The Case of a Charlie Brown Christmas

 Hey Cassettes, welcome to season 3! We’re starting the season off strong with episodes about some of our favorite Christmas specials. So for our first episode, we are going to focus on one of the oldest TV specials airing today: A Charlie Brown Christmas! Now, we say ONE of the first, because Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol was THE first animated Christmas special in 1962. 

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Charles Shultz and The Peanuts

  • Before we discuss this special, we have to talk about the history of Charlie Brown, and where The Peanuts came from. 
  • The Peanuts comic strip was first published in the late 1940’s, and was originally called “Li’l Folks” 
  • It was created by Charles Shultz, and starred Charlie Brown. The original strip included a random cast of unnamed characters. It wasn’t until the strip was renamed in 1950, that Shultz created a gang of regular characters. 
  • After Shultz’s comic strip was picked up by the United Feature Syndicate, an editor changed the name to, “Peanuts” because “Li’l Folks” was too similar to two other comic strips at the time.
    • Shultz hated the name, and wanted to keep the original. He felt that calling it “Peanuts” made it seem insignificant. He told TIME magazine this 15 years later.
    • Although Shultz hated the name, he worked on it until his death in 2000. 
  • At first, the strip ran in only 7 newspapers and wasn’t an instant hit. By the end of the 1950’s, it appeared in hundreds of papers across America, and The Peanuts were internationally known. It was in the 1960’s, however, when Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang peaked in popularity. 
    • Charlie Brown is an every-man character, facing easily relatable problems. Shultz modeled him after himself, and because of that, the rest of the world could see themselves in Charlie Brown too. 
    • The 1960’s was a tumultuous decade, filled with change. Not only did The Peanuts leave their mark on the world, but the comic strip changed with the times. The character Franklin was added after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and the bird Woodstock was named after the famous music festival.
  • At the height of its popularity in 1965, CBS gave The Peanuts their very own TV special.

Plot

  • A Charlie Brown Christmas follows the Peanuts gang as they prepare for Christmas. Charlie Brown finds himself depressed. At the suggestions of Lucy, he decides to get involved in the festivities by directing the school play. Bothered by the commercialism of the holiday, Charlie Brown is determined to find the true meaning of Christmas. 

Making A Charlie Brown Christmas

  • We already know that The Peanuts were very popular in the 1960’s, so much so, that a TV producer named Lee Mendelson wanted to make a documentary about the success of the comic strip.
  • Charles Shultz agreed to work on the project, and he asked an animator named Bill Melendez to help out with the brief animated segments of the special. The rest of the documentary would be live-action. 
  • A talented and well-respected jazz musician named Vince Guaraldi wrote original music for the documentary as well. 
  • At the time, the special was rejected, but it brought together the team that would later make A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was called, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” 
  • In April of 1965, the McCann Erickson Agency called Mendelson, wondering if they had any ideas for a Peanuts Christmas special. Mendelson said yes, even though he had no special in mind. The thing was, Coca-Cola was interested in buying such a special if it existed, and they needed to see a draft of it in just a few days. Lee Mendelson called Charles Shultz and told him that he just sold “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Shultz responded with, “What is that?” And then the men had an outline done in one day.
      • When Coca-Cola agreed to buy the special, they asked for an early December release. The men had only 6 months to put a special together. 
  • Shultz wanted the special to focus on “The True Meaning of Christmas,” and added elements from Christmases he spent as a child in Minnesota. For example, there are lots of scenes that feature snow and even ice skating.
    • He also came up with the idea for the iconic tree in the special after reading “The Fir Tree” by Hans Christian Anderson. Schultz thought it would be interesting if there was a tree in the special that embodied the spirit of Charlie Brown. 
  • As animation began, it was clear that Charlie Brown and the gang were very limited in their movement. Animating flat characters can be very challenging, but Snoopy was the exception. If you notice during the special, Snoopy has the most action, and it’s because he was much more fun to animate. 
    • When you consider how the animation was done, it’s impressive that Melendez and his team got it done in so little time. It required a pencil drawing, followed by an inking and painting process onto a cell. The cell was then placed onto a painted backdrop. The drawings totaled to 13,000.
  • Lee Mendelson, the producer, invited Vince Guaraldi back to score the special. They were able to include the jazzy, “Linus and Lucy” written for the documentary previously mentioned, and Guaraldi wrote new songs that were performed by his jazz trio.
    • The most famous of these is, “Christmas Time is Here.” Mendelson ended up writing the lyrics to the song himself, after he had trouble finding a lyricist. The song is now considered a Christmas staple, and is often played on the radio during the holiday season.
    • Mendelson’s son and his 6th grade class performed the song.
    • The song is a perfect blend of melancholy music and joyful lyrics. It captures the sad spirit that Charlie Brown holds throughout most of the special, mixed with the excitement of being a child at Christmas 
    • The team also brought in a children’s choir to perform, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” for a pivotal scene in the special. The mixture of traditional Christmas carols and jazz is one of the aspects of the special that made it so interesting. 

Starring

  • Peter Robbins was the eight-year-old boy chosen to play Charlie Brown. His casting was one of the most difficult, because they needed to find a child’s voice that sounded “blah” 
    • At the time, he was a child actor who had done parts in The Munsters, Rawhide, and The Joey Bishop Show
    • He went on to play Charlie Brown for several years afterward in 6 other specials and has since retired from acting
  • Christopher Shea played Linus, whose voice was meant to sound sophisticated, yet innocent. 
    • This was his first acting role at age 7, and he continued to play Linus in four more specials. Shea also had a recurring role on the TV series Shane (1966) 
    • He passed away at the age of 52 in 2010.
  • Kathy Steinburg played Sally, Charlie’s younger sister. She was the youngest member of the cast, and did not know how to read. So, producers fed her one line at a time for her to deliver. 
  • Tracy Stratford played Lucy and was 10 years old at the time. Producers were impressed by her professionalism.
    • She had a role in two episodes of The Twilight Zone, one of them being “Living Doll,” which is one of the most famous episodes of the series. It features a murderous doll named “Talky Tina” 
    • This was her only appearance as Lucy Van Pelt, because her voice changed shortly after the animation was finished on the project.
  • Karen Mendelson played Patty. Patty was an original member of the Peanuts gang, but was later phased out after the introduction of “Peppermint Patty.” 
  • The rest of the cast was played by children in Mendelson’s own neighborhood, and he recalled the recording session to be chaotic. 

Reception 

  • Early on in the writing process, Lee Mendelson tried to convince Charles Schultz to leave out the religious references in the special. Schultz reportedly replied, “If we don’t do it, who will?” 
    • They went as far as to make Linus’ speech the climax of the special, making it impossible to cut out, so the special had to air with the religious message in tact.
  • No laugh track, authentic child voices, and a religious message meant that this special broke a lot of 1960’s TV rules. 
  • Mendelson, Melendez, and the CBS executives viewed the special days before its release and thought it was boring. They thought the jazz music seemed out of place, and the animation was underwhelming. But, there was one thing working for it: it was scheduled to premier in just a few days and they had to deliver on what they promised. If they had finished the special any sooner, CBS may have made the decision to cut it completely. 
    • I read that one of the animators, Ed Levitt (who had worked on Bambi and Fantasia) tried to cheer Melendez up by saying that it was the best special he would ever make, and that people would be watching it in 100 years
  • CBS aired the special on December 9th, 1965 to an estimated 15 million viewers. As reviews came in, it received unanimous critical acclaim! The network contacted the producers and ordered more specials immediately. 
    • Just think, if they hadn’t aired this or if it did fail, we wouldn’t have any of the other Charlie Brown specials that we have today. Imagine a world without It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
    • The special won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program and the prestigious Peabody award.
  • A Charlie Brown Christmas is considered to be an American Christmas tradition, being one of the most popular specials to air every year. Today, it is the second longest-running Christmas special on US network TV. Was Ed Levitt correct? Will people still be watching it in 2065? All we know is that it’s been 54 years, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. 

Resources

https://web.archive.org/web/20120828024707/http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/10584

http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2022745,00.html

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3g6vrk

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Peanuts

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059026/

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