Merry 50th Charlie Brown
Good grief! Can it really be 50 years since “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered?
The 1965 holiday classic was an immediate hit, scoring a massive audience and winning an Emmy and a Peabody. It has become a holiday perennial, charming three generations of parents and children. Yet, surprisingly, half a century ago, it was a tough sell.
Making it happen was a small band of TV newcomers from around the San Francisco Bay area: Charles Schultz, creator and artist on every single Peanuts cartoon strip ever drawn; Lee Mendelson, a fledgling TV producer; Bill Melendez, a former Disney and Warner Bros. animator who went on to animate hundreds of TV ads and Vince Guaraldi, a local jazz musician.
Schultz had penned Peanuts for 15 years, and while it was rapidly becoming the most widely-syndicated newspaper strip in the world, it hadn’t quite become a pop phenomenon. TV would drive Peanuts to greater fame, with feature films and a Broadway play all part of a ‘60s embrace.
Mendelson had just produced a documentary on Willie Mays and wanted his next project to be about the artist who drew Charlie Brown and Snoopy. He contacted the Peanuts creator—a big baseball fan—who agreed to the project. Schulz recommended Melendez--who Schultz collaborated with on a series of Ford TV commercials—to do the two-minute animated segment needed for the doc.
The producer was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge when he heard a jazz tune on his radio. The local paper put him in touch with the musician and Guaraldi agreed to score the doc.
Mendelson, however, had trouble selling the documentary to a network. Then, in April of 1965, Life magazine put Charlie Brown and Snoopy on their cover. That same month, an ad agency representing Coca-Cola contacted Mendelson and asked if he could deliver an outline for a half-hour animated Peanuts Christmas special.
Mendelson and Schultz wrote an outline in a day and sold it to the agency. When I interviewed Mendelson and Melendez in 2002, the pair admitted they were in way over their heads. For one thing, nobody knew how much to budget for a half-hour, animated, TV special. Mendelson guessed at US$75,000—then had to dip into his own pocket for another $15,000 in order to meet CBS’s
Dec. 9, 1965, airdate.
Six months may seem like a reasonable amount of time to do a half-hour TV show but not an animated special. Each episode of The Simpsons, for example, takes nine months from script to storyboard to voice recordings, animation, music scoring and delivery.
Adding to the challenge was the fact that Schultz had a very specific vision for how his comic strip should look and sound. Mendelson suggested a laugh track at an early meeting. “Schultz stood up and walked out of the room,” said Mendelson. There would be no more laugh track talk.
The cartoonist also insisted the special include a passage from The Bible. Melendez (and the network) objected, suggesting it would come off as too preachy. Schultz, Melendez later reported, “looked at me very coldly with his beady blue eyes and said, ‘Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?’”
Another Schultz deal-breaker was his insistence that all the Peanuts characters be voiced by real children and not the usual adult voice actors. Mendelson sent tape recorders home for the children of his employees to audition. He even asked his babysitter if she could recommend anybody. She did—her eight-year-old sister, Sally Dryer.
“I was just at the right place at the right time,” says Dryer, now 59 and living in Arizona, N.M. She was cast as the voice of Violet in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Starting with the next special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and through a few more in the ‘60s, she voiced Charlie Brown’s football-yanking nemesis, Lucy Van Pelt.
“It was like playing hooky for a day,” says Dryer, who remembers the experience as “a day off school, a hamburger and a recording in San Francisco. We were a group of wild children, playing on the elevators and running up and down stairs and they’d take us one by one into the soundproof room and work with us, while the other kids crazily ran around and played.”
Guaraldi was in the next room recording his iconic jazz score. Two weeks after he was hired, Guaraldi performed a version of his “Linus and Lucy” theme at
After such a rush job, almost everyone connected with that first special hated it, including Mendelson and Melendez. “We thought we had ruined Peanuts,” said Mendelson. “Too slow, too religious. What’s the jazz music doing on there?”
Reluctantly, he previewed it to a reporter from Time Magazine. “I figured it was over,” said Mendelson, “and then he wrote the most glowing review that we’ve ever received from anyone.”
The show got a 50 share—unheard of today. Only Bonanza drew a bigger audience that week. It has aired ever since, this December on ABC, CBC and YTV. ABC plans a two-hour broadcast, It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown. In addition, a brand, new, 3-D feature, The Peanuts Movie,opened worldwide in November.
Why does Peanuts continue to resonate 50 years later? Mendelson—the only surviving member of that original four--says Schultz had the answer: “He always thought there would be a market