How Charlie Brown killed the aluminum Christmas tree


BY DAVID MURRAY

The opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author and not of The Davis Clipper.

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP)—It’s hard to imagine a children’s television show more directly responsible for the death of a consumer product line than “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

It’s the story of an awkward and humble boy’s attempts to find the true meaning of Christmas.

It resonated with 1965 television audiences in a way no other children’s programming had before. It also nearly single-handedly broke the aluminum Christmas tree industry.

But let’s back up a little.

Every good story has a beginning, and this one begins a few decades earlier. Artificial Christmas trees have been in existence in one form or another for nearly 150 years.

Early attempts at metallic trees began in the late 1930s. In 1955, the Modern Coatings Company, of Chicago, obtained a patent for an aluminum Christmas tree. The trees were a space-age standout, but they were bulky, difficult to assemble and – most of all – expensive. Modern Coating’s 6-foot, handmade trees retailed for $80, equivalent to paying $730 for a Christmas tree today.

In December 1958, the toy sales manager of the Aluminum Specialty Company, Tom Gannon, spotted one of the Modern Coatings trees at a Ben Franklin store in Chicago. Gannon, bought the tree and brought it back to Aluminum Specialty’s headquarters in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

At the time, Aluminum Specialty was best known for making pots and pans, but the company also had a toy division that, among other things, produced aluminum Christmas tree ornaments. Aluminum Specialty engineers deconstructed the Modern Coatings tree and re-designed it to include foil “needles.” The tree could be mass produced for less than $12.

The Aluminum Specialty tree was unveiled at the American Toy Fair in March 1959. It was an immediate success. Orders poured in.

That Christmas, Aluminum Specialty sold all 10,000 trees it had rushed to produce, each selling for around $25. The next year, the company dedicated several of its production lines to the manufacture of aluminum trees under the brand name Evergleam.

While many other manufacturers followed suit, Evergleam always dominated the market. At its peak in 1964, Aluminum Specialty was producing around 150,000 Christmas trees a year, with them coming in a variety of colors and sizes.

They were sleek, elegant and didn’t lose their needles. They also included the very real possibility of death by electrocution.

In the 1970s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission issued the following warning: “Never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.”

Most aluminum trees included a color wheel, a rotating plastic disc that projected colored lights onto the tree’s reflective surface. It was disco cool more than a decade before “Saturday Night Fever.” The future looked bright for the aluminum tree industry. Aluminum Specialty was running three shifts a day, 10 months out of the year just to keep up with the orders.

Then the Peanuts Gang came to town.

It’s important to consider the historical context within which “A Charlie Brown Christmas” arrived. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas just two years earlier. Peaceful civil rights protesters had been brutally clubbed by state troopers on a bridge in Selma, Alabama, and tens of thousands of young American men were being shipped off to fight and die in a strange corner of Southeast Asia called Vietnam. The nation was hungry for reassurance – a return to a nostalgic past that was simple, sincere, honest and understandable.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” helped to fill that void, and the foil that was used to represent all that was wrong with Christmas was the aluminum Christmas tree.

Right or wrong, much of its emotional power came at the expense of the aluminum tree industry.

Midway through the story, as Charlie Brown confesses his angst over ever finding the true meaning of Christmas, Lucy provides this analysis:

“Let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate you know.”

It was meant as a joke, but somewhere within that statement resided a kernel of truth. The confession of an animated cartoon character caused millions of Americans to turn inward and ask themselves what had become of their traditional values of Christmas.

Later in the broadcast, as Charlie Brown and Linus seek out the perfect tree for their Christmas play, they come across a cold display of aluminum trees. Walking into the lot, Linus raps upon the shell of an aluminum tree, which echoes back with all the emotional appeal of the hull of a B-52 bomber.

“This one really brings Christmas close to a person,” Linus tells Charlie Brown with more than a hint of sarcasm.

The emotional catalyst of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” drills down to one small and lonely sapling; a needle-dropping outcast, kind of like a lost puppy.

“This little green one here seems to need a home,” Charlie Brown tells Linus. In selecting this forlorn sapling, Charlie Brown expressed the emotion of a nation. He is at first ridiculed for his decision, but, in the end, the children of the Peanuts Gang rally around Charlie Brown and his sad, little tree.

“Charlie Brown is a blockhead,” Lucy confesses, “but he did get a nice Christmas tree.”

Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree represented something missing from American culture: authenticity and vulnerability, a lonely wayfarer in need of encouragement and support. If we could only all pull together, then the true meaning of Christmas would appear before our eyes.

It was always there, standing right before us.

While public and critical acclaim for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was near universal, it came at the expense of aluminum Christmas tree manufacturers. Suddenly, their foil needles didn’t seem to sparkle so brightly. None of this was helped by the fact that around the same time, new plastic trees with lifelike, polyethylene needles began entering the market.

The aluminum tree market collapsed. Sales plummeted, and, in 1970, the Aluminum Specialty Company discontinued its production of aluminum Christmas trees. Close to a million were produced, but, in the end, most of them ended up in trash cans and flea markets. In the 1980s, it was not uncommon to find aluminum trees that once sold for $30 or more to be in a discount bin for 25 cents.

But then an emotional shift took place. Children of the 1960s, now grown and with families of their own, began to seek out the old aluminum trees. Just as sentimentality had undercut the aluminum tree industry in 1966, it resurrected it in 1996.

Suddenly, vintage aluminum Christmas trees gained a resurgent value on the secondary market. Old Evergleams, rescued from attics and garage shelves, began selling for hundreds of dollars.

In 2005, a rare, 7-foot, pink, aluminum Christmas tree – the exact tree Lucy implored Charlie Brown to get for their nativity play – sold on e-Bay for $3,600.

New manufacturers have sprung up, selling reproduction aluminum trees online in a variety of sizes and colors that the now-defunct Aluminum Specialty Company could have only dreamed of.

This past November, my daughter found a vintage Evergleam aluminum tree online at a bargain, but not inexpensive, price. We collaborated to buy it for my wife, who had wanted one “ever since she was a little girl.”

It now stands proudly in our living room, a multi-colored wheel of lights shining across its metallic boughs and reflecting out onto the street.

Christmas, in some measure, is about returning to our past. Families gather to share in the warmth of their collective memories. What was old once again becomes new. There is no replacement for a live Christmas tree. Of the five trees we have displayed in our home, a special place is reserved for a living example of the yuletide spirit. And come Christmas morning, the space beneath that living tree’s branches will shelter our gifts to one another.

Yet I admit a special fondness for the aluminum tree. It reminds me of my own childhood innocence when anything seemed possible, including a Christmas tree made entirely of metal.

Merry Christmas Charlie Brown – and I forgive you.

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