Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, You Old Fart

American Christmas traditions are a lot like a very small pebble rolling down a very tall, snow covered mountain.  They start from next to nothing—a sprig of holly on the door, a few old songs, a nice meal and perhaps small gifts for the family, everyone but the folks in the big houses going about their everyday work lives.  Hell, it was banned entirely in Boston and most of New England for more than 100 years.  But it rolls down the slope becoming a snow ball and growing fed by this or that accumulation—St. Nicholas from the Dutch. Christmas trees from the Germans. Some homegrown songs.  Crèches and nativity scenes from new-fangled color lithographs in Family Bibles and calendars.  St. Nick goes from tall and lean to short and stout with reindeer and a red suit and becomes someone called Santa Clause.  The North Pole and elves from Norse folk tales.  Mrs. Clause from a raging feminist.  Colored lights thanks to Thomas Edison. 
The ball grows ever larger, picking up speed, smashing every obstacle in its path.  Adapting an expanding as every new media becomes available and spreads new memories—recordings and motion pictures—Edison again—radio, television.  Add wish book catalogues, trains to re-unite far-flung families, Christmas Cards, street decorations, more and more songs, sentimental movies, annual TV specials.  And now, I suppose, downloadable Christmas Joy Aps.
Somewhere near the base of the mountain, close enough for some us to remember as yesterday, but far enough up the slope and back in time to rate a Golden Anniversary was the Charlie Brown Christmas which first aired on the CBS Television Network on December 9, 1965.  The wistful, episodic scenes played out by a familiar cast of comic strip children, endeared itself to the American public from the first showing.  It quickly became a beloved annual animated holiday special, along with other perennials like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
Peanuts was riding high in 1965 as the most popular syndicated comic strip in North America.  Since Charles M. Schulz introduced the gang of neighborhood kids in 1950 it had blown past traditionally dominating strips like Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Blondie, and Gasoline Alley and had spawned a slew of other kid strips.   

Charles M. Schulz at work in the mid '60's.
No parents, teachers, or other adults were ever seen to interfere in the kids’ world.  And it all swirled around Charlie Brown, an insecure kid who never seems to quite succeed at anything and who is tormented by a bossy Lucy Van Pelt.  Yet despite his self-accepted status as a loser, Charlie is the glue that holds the gang together and, even if no one seemed to notice, their leader.  Charlie, the sad sack round headed kid, was a stand in for Schulz himself just as Kermit the Frog would become Jim Henson’s alter ego.
The strip had spawned best-selling book compilations and Schulz had licensed his characters for use by Ford Motor Company in animated commercials and short segments on the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, which was sponsored by Ford.  Those spots, which were both profitable for Schulz and phenomenally popular, were produced by Bill Melendez.
Melendez and Schulz became friends and often talked about future projects.  When film maker Lee Mendelson approached Schulz with a proposal for a documentary on Peanuts and its creator, Schultz suggested Melendez to animate a short, 2½ minute film based on the script.  West Coast based Jazz pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi who had recently scored an instrumental hit with Cast Your Fate to the Winds was brought on board to provide music.  In addition to incidental music, Guaraldi composed Linus and Lucy as a theme.    When the film, Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz, was completed after nearly two years work in early 1965, despite the popularity of Peanuts none of the TV networks were interested and the project was shelved unseen.
Shortly after that disappointment Mendelson was asked by Coca Cola to develop a Christmas television program that the soft drink company could sponsor and hopefully cement their close connection to the holiday through their long-running print ads featuring illustrator Haddon Sundblom’s Santa Claus which had become the definitive image of the evolving St. Nick.  In fact, the company expected that Mendelson would build his special in some way around that popular Santa.
The film maker had other ideas.  He immediately contacted Schulz who was enthusiastic about collaboration on a Christmas special.  In fact, he had a lot he wanted to say about Christmas.  Growing up in a somewhat dour Minnesota Lutheran faith, as a young man he was fervently evangelical.  After returning home from service in the Army in World War II he had taught Sunday school and was a member of Church of God (Anderson, Indiana).  He pondered the mysteries of God, Jesus, and organized religion quite seriously before coming to the conclusion that he was inadequate to tell anyone else what to believe.  He also became disillusioned with church.  By the early ‘60’s he had drifted away from church attendance although he maintained a personal belief in God and an admiration for the teachings of Christ.  He had doubts about an afterlife and believed that salvation, if there were such a thing, could not be conditional upon belief.  In other words he had adopted a sort of small u universalism that meshed with social liberalism.
Despite this evolution, Schulz was deeply concerned with the commercialization of Christmas and yearned for a respect for the real meaning of the holiday.  He wanted the project he and Mendelson were developing to reflect that.  In April Coke’s advertising agency, McCann Erickson in New York gave Mendelson the go-ahead to prepare a formal proposal for company executives in Atlanta in just five days.  Schulz and Mendelson brainstormed with the cartoonist’s ideas “flowing non-stop.”   They quickly settled on a series of set pieces, some based on established conventions in the strip including “winter scenes, a school play, a scene to be read from the Bible, and a sound track combining jazz and traditional music.”
Despite the absence of their Santa, the Coke brass signed off on the proposal with the condition that the program could be completed by late November for an early December air date on a budget of only $76,000 from the CBS network.  Mendelson, who had never produced an animated film before was unaware that this was below the cost of top flight animation and unsure if it could be completed in six month from the beginning of production.
Melendez, who had also never done so long a production, was also unsure that the job could be completed.  But by keeping the animation simple and like the comic strip avaoiding costly backgrounds in favor of a focus on the characters, he was able to turn out 13,000 animation cells at 12 frames per second.
The major addition to the original storyboard was the Christmas tree, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fir Tree, which Schulz imbued with Charlie Brown’s own hapless characteristics. 

Dancing to Guaraldi's Linus and Lucy

Guaraldi was brought on to do the music and it was quickly decided to recycle Linus and Lucy, which went on to become the theme for all of the future Peanuts TV specials.  He also created two new songs—Skating and Christmas Time Is Here—and adapted traditional Christmas music, including O Tannenbaum and Hark the Harold Angels Sing.  When he could not find a lyricist for Christmas Time, Mendelson hastily scribbled the words himself shortly before final sound recording.
Against the advice of the network and advertising agency Schulz insisted that real children, not adult actors, provide the voices of the Peanuts gang and in the singing.  Getting children who could do natural, unaffected readings turned out to be challenging, especially for the part of Charlie Brown who Schulz wanted to sound blah, non-descript, and downbeat.  Although some professional children were used others were recruited from local schools or even by sending tape recorders home with production staff members to record their own children.  In the end the principle voices were, nine year old Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown, Chis Shea who had a minor lisp as Linus, Tracy Stratford as Lucy, and Kathy Steinburg as Charlie’s little sister Sally.  For the ensemble singing the Children’s Choir of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California was used. Guaraldi had employed the same choir for his performance and recording Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral.
There was no speaking voice for Snoopy, although the dog in the comic strip “speaks” through thought balloons.  Instead it was decided to make him a virtual mute, “Our own Harpo Marx” as Mendelson later quipped.  The dog would have to communicate through mime, expression, and dance.  The dog did make indecipherable sounds which were provided by Mendelson himself.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

When the program was finally screened for network execs and admen with Schulz and Mendelson in attendance in New York, just about everyone thought the program was a failure.  Mendelson thought that if it wasn’t so close to its air date it might have been scrubbed entirely.
But their fears were put to rest on December 9 when 15,490,000 viewers tuned in, 45% of the total TV audience.  Although it finished second to ratings juggernaut Bonanza that night, it far outdrew The Munsters which it pre-empted. 
The next day reviews were universally ecstatic.  Lawrence Laurent of The Washington Post summed up the general consensus that the “natural-born loser Charlie Brown finally turned up a real winner last night.”  Several proclaimed it an instant classic destined to become an annual tradition. 

Linus's recital of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is an emotional highpoint in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Linus’s simple, heart-felt recital of part of the Christmas story from the Gospel of St. Luke in the King James Version of the Bible at the school Christmas Pageant was listed as a particular highlight by many.  Others were moved by the ultimate redemption of Charlie Brown and his pathetic little tree.
Guaraldi released an album of music from A Charley Brown Christmas which also shot up the charts.  CBS and Coke were so delighted that they immediately ordered four more specials, inaugurating a long TV ruThe show collected an Emmy for Best Children’s TV Show and a prestigious, highbrow Peabody Award for Broadcast Excellence as well as rafts of other honors.

Lee Mendelson (left), Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez accept the Emmy Award in 1966 for best children's program.
The show collected an Emmy for Best Children’s TV Show and a prestigious, highbrow Peabody Award for Broadcast Excellence as well as rafts of other honors.
The show’s power was displayed in unexpected ways, not the least of which was ending the fad for aluminum Christmas Trees that had swept the nation for the previous five years.  When Charlie Brown scorns a lot full of the multi-colored trees in favor of the scraggly sapling that ultimately proved to represent the true spirit of Christmas, they went overnight from fashion statements to symbols of shallowness.  The following Christmas season sales of aluminum and other fake trees virtually collapsed while natural trees sales soared creating a national shortage.  The following year manufacturers stopped production of the metal trees. 
A Charlie Brown Christmas remained a staple on CBS until 1980 when ABC obtained the broadcast rights.    That network shows the program twice during each holiday season, still getting impressive ratings for each showing as generations sit down to watch together.  This year in honor of the 50th anniversary it preceded the first airing with an hour and a half special, It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown hosted by Kristen Bell, and featuring musical performances by Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Morrison, Sarah McLachlan, Boyz II Men, Pentatonix, David Benoit, and the All-American Boys Chorus.
Of the principals involved in the filming only Mendelson, age 82, survives.   He produced all of the subsequent Peanut specials as well as other TV cartoons including this year’s It’s Your 50th Christmas.  Mexican-born animator Melendez stayed with the Peanuts franchise through 2006’s He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown.  He died in 2008 at the age of 91.  His voicing for Snoopy, nonsense syllables speeded up on tape, were used in this year’s CGI animation release The Peanuts Movie making him the only original creator involved in that film.  Guaraldi continued to work on the Peanuts specials in addition to other jazz recording up to the end of his life, which was cut short by a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 47 the evening after completing the sound track to It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown.
Charles Schulz continued his phenomenally successful strip and his association with the TV specials despite personal upheavals in his life, including a messy divorce from his first wife, re-marriage, and a series of health concerns.  Although he made no public declarations, he slowly drifted away from any residual attachment to Christianity, although he remained a spiritual person.  By the 80’s he was referring to himself as a secular humanists.  Fans and scholars debate if this meant that he had become an atheist.  Probably not in the sense of “knowing” there is no God.  But certainly he felt humankind holds its own fate in its hands and that a sense of morality and decency need not be tied to any religious dogma.  He died of colon cancer on February 12, 2000 at age 77.  Then next day, a Sunday, his last original Peanuts strip appeared in the newspapers.  At his insistence, no other artist continued the strip.  Instead his syndicator, United Features continues to distribute classic Peanuts strips which are to still among the most popular in American comic pages. 
Charlie Brown, of course, lives on.                                       

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