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January 2011

Jonny Quest

Quest5 Jonny Quest was an animated action series focused on the globe-trotting adventures of US government scientist, Dr. Benton Quest; his 11-year-old son, Jonny; his adopted Indian son, Hadji; family bodyguard, Roger "Race" Bannon; and their pet, black-masked bulldog, Bandit. It was produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions and ran on ABC in primetime on Friday nights for one season, 1964-65.  

The Quests had a home compound on a remote island off the coast of Florida, but they spent most of their time flying around the world on various adventures, usually initiated by scientific mysteries that Dr. Quest pursued.  These mysteries often had science fiction elements, from espionage robots to Egyptian mummies to pterosaurs come to life.  They usually involved the work of various villains, like the evil recurring nemesis Dr. Zin, an Asian criminal mastermind.

One of the defining aspects of Jonny Quest was its use of limited animation.  Like the style used in the earlier animated series Clutch Cargo, Hanna-Barbera used this technique in order to cut corners and meet the tighter scheduling and budgetary demands of television. This meant that characters were usually drawn in static form, with just their moving parts, like legs, mouths, and eyes, re-drawn from frame to frame.  When characters had to move, they usually moved from side to side while the background behind them shifted.  Though the animation was relatively static and limited, the people and backgrounds were drawn in a realistic and detailed way, and a sophisticated palette of bright colors was used that made the show look lush and expensive, despite the limited animation.  The jazz music used in the show also added to its air of sophistication.

Jonny Quest was highly controversial because it featured much more realistic violence than other children's cartoons of its day. It became one of the main targets of parental watchdog groups such as Action for Children's Television.  The show was cancelled after only one season, but reruns were broadcast on various networks’ Saturday morning lineups from 1967 to 1972, and highly-edited versions appeared sporadically after that.   Hanna-Barbera later produced a revival called The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, which aired on the Cartoon Network in 1996-97.


You can watch Jonny Quest on DVD on Jonny Quest - The Complete First Season.   

Kukla, Fran, and Ollie


I have only fuzzy memories of Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, a wonderful puppet show that was one of the first kids’ shows on TV.  I wish I could remember it more clearly, because from all accounts, it was one of the most creative, sophisticated, and entertaining kids’ shows in TV history.  Created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, who handled all the puppets on the program, the show debuted in 1947 on the NBC station in Chicago, the source of so many great children’s programs in the early days of television.  In 1949, it became an NBC network show and was broadcast nationwide until 1954, when it moved to ABC, where it ran until 1957.

Kukla, Fran, and Ollie quickly became enormously popular and was the first children’s show to attract a large adult audience.  The format consisted simply of host Fran Allison standing in front of a puppet stage and interacting with Kukla and Ollie, the two puppet stars of the show, along with a host of other puppet characters. The secret to the show’s success was that it combined a simple format and seemingly gentle, sweet atmosphere with adult-level wit and sly satire.  

Amazingly, each show was completely ad-libbed, a fact that most child viewers must have been oblivious to (I certainly was).  When you watch old videos of the show today, you can hear the crew laughing off-screen during some of the funnier moments.  They were apparently as surprised and entertained by the unscripted comedy as the viewers at home were.

The puppets on the show were designed in the traditional Punch and Judy style, but they didn’t engage in slapstick, and their personalities were much more nuanced.  Kukla was a sweet and gentle clown who served as the sensible though somewhat over-earnest leader of the group.  Ollie was short for Oliver J. Dragon, a mischievous snaggle-toothed dragon who often instigated the funnier interchanges on the show.  There were a host of other puppet characters collectively referred to as the Kuklapolitans, including Fletcher Rabbit, the town mailman and fussbudget, Madame Ophelia Oglepuss, a former opera diva, Beulah Witch, a liberated witch, stage manager Cecil Bill, who spoke a language that only the other puppets understood, Colonel R.H. Crackie, a courtly southern gentleman, Ollie’s mother Olivia Dragon, and Ollie’s cousin, Dolores Dragon, who started out as a toddler and grew into a teenager during the years that the show ran.  Host Fran Allison, the only human who appeared on air, served as straightman to the puppets but could also hold her own during the often-rapid improvised banter.

What made Kukla, Fran, and Ollie unique was how well-developed and three-dimensional the puppets’ characters became during the show’s run.  Through the ad-libbed banter that took place during each episode, viewers learned more and more about the distinct personalities and individual as well as family histories of each of the characters, so that the show created a varied and engrossing world populated by characters that the audience felt they really knew and quickly came to love.

After ABC cancelled Kukla, Fran, and Ollie in 1957, it returned to NBC in the form of 5-minute vignettes.  In 1967, the KFO cast began hosting the CBS Children’s Theater, but they only provided a brief introduction to each show and segues between commercials.  The Kukla, Fran, and Ollie show was revived on PBS from 1969-1971, and later appeared in occasional syndicated specials. 

The earliest Kukla, Fran, and Ollie show kinescopes have only recently become available in a wonderful DVD set, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, the First Episodes: 1949-54.

You can also see Kukla, Fran, and Ollie in the DVD collection  Hiya Kids!  A 50's Saturday Morning Box.