The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 16, 2020 1:00 am

Concert to benefit conservatory's Woody

Local rapper creates show to aid spruce-up of talking tree, tunnel

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

It's hard out there for a spokestree, and one local icon is getting some help in the form of a benefit concert.

Since the late '90s, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory's talking tree has been a staple of family visits and field trips. Known as Woody, the animated tree in the children's play and education area just beyond the lobby has welcomed visitors young and old to the gardens.

But the years have taken a toll on Woody, and he needs a little work done. The conservatory is amid a “Woody & the Worm Tunnel” project to raise about $50,000 for updates to the tree as well as the tunnel children can climb through farther back in the gardens.

Stephen Bryden and his family have been going to the conservatory for years, and he recently noticed a request for donations to renovate the animated tree.

Bryden, also known as local rapper Sankofa, wanted to help, so he began planning a benefit concert. The show will be at 10 p.m. Jan. 24 at The Brass Rail, 1121 Broadway. Entry is $5, and money will be donated to the conservatory project.

Joining Sankofa for the show are local group Pete Dio and the Old & Dirty, local funk band El Camino Hot Tub and South Bend rapper Ragnarock. There is also a silent auction planned for that night. For those unable to make the show, Bryden has launched a Go Fund Me page at

“Everything kind of grew more than I thought it would,” he says.

Bryden says he doesn't have a specific dollar amount in mind that he wants to raise with his efforts, which also included a T-shirt sale. He's just happy to do something to help the conservatory.

“The Botanical Conservatory has meant a whole lot to my family through the years, and it's somewhere where we take our kids,” Bryden says. “We want other people to be able to enjoy it, too.”

About two-thirds of the money needed for the “Woody & the Worm Tunnel” project has been raised, conservatory manager Rebecca Canales says by email. Donations have been made to the project and customers can round up their totals in the gift shop to help. The conservatory is also writing grant requests.

Volunteers have long been the backbone of the conservatory, but Canales says Bryden's effort is the first time community members have organized to support it financially.

“We are moved and pleased by this grassroots effort, and we look forward to starting renovations soon,” she says.

Money raised for the project will be used to hire Illinois exhibit firm Taylor Studios. The company fabricated Woody and the worm tunnel, which was installed a few years after the tree. Canales says renovations to the tree will include a fresh canopy of foliage, a new coat of paint, whiter teeth and other cosmetic changes. Lights, buttons and internal mechanics will also be replaced or adjusted.

“The most noticeable change will be a greater expressiveness – instead of his one message, with which Woody welcomes our visitors as 'Spokestree for all (his) green friends,' new audio technology will allow him to express more of his thoughts,” she says. “We hope to endear him to our preschool visitors, particularly, who can find his size and voice intimidating.”

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