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Allison, Fran
(November 20, 1907–June 13, 1989)

–radio and television star—was born in La Porte City, Iowa. She graduated from Coe College, where she prepared for a teaching career. She got her first teaching assignment at Schleswig, Iowa. During vacations, she worked as a clerk in a Waterloo department store and directed a number of talent shows in Waterloo. After four years, she gave up teaching to take a full-time job with the local radio station, where she did spot announcements, cooking lessons, commercials–anything that came along–acquiring experience that would make her one of radio's most versatile performers.

    One day she was standing outside the studio from which Joe Dumond was broadcasting his Cornhuskers program. Dumond sang out in a prankish mood: "Well, folks, look who's here. Our old Aunt Fanny! Come on up, Aunt Fanny, and tell us what's new."The startled Allison gave an impromptu takeoff on a gossipy, garrulous old spinster, thus creating a role that was her bread-and-butter standby ever after.

    Her all-around experience on the little Waterloo station began to pay off when she landed a staff job with the NBC affiliate in Chicago, filling in wherever and whenever needed. Allison became a vocalist on the Breakfast Club, played in soap operas, and became an expert at singing commercials. Audiences became familiar with her from numerous radio appearances, first as a singer on such programs as Smile Parade, The Ransom Sherman Show, and Uncle Ezra's Radio Station (also known as Station EZRA), and later on The Breakfast Club as the gossipy Aunt Fanny, based on the character she first created for the Waterloo station. In 1939 the Aunt Fanny character was briefly spun off on her own 30-minute radio program, Sunday Dinner at Aunt Fanny's. But it was on Kukla, Fran and Ollie that Allison became "the First Lady of Chicago Broadcasting."

    While living this dream, she suffered a serious automobile accident near Des Moines. For three weeks Allison remained in the hospital, wavering between life and death. Gradually, as she recovered sufficiently to leave her bed, she was consoled by the thought that she might be able to resume her career. After all, few people saw you in radio. Behind the microphone she was merely a voice. So she went back to her job, wanting no recognition, asking merely to live in obscurity. Self-conscious and timid, she went her solitary way, refusing interviews and turning down requests for personal appearances. A bright new world began for Allison after she met and married Archie Levington in 1940. Contented in her marriage, Allison won a name for herself on the Breakfast Club circuit, and her fan mail increased appreciably.

    While her husband was serving in the army, Allison worked on bond-selling tours, during which she met and became good friends with puppeteer Burr Tillstrom. When the time came to choose an appropriate sidekick for his new television series, Tillstrom wanted to work with "a pretty girl, someone who preferably could sing," someone who could improvise along with Tillstrom and with the show's informal structure. According to Tillstrom, Allison was so enthusiastic about the show and working with her friend that she never asked how much the job paid. With only a handshake, they went on the air live for the first time that very afternoon.

    Shortly before his death in 1985, Tillstrom described the unique relationship Allison had with his puppets: "She laughed, she sympathized, loved them, sang songs to them. She became their big sister, favorite teacher, babysitter, girlfriend, mother."Allison treated each character as an individual personality, considered each her friend, and, by expressing genuine warmth and affection for them, made the audience feel the same way. At the height of the show's popularity, the cast received 15,000 letters a day, and its ratings were comparable to shows featuring Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan.

    allison Allison's radio and television work continued after the initial run of Kukla, Fran and Ollie. In the late 1950s she hosted The Fran Allison Show, a panel discussion program considered, at the time, "the most ambitious show" on Chicago television. She also continued to appear on television musical specials over the years. She reunited with Burr Tillstrom and the Kuklapolitans for the series' return in 1969 on Public Broadcasting and as the hosts of the CBS Children's Film Festival on Saturday afternoons from 1971 to 1979. In the 1980s Allison hosted a local Los Angeles (KHJ-TV) program, Prime Time, a show for senior citizens.

    Allison was nominated once for an Emmy Award in 1949 as "Most Outstanding Kinescope Personality" but lost to Milton Berle. In 1988 she was inducted into Miami Children's Hospital's Ambassador David M. Walters International Pediatrics Hall of Fame, which honors people who have made a significant contribution to the health and happiness of children.

    Allison died in Sherman Oaks, California, of bone marrow failure.
Sources More than 700 films of shows from 1949 through 1954 are stored at the Chicago Historical Society. A few are available for viewing at the Museums of Broadcasting in Chicago and New York. For more on Allison, see her obituaries in the New York Times, 6/14/1989, and Variety, 6/21/1989. There are also short articles on her in the Chicago Tribune, 6/14/1987; Collier's, 3/4/1950; Coronet (Chicago), October 1951; American Magazine, March 1950; and McCall's, March 1953.
Contributor: Marilyn Jensen