68. He was buried in Rosehill Cemetery, 5700 North Ravenswood, Chicago. He was born Franklin Burr Tillstrom  on October 13 1917 in Chicago to Dr. Bert (a foot specialist) and Alice Burr Tillstrom. We all knew him as “Burr”, a winner of five emmy’s,  a genius, our lost treasure, and best remembered for his creation of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”, the Kuklapolitan Players. The show was an important part of everyday life in the ’50s.

He was a true Chicagoan living on Lakewood Avenue, Granville, and Sherwin in his early years, then along Lake Michigan later on. He graduated from Senn High School on Ridge and then briefly attended the University of Chicago. He became a puppeteer as early as his high school days, using teddy bears and dolls to entertain neighborhood children. While attending the University of Chicago, he joined the WPA-Chicago Parks District’s Puppet Theater, In the mid-Thirties took his act to carnivals, fairs, and night clubs, developing his own puppets.

He was the brilliant creator, puppeteer, and raspy voice of Buelah Witch and many other memorable characters known as the Kuklapolitans. Burr Tillstrom developed his concept of Kukla, Fran and Ollie within the RCA Victor exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where he performed more than 2,000 shows. He met radio singer Fran Allison, who would join his troupe for just a 13-week trial  but she ended up staying an additional ten years. the show was simple: Fran Allison stood in front of a small stage and Burr did the rest.

SEP 15 1950From old in the newspaper broadcasting as early as, I found a May 31 1939 newspaper television listing for exactly “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” on WNBC channel 6 and WNBT channel 4 both flagship stations of the NBC television network. This predates the Chicago show. Also In 1939,  he put on a weekly Saturday morning puppet show for children at Marshall Field and Company in Chicago.  He then did the first Balaban and Katz telecast over experimental station W9XBK in 1941 which later became WBKB TV in September of 1946.

1The series “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” began locally in Chicago on WBKB on October 13 1947 when the majority of television sets were located in taverns and saloons. It is reported that there were only 20,000 sets in Chicago. The show was originally called Junior Jamboree, a key part of the “Chicago School” of broadcasting. Always ad-libbed, the show had no writers and appealed to both children and big people. The popularity of the show was because it was its own unique world of make-believe. 10599511_783014798402738_2450108560976509281_n

networktest patternThe show went to Chicago’s WNBQ and on NBC’s Midwest network on nov 29 1948 and then later to ABC, opening to the East Coast in 1949 and the West Coast in 1951. In some markets, it came on after the Lone Ranger, Break the Bank, or even just after the station’s test pattern. At the height of the show’s popularity, the cast received 15,000 letters a day. By its third season, the show had six million viewers. A five minute version of the show ran between 1961-1962 on NBC. There was a PBS revival which ran between 1969-1971 and then a final syndicated version which ran between 1975-1976. There have been many reruns since.

fictional-locations-kukla-fran-ollie-buelah-witch-colorBuelah was an alumnus of Witch Normal,  a school of rigid traditions. She had a nose resembling a malformed coathook that ended with a pronounced wart for good measure. She had a severe temperament visible on most occasions. You did not mess with Buelah who almost always prevailed. She had a warm heart despite her gruff exterior. She preferred black fashion but does have an ermine coat donated by a viewer. According to “sources”,,  Buelah Witch was arrested by Interpol for flying too low over the United Nations building.

kulaFranOllie2 “Kukla” was developed in 1936, the Russian word for “doll” by ballerina Tamara Toumanova during a visit to the United States. There were at least eight well worn out Kukla puppets over the years.  Kukla was the “star” of the show, although we are not quite sure what he really was, maybe a small boy or a clown or ? As young as he appeared with a high pitched voice, he had no hair, was somewhat unsure of himself, but made up for it with his kindness and understanding.

kukla_ollie_1Oliver J. Dragon (Ollie),  an alumnus of Dragon Prep,  was a one-of-a-kind mischievous, one-toothed sweet dragon,  living within what appeared to be a leopard skin of sorts. He often would boast the he indeed was the star of the show,  not Kukla. He had a good heart but had no hands, so he relied on Kukla or Fran to hold the phone to his ear or get something from the stage. If Ollie needed Kukla not to run away, Ollie would use his mouth holding onto Kukla’s red nose while talking. Billed as ”Mr. Oliver J. Dragon, American Baritone,” Ollie sang with the Boston Pops Orchestra in the 1954 Midwest premiere of ”St. George and the Dragon” at the usually staid Chicago Opera House. An ancestor of Ollie’s supposedly once swam the Hellespont and took in too much water and thereby drowned the family’s fire-breathing ability.

759px-Olivia_and_Ollie_Dragon_Kukla_Fran_and_OllieOllie’s mother was Olivia Dragon and Ollie’s niece was Dolores Dragon  who was left when her parents went away.  Over time, we watched Dolores grow from a noisy infant into a teenage dragonette.

madame_oglepussGrand dame Madame Ophelia Oglepuss,  a prima-donna former opera diva, a retired red-haired lady, much like Buelah,  had a horribly crooked nose slightly bent so she could look down on others. She brandished a quite hefty untreated wartlike growth on her right cheek. Her expensive wardrobe included a real mink stole, a gold party dress, a genuine fox hat and matching muffler, four wigs and jewelry. 46507497_10213384472869785_6979803029776105472_n There was  “Stagehand” Cecil Bill  who spoke a “toy to toy toy” language somewhat incomprehensible unless you were another Kuklapolitan.  Colonel Richard Hooper Crackie, was a suave Southern gentleman supposedly once engaged to Madam Oglepuss. There was the floppy-eared Fletcher Rabbit, the postman to the troupe. There also was the  naughty child Mercedes, Clara Coo Coo, Goultar, and others, all from Burr’s fertile imagination.

fran_allison Fran Allison was born Francis Helen Allison on November 20, 1907 in La Porte City Iowa to Jesse and Anna Halpin Allison.  She began her career as a schoolteacher, later a songstress on Iowa radio programs and eventually moved to Chicago in 1937, where she was hired as a singer and personality on NBC Radio. On the KFO show she was the comforting, ever patient, easygoing hostess, kind of the ‘straight man’,  and according to Tillstrom,  “bigsister, favorite teacher, baby-sitter, girlfriend, and mother.” Fran died on June 13, 1989 at the age of 81 in Sherman Oaks California. She was buried in her home state in Mount Calvary Cemetery, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

And lastly, Beulah Zachary born August 13, 1911 was the executive producer of the Kukla, Fran and Ollie show and who was the namesake of Buelah Witch (note intentional misspelling). She died February 3, 1959 in a New York City plane crash.

6779388_111738196497We will miss each and every one of the kids, Fran and especially Burr who entertained us all in a far simpler time with innovative and quality entertainment.6779333_1045116357 Thank you.

“Never witnessed a sight so terrible”



office1At 2:42PM on December 1, 1958 on the sixth floor of Chicago’s City Hall, William Bingham,  the senior alarm operator within the Chicago Fire Alarm Office took a phone call from  rectory housekeeper Nora Maloney.


joker3Immediately, the loudspeaker at the firehouse at 3700 West Huron crackled with: “Engine 85 , truck 35, Squad 6, Battalion 18, Patrol 7, a still alarm , 3820 Iowa, 3-8-2-0 Iowa”. 3700 huron2



Those first firetrucks arrived within three minutes, despite that the fire was actually around the corner at 909 N. Avers.

In the meantime the fire alarm office received a second  telephone call from Barbara Glowacki, the owner of a candy store who used the private telephone in her apartment behind the store to say she sees flames. Fifteen more phone calls soon followed.

A school was on fire! Continue reading ““Never witnessed a sight so terrible””

Burial Cards: John’s left foot

Cemetery records are a rich source of genealogical information, especially when a death certificate cannot be found or expensive. They may reveal valuable extra information such as the place of death, last home address, and even more. However, cemetery records were never designed with the idea that they would be someday be valuble for genealogical research. In a cemetery office, ledger books and burial cards are two of the most common recordkeeping systems. Often the entries in a ledger book may be in chronological order making a search a bit difficult when you do not know a death date. Burial cards, on the other hand, are stored in one or more file drawers and are filed alphabetically, making a name search much easier without much further information.

john cull

Burial cards for Chicago area Catholic cemeteries are available online. The Chicago Archdiocese of the Catholic Church manages 45 cemeteries in Chicago, Cook County, and Lake County, from Ascension Cemetery in Libertyville serving Northern Cook and Lake to Assumption Cemetery in Glenwood to the south.,

There are FOUR different ways to access burial information in the Chicago Archdiocese for your Uncle Louie. If you are seeking a person buried in a Chicago area Catholic cemetery.
Continue reading “Burial Cards: John’s left foot”

Thanksgiving, Turkey Dressing, & Cemeteries

This week, some 397 years after the first Thanksgiving, we begin the busiest time of year.

cemmTake time for yourself by going on a long walk on a sunny day through your favorite or nearby cemetery. Ponder the memories that you hold close,  because many our family members are no longer with us. They sadly will not be at our thanksgiving table as in the past. This is a story about both my family and yours, where we remember Thanksgiving, that very important family celebration.
xlinda 030with ham

Continue reading “Thanksgiving, Turkey Dressing, & Cemeteries”

When Chicago Cried



94264528-fa26-4ff4-9c4c-5d7114246c7eIt was July 24th  and for Willie Novotny age 7,  school was out for the summer. On that cool and damp Saturday morning, Willie woke up well before dawn, much too excited to sleep. His nine year old sister Mamie, (sometimes called Minnie) woke up soon after. Willie quickly dressed in his Sunday-best clothes and came to the breakfast table. Their mother Agnes, age 35, likely prepared a traditional Czech breakfast of dumplings and eggs, dark rye bread, maybe  a rohlík yeast roll with butter and jelly or maybe on a good day,  a slice of salami or cheese. Their father, James (Vaclav),   born Ponedraz Bohemia,  also age 35 was the last to the table for his morning hot cup of coffee. He looked forward to spending a rare and wonderful day with his family.

5527About 6:00 am,  the family of four would likely have left their house at 5527 West 24th Place in a blue-collar working class neighborhood of Czech’s and Polish. About 10 minutes later, and less than a half mile walk, they would have entered the Metropolitan West Side Elevated, 56th Avenue Station at about  2126 S. 56th Avenue (now Central Avenue).station


They  never returned home. Continue reading “When Chicago Cried”

Mystery: The Suitcase in the Cemetery

This is the true and amazing story of an old, non-descript suitcase,  forgotten for many years in a dusty storage area of a cemetery. It was almost discarded. Inside was a treasure trove of family pictures, genealogy and precious memories . Who did it belong to? How was it forgotten in a cemetery of all places? How old is it? Could someone figure out who’s it was? Would a family member be thrilled to have it once again?

There was a high school diploma, letters, papers,  priceless photographs, and clues of a life well lived. There was even a handmade needlepoint! Continue reading “Mystery: The Suitcase in the Cemetery”