A Charlie Brown Christmas

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"A Charlie Brown Christmas"

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" charmed millions of Americans when it made its debut in 1965. This animated television special weaves a story around the Christmas-time antics of the characters from Charles Schulz's (1922-2000) popular cartoon-strip "Peanuts." While the other kids look forward to Christmas and enjoy winter-time activities, like skating, Charlie Brown alone feels anxious and depressed (see Depression). He consults Lucy, who fancies herself an amateur psychiatrist. She advises him to "get involved" with something and makes him the director of the school Christmas play. His involvement ends when the other kids laugh at the straggly Christmas tree he brings back to adorn the stage. Then Linus, quoting from the Bible, reminds the kids what Christmas is all about (see Gospel Accounts of Christmas). Afterwards Charlie Brown takes his Christmas tree home. The other kids change their minds about the tree and help Charlie Brown decorate it.

Charles Schulz's "Peanuts"

Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" was one of the most successful comic strips of all time. More than 300 million people worldwide followed the strip, which was translated into 20 different languages. Schulz's pint-sized characters approach life with a unique combination of wisdom, innocence, anxiety, and hip self-assurance that attracts both adult and juvenile readers. People who knew Charles Schulz find many similarities between the cartoonist and his main character, the worried and hapless Charlie Brown. Yet Schulz was able to translate his nervousness into an appealing art form, which in turn brought him millions of fans and millions of dollars. Among the many honors given to the cartoonist include his mention in the 1984 GuinnessBook of World Records when the 2,000th newspaper subscribed to his strip, and his induction into the Cartoonist Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1990 the French government named him a "Commander of Arts and Letters." On December 14, 1999, Schulz, who was battling cancer, reluctantly announced his retirement to the world. One of the last honors received by this long-time resident of Santa Rosa, California, was given to him by the California state legislature, which declared February 13, 2000 "Charles Schulz Day." On this day the last "Peanuts" strip was scheduled to run in newspapers across the country and around the world. Schulz died in his sleep on February 12, just hours before a saddened public enjoyed his final strip. In May of 2000 the Congress of the United States posthumously awarded him the Medal of Honor.

The Making of "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" began life as a twinkle in the eye of producer Lee Mendelson. He, Schulz, and animator Bill Melendez had worked together a couple of years earlier on a documentary of Schulz and his cartoon characters. When Mendelson discovered that Coca Cola was looking for a Christmas special and was interested in the Peanuts characters, he assured them of both his and Schulz's interest in the project. Then Mendelson rushed to Schulz's house to inform him of the idea and convince him that it was a good one. Luckily, Schulz readily agreed to work on the project, and together the two of them came up with an outline for the show. The outline specified that the story would contain a school play, winter-time fun and games, a reading from the Bible, and a combination of jazz and traditional Christmas music. Coca Cola liked the outline, and production immediately began on the show.

Mendelson right away invited Bill Melendez to take charge of the animation. The three men met to develop the story. Mendelson contributed the idea of structuring some of the action around a Christmas tree, an inspiration he took from Hans Christian Andersen's short story "The Fir Tree." Schulz qualified the concept, by insisting that the tree be a "Charlie Brown" type of tree. The work progressed with Schulz masterminding the dialogue and situations, while Melendez translated them into an animated cartoon.

The three men were eager to hire jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, whom they had worked with before on the Schulz documentary. They wanted to reuse the "Linus and Lucy" theme developed by Guaraldi several years ago as well as give him an opportunity to create new music. Guaraldi signed on and production went into full swing. The animators produced 10,000 drawings for the half-hour show. Passing them by the camera at the rate of 12 per second made the cartoon characters appear to move.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" broke new ground in several ways. By having one of the characters recite the biblical narrative of Jesus' birth, it introduced a moment of serious religious contemplation into a cartoon aimed at children. Although Mendelson was doubtful, Schulz, a quietly religious man, insisted that his Christmas show contain a religious theme. In addition, the three men decided to hire child actors to dub in the cartoon characters'voices. Up till that time, adult actors had typically filled in all the voices in animated cartoons, even those of child characters. Finally, the jazz piano music provided by Vince Guaraldi delighted both adults and children, who previously had been accustomed to cartoons accompanied by simple jingles rather than serious music.

Reactions to "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

The crew finished work on the show one week before it was scheduled to air on television. Top CBS executives screened the special shortly before it was televised. Disappointed by what they considered its slow pace, they assured Mendelson that although they would air the program, they wouldn't be interested in any further Charlie Brown shows.

This assessment crushed Mendelson, Schulz, and Melendez. Hope revived when the special received a good pre-broadcast review in Time magazine. On December 9, 1965, the show was broadcast nationwide. Ratings proved it to be a hit with the American public, and ranked it as the second-most popular show on television during its time-slot. Several months later the three men received an Emmy Award for Best Network Animated Special. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" also received a Peabody Award for excellence in family programming. Rerun in the years that followed, the show continued to receive high ratings. Charles Schulz went on to create 45 animated television specials based on his famous cartoon-strip characters. "A Charlie Brown Christmas," his first, remained his favorite. Vince Guaraldi's album of music from the show, entitled "A Charlie Brown Christmas," went platinum (sold over 1,000,000 copies). Later released as a CD, it continues to be a best-selling Christmas album.

Further Reading

Johnson, Rheta Grimsley. Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews and McMeel, 1995. Mendelson, Lee. A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Web Site

The Charles M. Schulz Museum, located in Santa Rosa, California, offers a web site with information on Schulz and his achievements: