For some people, Christmas in Green Bay is not complete without a visit to “Bruce the Spruce.”
It’s a fake tree that talks to visitors.
Bruce was created by the H. C. Prange department store chain in 1973 and would startle shoppers back in the day when more people shopped at brick and mortar stores. Bruces were in stores around Wisconsin and one found his home in Green Bay at the Neville Public Museum.
(Spoiler alert for children who may be reading!) Bruce is run and voiced by “wranglers” — volunteers inhabiting the tree.
Ten year-old Emily Bushkie came to visit Bruce with her father, Scott.
“Our Christmas tree doesn’t talk,” she said staring at the tree.
The Bushkies spent time talking with Bruce and admiring its ornaments. Emily’s favorite was the Bob Ross ornament.
“[It’s] because he’s an artist and I’m an artist,” she said smiling.
Lynette Green — yes as in a green tree — inhabited Bruce this particular morning in early December.
“I’ve been around since the early 1970’s,” Green said in the Bruce character. “I get to come and visit the Neville every year and visit with the great visitors that come.”
As the story goes, Bruce grew up in the North Pole. For some reason, Santa Claus was taking a nap in a forest and almost overslept on Christmas Eve. Bruce had to wake him up because Christmas was coming.
“If Santa hadn’t woken up, goodness knows what would have happened,” said Green as Bruce. “Actually, I am one of the reasons Christmas came that year and where my magic powers came from.”
“The adult boring version is that one of the managers of Prange’s back in the early seventies had seen this concept of a talking Christmas tree at another department store that was out of state,” said Ryan Swadley, the Neville Public Museum’s educator and self-described, “Bruce Wrangler,” or volunteer coordinator. “He brought the idea back to Green Bay and fashioned his own tree that a person could be in and talk and interact with the public. He named it Bruce after his own son.”
Bruce the Spruce at the Neville is not the original tree that lived in downtown Green Bay, but by all accounts, it is a good rendition.
Kevin Cullen is the Neville’s Deputy Director. He works with Swadley on the Bruce Exhibit and the Enchanted Forest display, which includes vintage animatronic, figures that bedecked the old downtown Prange’s windows.
“[In the past], sometimes Bruces got rather randy,” Cullen said. “This is when Prange’s was in malls really throughout Wisconsin from Eau Claire, Sheboygan, here in Green Bay up to Sturgeon Bay and so on. They were hiring out high school kids, adults. Of course, when you’re sitting in a tree — kind of bored all day — you start to conjure up some interesting stories or scare some people. I know there were exchanges about the public getting surprised and adults didn’t think it was too funny.”
Cullen said some people apparently took offense to Bruce’s antics and “some colorful language was exchanged.”
He said other Bruces lived in Prange stores in Sheboygan, Sturgeon Bay and Wausau.
The Neville’s “Holiday Memories of Downtown Green Bay” continues until January 12th. The exhibit also includes animatronic “snow babies” that were featured in the Prange’s downtown Green Bay windows. It harkens back to a time when shopping was an experience instead of having a plain brown wrapped package dropped at your door.
SONG: “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by The Paradise Islanders