Every Christmas, no matter how old they are, you can always rely on certain Christmas specials airing on major TV networks during the season. However, for every “Charlie Brown Christmas”, there are many more obscure specials that barely made impact.
I’m not sure if The Tiny Tree counts, although there are arguments for it. The special was never officially released on video, but unauthorized copies (whether it was taped from a later rerun or transferred from a 16mm print) are available if you seek them out.
The special is told through Squire Badger, who is telling two rabbit children about a little disabled girl befriending forest animals. The titular Tiny Tree is a tree in the middle of the woods that all the critters are friends with. He doesn’t speak throughout, although he has a face. Overtime, the girl becomes friends with the tree and would visit every day.The Tiny Tree was first broadcast on the NBC network in Sunday, December 14, 1975 at 7:30 PM Eastern, airing as part of the Bell System Family Theater, sponsored by Bell Telephone. It was produced by DePatie-Freleng, one of the many specials done at the studio. Chuck Couch, a veteran animator and storyman, was the the visionary behind it. Couch was never a regular at the DFE studio; in fact, his only other credit at the company was as a writer on the 1968 Pink Panther short “The Pink Package Plot”.
Chuck Couch, David H. DePatie, and Friz Freleng, however, all had ties with Bell Telephone prior to this special. Couch produced and directed two films for Bell: Talking of Tomorrow (1960), which was produced at Couch’s own studio, and Mr. Digit and the Battle of Bubbling Brook (1961), a live-action and animation production done at UPA.
Back when DePatie and Freleng were still at Warner Bros., Bell produced a series of specials called “Bell Laboratory Science Series”. The final four specials were produced at Warner Bros and contained animated sequences done at their cartoon division. David H. DePatie, who at the time was running the commercial division, worked as a production executive on these films. Friz Freleng directed the cartoon sequence for The Alphabet Conspiracy, which aired in 1959.
By the 1970s, Chuck Couch was mostly working on assembly-line shows at Hanna-Barbera, but he found time to pitch “Tiny Tree” to Bell Family Theater. They bought the story, and in turn hired DePatie-Freleng to make the special, with Couch himself as the director.
Below: Original animation drawings for the special. One is an animation drawing by Don Williams, while another is a layout drawing by Jan Green. They come from Joseph Velasco, who got these drawings when he visited DFE studio during this special’s production. He gave us permission to use these scans.
This was an ambitious production for DFE in the mid-1970s. Buddy Ebsen voices the Squire Badger, narrating the story throughout. Additional voice talents include Paul Winchell, Lucille Bliss, Frank Welker, Janet Waldo, and more. The lead character designer is Louis Schmitt, who is known for his work at Tex Avery’s MGM unit, designing and animating on his cartoons. Schmitt spent his later years working as an illustrator for Hallmark Cards, creating greeting cards with cutesy but fun animal critters. With Schmitt’s work history in mind, it’s clear what Couch wanted to invoke when he picked him to design on the special.
Johnny Marks, who already achieved fame for writing the “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” song, was hired to write and compose music. Eight songs were featured altogether, with popular singer Roberta Flack singing two of them: “To Love And Be Loved” and “When Autumn Comes”.
Tone-wise very different from what you would expect from a typical DFE production. The storyline is more gentle, and has a general “soft” tone, giving it an earmark for a successful holiday special. However, DFE never owned this special, as this was a “work for hire” production that Bell Telephone commissioned. As a result, AT&T is the rights holder. Supposedly Friz Freleng hardly paid attention to the cartoon when it was in production, even though he was known to give input on almost anything that was being done at the studio.It received a Daytime Emmy Awards nomination for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Any Area of Creative Technical Crafts”. The special was being rerun well into the 1980s, but after that it faded into obscurity. However, the special is remembered enough by people who did watch it. I used to receive emails from people, asking me about this special. So it did manage to leave a mark on people, even if it never achieved the status that other, more well-known Christmas specials did.
You can watch the special for yourself below. There are two different endings, the version seen in the video, and another one where where the ending was shortened so that we don’t see the girl regaining her ability to walk, instead cutting her to going to the window, presumably on her wheelchair.