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When Christmas trees spoke to us

by Phil Luciano |
Talking Christmas Tree

Meet the inaugural voice behind the legendary Bergner’s Talking ChristmasTree.

In the above 1977 photo, 5-year-old Jennifer Zenzen poses next to the Bergner’s Talking Christmas Tree at Sheridan Village. The promotion, which began in 1966, became a yuletide tradition in central Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Zenzen Anderson)

(Inset photo above) Claudia Foster posed in 1966 for her senior photo at Academy of Our Lady Catholic high school. Later that year, the 18-year-old (now known as Claudia Kane) became the first employee inside the Bergner’s Talking Christmas Tree (Photo courtesy of Claudia Kane)

Claudia Kane was simply seeking a job. In the process, she made Peoria history, in a most fanciful way.

After applying for retail work at the Bergner’s at Sheridan Village, she soon found herself inside a cramped and unusual space, pioneering the department store’s new promotion.

“I was the first Talking Christmas Tree,” said Kane, still proud of that distinction at age 74.

It’s been more than a half-century since the store debuted the curious Christmastime cryptid. The tree—or, secretly, Kane and other employees—would chat with youthful passersby. Most tree-child exchanges went exactly as Bergner’s had hoped, enhancing the wonder of the holidays and adding to the store’s reputation as a seasonal must-visit for families.             

But for some kids, the interaction was spooky. To this day, they recall the bulging eyes and fat lips in the same unsettled manner one might recollect a recurring childhood nightmare—though, with the soothing passage of time, often with a chuckling shake of the head over one of the most peculiar Peoria traditions of yesterday.

Indeed, over multiple generations, the Talking Christmas Tree became a staple of central Illinois’ collective yuletide memories. And the tree’s reach went beyond Peoria, as 13 trees stood in various Bergner’s outposts. But the tradition ended 20 years ago.

Still, that first tree seems as vivid as ever to Claudia Kane. Then Claudia Foster, she graduated in the spring of 1966 from Academy of Our Lady. The 18-year-old’s search for full-time work extended into late autumn, when she filled out a job application at Bergner’s. She’d always liked the store and hoped she might get a position in the cosmetics department.

But a manger asked if she’d try a new Bergner’s position—inside the Talking Christmas Tree, which was about to make its debut. The job was part-time, but she was told she’d be moved to a full-time gig after the holidays.

Kane wasn’t told why she was picked to be the first tree employee. Perhaps Bergner’s deemed her bubbly personality as perfect for interacting with kiddies. Plus, her petite frame would make for an easy fit inside the creation. Whatever management’s reasons, she said yes to the tree.

“I thought it was truly unique,” she said recently. “I thought it might be fun.”

The tree had two parts. Up top was the 6-foot-tall white tree, dotted with ornaments, plus the eyes and mouth. But that was mostly all for show.

The operations center was below, in a box-like base about 3 feet tall. Inside, Kane would sit, looking through two-way mirrors to the front, left and right, allowing her to see kids approaching from three angles. She would speak through a microphone, pulling a cord to make the mouth move above.

From the start, children gravitated to the tree, pondering the new and quirky addition to the store. Often, they’d just gawk, unsure of what to do. Especially in those first days, Kane would prompt interactions by asking questions like,
“What do you think of a talking tree?”

Often, a youth would blurt, “Um, how do you talk?” Kane would squeal, “I’m magic!”

Kane sometimes would ask Christmassy questions, such as “What do you want Santa to bring you?” While she was on the first floor and St. Nick one floor above, she would be careful not to trespass on his verbal turf.

“At first, I’d ask if they’d been good,” Kane said. “But I backed off on that, because that was something Santa would say.”

Kane didn’t overthink what voice to use. After all, what does a tree sound like? She talked in her normal patter, though with a slightly higher pitch, as if talking to a baby. Still, even with her gentle approach, the tree startled some kids.

“They were in awe, mostly,” Kane said. “But some were scared.”

Sometimes, she’d shout a name to have a little fun with familiar faces. If a friend strutted by, she’d yip, “Hey! Mike! What are you doing?” Mike (or whoever) would invariably stop, wander over and stare into the bulging eyes, wondering how the tree knew his name—and never suspecting the source was actually inside the base.

Kane’s work shifts lasted four to six hours. Though she had pretty much free rein to run the tree as she saw fit, there was one hard rule: She couldn’t let anyone— especially children—see her get in and out of the base. Bergner’s didn’t want to ruin the wonder. Adults, of course, realized the tree wasn’t actually alive. Still, no grown-ups seemed to know how the set-up worked, and Bergner’s wanted to keep it that way.

If a shift started when the store’s doors opened at 9 a.m., Kane had no trouble avoiding prying eyes, simply crawling inside a hatch at the back of the base before customers arrived. But at shift’s end, other employees would assist by crowding around the back of the base before she slipped out into the middle of the pack, then trudge like a rugby scrum to get her out of the room undetected.

‘Um, how do you talk?…
I’m magic!‘

Kane said she never had a problem with the long stretches inside the tree.

“I don’t remember any trouble like, ‘Oh my gosh! I gotta go to the bathroom!’” she said with a laugh.

Well, she did experience one prank. At the end of a night shift that coincided with the store’s closing, Kane couldn’t get the hatch to budge. With the shoppers all gone, she peered through the two-way mirror but didn’t see anyone.

“Hello?” she called, wondering if she might get stuck in there all night. “Hello?!”

After a bit, a security guard noticed the tree repeatedly shouting hello. He got her out of the hatch, which someone had mischievously tied shut.

“That was funny,” she said.

As the end approached to the 1966 holiday season, Kane wondered about the pending transfer to a retail position. But then she got a call from Ozark Airlines, where she had applied previously. Would she like a full-time job at the Peoria ticket desk? She said yes and left Bergner’s soon after her last shift inside the tree. Years later, she transferred to Ozark’s main office in St. Louis, where she still lives.

Now and then, she’ll encounter someone familiar with the once-magical intersection of Bergner’s, Peoria and Christmas. Kane is always happy to talk about her role in the origin of the Bergner’s Talking Christmas Tree.

“It’s certainly my little claim to fame,” she said. “I enjoyed it.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP.
CEFCU Wealth Management

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