Finding the Roots of Bruce the Spruce

Mike Paulus

The original Bruce, baby. (Photo courtesy of the Neville Public Museum, Green Bay, Wis.)

Back in the Eau Claire of the 1980s, if you were young enough to sit on Santa’s lap (and not feel too creeped out), you may remember going to Eau Claire’s London Square Mall and meeting a talking pine tree. Now, calm down. I know what you’re thinking, Eau Claire natives. You’re thinking, “No way. I thought I imagined that tree. Was it really real?” Indeed it was, my friends, indeed it was. The tree’s name was “Bruce the Spruce,” and I’ve discovered its story. Let’s start at the beginning ...

My arduous quest to reveal the true story of the talking tree called Bruce wasn’t all that much of a quest. It was more of a relaxed, hassle-free search. Two phone calls, basically. I called a guy named Frank at the Chippewa Valley Museum, and he had me call a guy named Trevor at a museum in Green Bay, and it was Trevor who scooped me up a hearty dish of tasty holiday legend. And I believe what he told me because he’s the curator of history at Green Bay’s Neville Public Museum.

Anyway. According to Trevor, Bruce the Spruce, the talking Christmas tree, was a gimmicky-yet-wonderful tradition at Prange’s department stores. Bruce was the creation of George Hanrahan, display manager at the Green Bay Prange’s, which opened in 1972. Hanrahan had some leftover decorating materials, and, flexing his creative/retail-minded muscles, he fashioned a fake Christmas tree big enough to hide someone inside it to act as a kind of auditory puppeteer. Hanrahan named the tree after his son Bruce  – who served as the chatty conifer’s first voice.

After a successful run at the Green Bay store, Bruce the Spruce was copied for other Prange’s, eventually making it to the store that anchored our long-gone London Square Mall from the early ’70s through 1992 when the company was bought out by Younkers. At all store locations, both male and female teenagers were hired for minimum wage to provide Bruce’s voice during the holiday season. People, you just don’t see this kind of showmanship in the retail sector anymore. As Trevor told me, “There was no factory popping out Bruce the Spruces.” Each one was more or less handmade by Prange’s.

For my part, I vividly remember seeing Bruce the Spruce on multiple occasions. Our Eau Clairian mid-’80s Bruce had big, giant, probing eyes and a mouth that moved. The crazy thing was, instead of just spouting canned phrases or electronic Christmas tunes, he actually talked with you. That was a trip. 

Despite the demise of the Prange’s company, Bruce the Spruce lives on, thanks to the efforts of Trevor (Jones) and the Neville Public Museum, who have meticulously recreated a classic Prange’s holiday window display complete with Bruce. The grand display is an annual tradition at the museum, drawing hordes of yuletide gawkers.

So, you’re not nuts – there really was a Bruce the Spruce. And he really did talk.

(Originally published in Volume One’s 2007 Holiday Handbook.)

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