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Dec. 2 – Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales – “The Tree Trimmers”

Original air date November 27, 1965

In the early 1960s, content producers were still trying to navigate the lay of the land when it came to television. Animation had been popular for decades in movie theaters and the big studios knew they appealed to kids, but it was just so expensive to produce that few were willing to try it on television. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and one of the earliest Saturday morning cartoons was a production from Total Television titled Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales.

Tennessee Tuxedo was essentially the heir apparent to the series King Leonardo which concluded the same day Tennessee Tuxedo premiered. The show was conceived of by W. Watts Biggers and Chet Stover and originally existed to sell cereal, as sponsorship was the name of the game back then (and for awhile) when it came to children’s programming. Education was also a component as well and the show was setup in a fashion that allowed the main characters to learn a thing or two and serve as an audience surrogate in the hopes that the kids watching at home wouldn’t figure out it was really they who were learning a lesson.

The show starred Don Adams in the role of Tennessee Tuxedo, a penguin in a hat and bowtie who lives at the Megapolis Zoo. Adams uses the “clippy” voice he would later perfect on the series Get Smart! and even later as the voice of Inspector Gadget to voice Tennessee. The penguin’s best friend is a walrus by the name of Chumley (Bradley Bolke) and together the two are usually up to something that takes them out of the confines of the zoo and presents a problem for the pair. Tennessee’s catch phrase is “Tennessee Tuxedo shall not fail,” even though he usually does. When the problem gets too big for the pair to manage, they turn to the all-knowing Phineas J. Whoopee (Larry Storch), who is literally the man with all the answers and the way for every episode to write its characters out of trouble. The main antagonist of the show is the zoo director Stanley Livingstone (Mort Marshall) who often threatens to skin the pair. Nice guy!

What a way to close out your opening theme song.

In the early 1990s, few cable networks dedicated significant time to children’s programming. Basically, the only game in town was Nickelodeon, but back then the Viacom-owned network did not produce much in the way of cartoons. Instead, the network was forced to license material to air on its network, but couldn’t pay the big money of the major broadcast networks to attract the best shows. That left Nick with a lot of older material, which is how I was exposed to Tennessee Tuxedo. Not long after the show’s original debut came Underdog, which proved to be the more popular show. In licensing Underdog for syndication, his show would often be packaged with other cartoons, many of which debuted as part of Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales. These packaged shows would air often on Nickelodeon and I watched quite a bit of them, even though I don’t recall actually enjoying them. It was a cartoon and it was on – those were essentially my standards at the time.

As part of the show’s third season we have a Christmas episode. Tennessee is going to take it upon himself to trim the zoo’s tree, even though Stanley would prefer he not do so. I don’t recall seeing this one as a kid and it’s possible the holiday themed episodes were not included in the syndicated package. After all, networks just want to be able to throw these things on at any time and seasonal episodes can mess that up (if the network cares, and often times, they don’t). When this one first originally aired, it was at the end of November and likely the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a plenty appropriate time to unveil a Christmas episode.

The opening title for this one has a very Mickey Mouse Club feel to it, only it looks a lot worse. The scenes in the opening title also seem to suggest kids are getting a show full of high adventure, which is not how I remember the actual show being. It also ends with Tennessee and Chumley dropping onto the title of the show and then two, giant, gun barrels are pointed at them. There’s an explosion, but no animation of the guns actually firing, before the pair is blasted up and out of the shot. It’s a pretty intense close for a Saturday morning cartoon.

I bet you can’t guess what the eagle’s name is.

The cartoon begins with Tennessee and the gang singing a bad Christmas carol. They’re just singing “Merry Christmas to you,” over and over for the most part before they’re interrupted. Flunky (Kenny Delmar), the zoo keeper, comes running over to tell Tennessee that Stanley needs to see him in his office and Tennessee seems particularly annoyed at being taken away from caroling. When Flunky mentions it concerns the zoo’s Christmas tree, Tennessee gets excited as he assumes Stanley wants their help in setting up the tree.

Tennessee and Chumley head over to Stanley’s office ready to help trim the tree. Stanley, who always seems irritated, informs Tennessee he’s to do no such thing! Stanley tells the pair that the mayor has set up a tree contest and that he intends for the zoo to win. He’s hired professional tree trimmers to handle the decorating and wants Tennessee and Chumley to show the decorators where everything is while he’s out fetching the mayor. Tennessee protests a bit and insists he and Chumley can handle it, but Stanley refuses to entertain the thought. Once gone though, Tennessee tells Chumley they’re decorating that tree. Chumley, who speaks in a classic dimwitted voice where every line begins with a “duh,” reminds Tennessee that Stanley forbade them from doing so, but Tennessee insists that they should because it’s the season of giving and decorating the tree will be their gift to Stanley.

This is going well.

Outside of the zoo’s auditorium the pair find a massive tree that Stanley wants setup inside. Tennessee and Chumley each grab one end of the tree which knocks Tennessee flat on his back prompting him to instruct Chumley to, “cut the comedy!” They then try to bring it inside with Tennessee dragging the tree from the top and Chumley from the bottom, only the tree gets stuck about 3/4 of the way through the door. Tennessee tells Chumley to trim off some of the bigger branches so they can fit it in. He does as he’s told and the tree fits, but now the first 8 feet or so of the tree’s base is bare.

The two then go to set the tree up, only the top scrapes the ceiling. Chumley tells Tennessee the tree is too tall, and Tennessee indicates it’s not a problem as they can chop some off. Considering that the bare portion of the tree extends beyond the pair’s head, the viewer is likely supposed to assume Tennessee will cut from the bottom, but he does not, and cuts from the middle. When he’s done, the tree is much smaller, and Chumley remarks that it now looks like a dust broom. Tennessee, once again, assures him it’s fixable as he trims off the “handle.” Chumley then tells him it looks too wide and points out that a Christmas tree should be pointy at the top. Tennessee then takes some clippers and re-shapes it. When he asks Chumley if it’s not the ideal shape for a Christmas tree Chumley agrees, but notes it’s not the biggest tree he’s ever seen as it’s now about a foot tall.

Still less pathetic than Charlie Brown’s tree (which premiered less than two weeks after this episode).

Baldy, an eagle, and Yakkity Yak (both voiced by Kenny Delmar) enter the auditorium to ask what’s going on. Tennessee shows them the tree, and the two immediately start to panic as they know Stanley is going to be pissed when he sees what Tennessee did to his tree. Tennessee Tuxedo, turning to his catchphrase about never failing, tells them not to worry as he’ll just chop down another tree. We then jump to the new tree being setup and it’s actually quite lovely. Now, they need to trim it. Tennessee heads up a ladder and instructs Yak to start tossing him ornaments, only Yak’s aim is terrible and they just smash on the floor. Yak then decides it would be better to simply hand him the ornament and Tennessee places it at the top of the tree. He’s so enamored with the ornament’s beauty that he descends the ladder to admire it and promptly falls onto the other ornaments, breaking half of their allotment.

Tennessee places the rest on the tree and searches for compliments, but Yak is honest in his assessment that it’s pretty bare. He assures him it will look better with lights on it and turns to Baldy, who is about to plug in a string of lights to test them. As he does so, Tennessee examines the string and notes there’s a missing bulb. He sticks his finger in the socket right as Baldy plugs them in and is soon electrocuted. The effect is super basic as Tennessee just slowly flashes different colors before a cloud of smoke explodes.

Electrocution gags will get a lot better over the years.

With the tree bare and lacking lights, the only thing that can save it now is the star. Tennessee heads up the ladder once again to place the star at the top, only the ladder starts to shake right as he reaches to place the star in its rightful place. Despite Chumley telling him to be careful, Tennessee predictably takes a tumble right into the tree. The whole thing comes down and Yak quickly notes that now all of the ornaments are broken. Tennessee, with the star stuck on top of his head, rises from the shattered tree and tells Chumley it’s probably time they go seek the aid of Mr. Whoopey.

Your ornament sucks, Whoopey.

We find Mr. Whoopey casually seated on his desk as Tennessee tells him about their dilemma. Before he can finish, he remarks that Mr. Whoopey has a really fine tree in his office. This sets Mr. Whoopey on his instruction for the day as he tells them how to make shitty ornaments out of paper. The guy loves paper as most of the ornaments and garland he recommends begins life as a piece of paper, which seems really dangerous considering the lights utilized in the 60s were those giant, colored, bulbss that got super hot after about five seconds. He also tells them they can put cookies and candy on the tree as ornaments and shows them how to string popcorn and cranberries using a needle and thread. These guys can’t even work a ladder without destroying a tree, I don’t think they should be allowed to string anything with a needle. The advice all seems terrible, but Tennessee disagrees as the pair enthusiastically head back to the zoo.

Oh Stanley, you’re in for a treat!

We then see Stanley leading the mayor and his wife to the auditorium. As Stanley opens the door, he boasts about hiring professional decorators to trim the tree, but then looks at his tree in horror. He runs in wanting to know what happened to all his ornaments, but soon realizes the tree looks pretty good. And it does, and it magically has non homemade ornaments on it as well as the popcorn garland. They also apparently found more lights. The mayor’s wife really likes it and declares it the prettiest tree she’s ever seen prompting the mayor to inform Stanley they’ve won the contest. Tennessee then doffs his cap (which has switched back to his normal, yellow, hat) to wish everyone a merry Christmas and the whole gang assembles in front of the tree (and Tennessee’s hat has switched back to his red stocking cap) to resume the awful carol the episode began with.

Looks like it’s time to start singing again.

As they all sing, the other zoo animals start popping their heads out of their homes. They all react favorably to hearing the carol as they all start to leave and descend upon the auditorium. They enter and the carolers inside appear happy at their arrival and soon we have a large group shot of everyone singing the song. Tennessee, who now has his yellow hat again (this is insane!), acts like he’s conducting their choir or something. The cartoon closes on an external shot of the auditorium at night and then zooms in on the Christmas Star which sparkles in the night.

And now everyone gets involved!

“The Tree Trimmers” feels like an episode that was written in all of five minutes. Someone must have got the mandate to do a Christmas episode, and the writers quickly came up with Tennessee and Chumley struggling to properly decorate a tree. Even the educational segment was rather weak as Mr. Whoopey gives lazy advice on how to cut paper into half-assed ornaments. Seriously, if your kid came home from school with one of those you’d probably feel cheated. Everything turns out fine in the end because it’s Christmas and it has to. At least the song, even if it’s mediocre, appears to be an original rather than some public domain Christmas carol.

Being a cartoon from the 60s intended for television, it’s probably no surprise to hear that this one is pretty rough looking. The animation is very basic as the characters only move when necessary and they just sort of slide across the screen with no bounce in their step. There’s no wasted movement or embellishment anywhere. I can at least appreciate that they made the effort to put everyone in mildly festive attire with Tennessee and Chumley ditching their usual hats for winter ones. The vocal cast is okay and I do like how Adams plays Tennessee and Stanley is a well-acted antagonist, even if he’s barely in this cartoon. The show wisely lets Adams dominate every scene as the other actors really aren’t asked to do much more than just set Tennessee up for whatever comes next.

The final shot rests on a star. I would have preferred Santa.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone reading this in 2021 (and beyond) that Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales is not airing on any network these days. I don’t think it’s even streaming anywhere. The show was made available on DVD by Shout Factory in 2012 so if you want to own this episode, and every other episode, you can. It’s out of print though so it’s not exactly cheap, but also it’s not the sort of thing that has become insanely expensive. It can basically be had for around 30 bucks brand new, which is probably right around the original MSRP. If you were to find it used, maybe you could get it for 20. I don’t think it’s worth it, but at least the option is available for those who do like this show or just like to amass a large collection of animation. This episode can also be found on the internet for free, if that’s your preference. It’s not likely to bring about those lovely Christmas feels, but it’s certainly a Christmas themed episode and since it’s only about 10 minutes you probably won’t feel like you wasted your time. At least not much of your time.

Can’t wait until tomorrow for more Christmas? Check out what we had to say on this day last year and beyond:

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