What’s Southern and Jewish About Adventure Time?

Remembering Polly Lou Livingston, the iconic voice of Tree Trunks

Last Thursday night I was doing my usual routine of revenge bedtime procrastination when a bit of sad news came across my Twitter feed: Polly Lou Livingston, a voice actor who played a beloved television character, had died. I had never known her name, but I had enjoyed her work as Tree Trunks, a recurring character on the animated series Adventure Time

For anyone unfamiliar, Adventure Time is an animated show made up mostly of 11-minute episodes. It centers on Jake (a shapeshifting dog) and Finn (a human teen) who are brothers and best friends. They live in the Land of Ooo, a post-apocalyptic landmass populated by a variety of magical and mythical entities. Many of them are made of candy. If you’re confused, don’t worry. At dinner several years ago I extolled the virtues of the show to two friends who don’t usually watch cartoons. One of them had watched a few episodes with her husband. “It’s like a fever dream,” she said. That may be true, but it’s also full of rich and dynamic relationships, poignant stories of change and loss, and pertinent ethical lessons. Over the course of its original 10-season run, Adventure Time grows from a silly cartoon into something bigger, stranger, and deeper than viewers might originally suspect. 

Livingston had a distinctive drawl that was both warm and creaky. She appeared as the voice of Tree Trunks in 22 of Adventure Time’s 286 episodes and, in doing so, provided some of the show’s weirdest but also most defining moments. I’ll say more about that in a moment, but how did the news of Livingston’s passing lead me to write a blog post?

When I read that the woman who voiced Tree Trunks had died, I followed the link to her obituary, which mentions her hometown (Victoria, Texas), her parents’ names (M.O. and Pauline Simon), and her father’s occupation (the owner of a department store). It also includes a detail about traveling with her father to New York City for his buying trips. Now, Simon isn’t always a Jewish surname, but it can be. When you’re a historian of southern Jews, these things catch your interest. And sure enough, Polly Lou Livingston’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants, she was raised in the Jewish community of Victoria, Texas, and she was buried in Victoria’s Jewish cemetery.

In a 2009 interview with the San Antonio Current, Livingston revealed a family history that, supplemented with historical census records, mirrors that of many southern Jewish families. Her paternal grandfather, Abe Simon, emigrated from Russia in 1891, entered the United States in New York, and found his way down to Texas. In Victoria he started out as a peddler and later opened a dry goods store. Abe married Seraphine Oppenheim, a Jewish woman from Germany, and they had one child, Moritz (known as M. O.). Livingston’s mother, Pauline Feller Simon,  was raised in San Antonio. Her parents were from Poland and Austria. Although Pauline showed promise as a stage performer and even landed a Broadway role during college, she ended up marrying M.O. and moving to Victoria instead of pursuing a professional acting career in New York. The couple raised their two daughters, Polly Lou and Iris, in Victoria, where the family was part of a small, tight-knit Jewish community. The Simon family’s transnational migrations, small-town successes, and cosmopolitan aspirations are all common themes in the histories that we document in the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.

In addition to her lifelong interest in the performing arts, Pauline was quite fashionable, and it rubbed off on Livingston, who worked for the family business in the 1940s and eventually became an icon in the Texas art scene. Over the decades she earned accolades for identifying and promoting Texas artists, as well for masterfully produced parties and art events. 

Livingston’s voice became famous in 2008. Adventure Time creator and San Antonio native Pendleton Ward had met her through his mother decades earlier, and he cast Livingston to play Tree Trunks, a character that her obituary accurately describes as “a sexy little green elephant.”  There’s no way I’m going to do justice to the character or to Livingston’s voice here, but her performances are at once wholesome (Tree Trunks is well known for baking delicious apple pies), libidinous (one episode revolves around her uncontrollable desire to kiss her suitor, Mr. Pig), and obstinate (in later seasons her conflicts with Princess Bubblegum call attention to the ruler’s problematic authoritarian streak). Millions of people watched Adventure Time, and Livingston (in a 2015 Reddit AMA) said that people often recognized her by her voice, especially at the mall and the butcher counter.  

Polly Lou Livingston’s unique achievements and family history might not tell us anything new about what it means to be a southern Jew; rather, her life is emblematic of the fascinating experiences and common patterns that we find while studying this history. But Livingston was an interesting and celebrated member of our community, her voice was iconic and transformative, and her memory is a blessing.

As mentioned in Livingston’s obituary, San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El will host an online memorial service for her on Sunday, February 21st, and her family has suggested that donations made in her honor go to Texas Performing Arts at The University of Texas at Austin or The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

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