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Recreating the past Bruce the Spruce brings back magic of Prange’s downtown window display

By Kris Leonhardt
– On Thanksgiving night in 1972, magic came alive on the corner of Pine and Washington streets as the curtains were pulled back on annual Christmas window display at the H.C. Prange Department Store.

Among the Enchanted Forest of Christmas trees was a nine-foot speciman made from leftover decorating materials by store display manager George Hanrahan.

He named the Christmas tree Bruce the Spruce after his son, Bruce.

According to Neville Public Museum Education Specialist Ryan Swadley, Hanrahan had been traveling out of state when he came across the concept of a Christmas tree that a person would sit inside and talk to the passersby.

“So they had this whole setup where there was the Enchanted Forest — it was a bunch of decorated Christmas trees customers would walk through on the way to see Santa Claus. They would also see Bruce the Spruce.”

The following year, 5,000 coloring books told the story of Bruce’s magical creation.

“I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to meet the woman who was also working for Prange’s. She was just out of college, working in the marketing department,” Swadley said. “They had been doing this for a year or two with Bruce, and she was asked to come up with a more magical backstory for him.
“So, she worked with a local illustrator and wrote a little coloring book that was given away that sort of told the backstory of how Bruce the Spruce grew up in the forest in the North Pole, and he helped save Christmas and the whole story behind that,” Swadley said.

By 1976, the store window display was reduced from four windows down to two, and Bruce the Spruce was retired.

In 1992, the Green Bay Prange’s store was sold to Younkers and later closed in 2004.

But some of the magic lingered.

“So, a lot of the dolls had been put into storage and actually the story that we always tell is they were destined to be going to the landfill,” Swadley said. “But there was a local woman who at one time had owned a doll restoration shop who acquired them and did some work on them. Then, we got a batch of them here at the museum that we use for our display every year.”

That nostalgia brought about the recreation of Bruce the Spruce, who made his return at the Green Bay holiday parade in 2003.

“And a lot of people will remember this — the way they talk about it, it’s been going on for decades and decades. But from what I can tell, it was a kind of a short initial run, but, obviously, it was pretty impactful,” Swadley said.

Pat Jansen, 79, of DePere, knew the Hanrahan family and recalls both the early debut of Bruce and his return.

“I know the story from the beginning,” Jansen said, while recalling visits to Bruce with her godson.
“It was really scary at first for him. After a while, he just kind of laughed and said ‘That tree is talking,’” Jansen recalled. “I tease him about it yet today.”

And now, Jansen, herself, has played Bruce for about a dozen years.

“I love Bruce and the whole thing he represents,” she said. “I love doing it; it’s my Christmas.

“These kids need to have some fantasy in their lives. I love it when the parents go along; you have to have magic in your life.”

Bruce’s magic returns to the Neville Public Museum on Nov. 19, 10 a.m. – noon, with more visits on Nov. 26, 10 am – noon; Dec. 3, 10 a.m. – noon; Dec. 7, 5-7 p.m.; Dec. 10, 10 a.m. – noon; Dec. 17, 10 a.m. – noon; and Jan. 4, 5-7 p.m.

“Did you ever hear a tree talking?

Even if you have, you’ll want to meet Bruce the Spruce.

He’s part of the Magical Kingdom of Christmas.

A real chatterbox who loves to talk to little children.

Come see him … he may just put in a good word to Santa for you!”

Local advertising in 1972 heralded local families to the H.C. Prange Department Store for the kick-off to Christmas and the arrival of a magical character to the store’s holiday display.

Prange’s Christmas window display, once considered a family Christmas tradition, featured the “Enchanted Forest” and Santa and the “Children’s Only Shop.”

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