By Scott Sullivan
Kuklafest is coming! Hystopolis Productions, the West Michigan Puppetry Guild and Detroit Puppeteers Guild will celebrate Burr Tillstrom, perhaps Sauga-tuck’s most famous resident, hosting Kuklafest Friday through Sunday, May 3-5.
An array of activities will commemorate Tillstrom (1917-85), creator of the pioneer “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” puppetry TV show, starting with a fundraiser gala Friday in the Saugatuck Woman’s Club, 303 Butler St., Saugatuck, from 7 to 10 p.m.
Proceeds from tickets, available in advance only by visiting Kuklafest.com, will support a Tillstrom documentary project, the first chapter of which will be premiered that night.
Ventriloquist Jeff Golz, the acclaimed Frisch Marionettes and musician Bobbie VanderVen will also entertain. Food will be provided by Coast 236 and Borrowed Time of EatDrinkSDF.
For serious puppeteers, Saugatuck’s Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency will host an intensive puppetry conference Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Burr Tillstrom Copyright Trust is helping with funding and other resources.
Tillstrom invited fellow puppeteers to study with him at Ox-Bow in the 1950s. These sessions drew the likes of Muppets creators Jim and Jane Henson, George Latshaw and Don Sahlin.
“Burr’s work,” said organizer and Douglas Village Puppeteers member Michael Schwabe, “was critical to the development of modern puppeteering. Among his many accomplishments, he pioneered the use of a television monitor to see the action from the audience’s point of view.
“We will screen episodes of ‘Kukla, Fran and Ollie’ during the conference to study his puppetry,” Schwabe said.
The long-ago TV show remains unique: a live, ad-libbed, daily puppet show watched by more adults than children. Tillstrom’s ability to create more than 20 distinct characters and voices (he was the sole puppeteer) was essential to his success.
Kuklafest fun will conclude Sunday, May 5, with a picnic with puppets in Ox-Bow’s painting studio. Children’s librarian Susan Fulcher of Matteson, Ill., will provide a puppetmaking workshop and participants will have an opportunity to interact with professional puppeteers and meet their creations.
Pack a sack lunch for picnic. Hosts will provide drinks and dessert.
Tickets to all events are available online at Kuklafest.com.