Good Grief! “A Charlie Brown Christmas” Turns 50
It would not be a proper Christmas season without at least one viewing of the TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Every year, we can enjoy the antics of Lucy, Schroeder, and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang as they get ready (or not) for the Christmas play; sympathize with Charlie Brown as he passes up all those bright shiny aluminum trees and picks the sorriest tree on the Christmas tree lot; and cheer when the gang transforms Charlie Brown’s sad little tree into one of beauty and elegance at the end. Today, we can watch the special any time we want. But, back when it first aired on TV in 1965, we could only watch it once—Thursday, December 9, at 7:30 p.m., on CBS. And it was a revelation!
“Peanuts,” The Comic Strip
Starting in a handful of daily newspapers in 1950, the “Peanuts” comic strip would go on to become one of the most popular and influential comic strips in history. By 1963, it had become the most famous comic strip in the world. At its peak, it would run in over 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, with a readership of some 355 million.
Charles Schulz, its creator and artist, brought a fresh, child’s-eye-view to the triumphs and sorrows, the anxieties and joys of being human. Whether young or old, we the readers could universally relate to the very real situations that the characters experienced day in and day out. Over time, “Peanuts” would also define the industry standard for the four-pane comic strip with the “gag” or punch line at the end.
The Christmas Special
The TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had its origins in a ½-hour documentary about Charles Schulz’s life that producer Lee Mendelson was creating. For this documentary, Mendelson brought in—for the few minutes of animation he could afford—the talent of previous Disney Studios artist Bill Menendez. Menendez had already worked on the first-ever animation of Peanuts characters for a series of Ford Falcon commercials a few years earlier.
Mendelson then managed to arrange for Grammy-winning jazz composer Vince Guaraldi—who it turned out was a big “Peanuts” fan—to create the music. This documentary never sold to the network (though it did air seven years later, only slightly modified, and won an Emmy), but the two minutes of Menendez’ animation caught the attention of Coca-Cola executives, who asked Mendelson if he and Schulz could put together a ½-hour, fully animated Christmas Special starring “Peanuts” characters. The timing was short, but Schulz agreed to collaborate with Mendelson and quickly drafted a script. The rest is history!
When it aired on December 9, 1965, it was one of the most watched shows on TV up until that time and one of the top-rated Christmas specials of all time. The reviews were glowing. A Time reviewer called it, “a special that is really special.” A New York World-Telegram column read, “…if you missed Charlie’s debut on TV, I’m sorry for you. Write CBS and say all you want for Christmas is a repeat…” And repeat it did, every year for the next 50 years…and still counting.
Why Was the Special So Special?
What made this Christmas special both endearing and enduring? First, it was the tightly unified script, staying true to the comic strip—full of fun but with a good dash of pathos readers had come to expect in the “everyman” character of Charlie Brown. Although Bill Menendez later admitted that he had difficulty turning some of the comic-strip characters into moving, animated screen characters, the transition seemed relatively seamless to viewers.
Second, Mendelson and Schulz decided to hire real children to do the voices—rather than having adults mimic them, as was the custom at the time. The children’s voices, each intended to embody the characters’ personalities, gave the show a refreshing innocence.
Finally, there was the music. Mendelson took a chance on Guaraldi because of his love of jazz and because he had heard Guaraldi’s Grammy-winning song, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” on the radio one day. Guaraldi delivered big-time, with simple, whimsical pieces that captured both the essence of the characters and the spirit of the season. Many other jazz musicians later recorded versions of Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown Christmas” compositions.
The success of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” led to numerous other “Peanuts” TV specials as well as feature films, a Broadway show, Saturday morning cartoons, and a plethora of books and related merchandise. Like the original Christmas special, each of these—including, most recently, “The Peanuts Movie”—has remained true to the comic strip’s characters, the unique artistry of Charles Schulz, and the spirit of childlike innocence “Peanuts” has been known for since its inception.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas”—the first animated “Peanuts” special—set the standard for what would come. And Charles Schulz, who sadly passed away in 2000, would likely have been pleased.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
20th century, 1960s, TV, popular culture, holidays, Christmas, by Donna R. Braden