Bless the Blockhead

How A Charlie Brown Christmas almost wasn't, then became a tradition

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Christmastime is here, but for the first time, Charlie Brown's father will not be around to watch his depressed, round-headed child celebrate the holiday. He will not be in front of the television next week to watch his little boy seek psychiatric help from a nickel-grubbing girl who diagnoses her patient with pantophobia, "the fear of everything." He will not see his child open a mailbox to find emptiness instead of good wishes; he will not watch his boy direct the Christmas play or buy the world's scrawniest, loneliest little Christmas tree. And he will not hear his son's best friend deliver a lisped speech about the true meaning of Christmas: "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill toward men."

For the first time in 35 years, Charles M. Schulz will not be here to usher in A Charlie Brown Christmas, the most beloved, contemplative, and melancholy holiday special ever aired on network television. And for those who knew, worked with, and loved the Peanuts creator, the holiday loses just a little bit of its joy.

"For all of us, it's going to be very sad," says Lee Mendelson, the man with whom Charles Schulz--whom Mendelson still fondly refers to as Sparky--made nearly 50 Charlie Brown specials, the first of which came in 1965 with A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Of course, the spirit will still be there. He has his own piece of immortality now, and he had it through the comic strip; he didn't need the show. But whenever there are polls taken asking people what their favorite animated Christmas TV show is, they usually pick A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is gratifying, and we get tons of mail every year. It's the one time our family sits around and enjoys something together. As they say, the beat goes on, and the music goes on, and for a show we thought was gonna be on once, it never ends.

"I think Schulz finally summed it up best. About 30 years ago, he said, 'There will always be an audience for innocence in this country. I don't care what comes along, and there will be room for everything, but there will always be an audience for innocence.' It's the innocence of that show that is probably why it has sustained so well. It's the simplicity of it. But when we started working on it, Sparky wondered if anyone would even watch it. He used to say he was a humble egotist, so he went back and forth between humility and egoism all the time. Little did we dream it would take off like this."

It would not be overstatement or revisionist history to say that without the 67-year-old Mendelson, who has just written the book A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, there would have been no show at all. In 1963, Mendelson--then a documentarian responsible for a film about Willie Mays--contacted Schulz about making a similar half-hour film about the cartoonist and his "children"; Mendelson thought he should follow up a film about the world's greatest baseball player with one about the world's worst. Mendelson, working with animator Bill Melendez, created a show titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which featured music by jazzer Vince Guaraldi (who played piano as though his fingers were snowflakes) and a few minutes of animation. To the amazement of the three men, all the networks passed; no one wanted Charlie Brown. The blockhead who would never kick the football once more crashed to earth with a humiliating thud.

But in April 1965, Time magazine featured the Peanuts cast on its cover, and shortly after the magazine appeared, Mendelson received a phone call from John Allen, the head of the New York-based McCann Erickson ad agency. Allen had seen and liked the 1963 documentary, and he asked Mendelson if he and Schulz could put together a Christmas special for one of his clients, Coca-Cola. The problem was, Coke wanted to air the special in December, which gave Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez only a few months to write, animate, and score the show.

In May 1965, he and Schulz sat down to write an outline for the show. Schulz had only one request: "Whatever we do," he told Mendelson, "somehow I want to have this show express to people what I think is the true meaning of Christmas." In three hours' time, they had penned a rough draft that contained these basic plot points: a Christmas play, a reading from the Bible, a skating scene, and a little fir tree. They would never waver from their original outline--something Mendelson had forgotten until he began working on the book with Schulz and Melendez last summer, shortly before Schulz's death on February 12 of this year from colon cancer.

"Sparky thought about what was the opposite of the true meaning of Christmas, and that was commercialism," Mendelson says. "We were both living in California, but since he grew up in St. Paul, he said, 'We need some winter scenes.' I also mentioned I had read 'The Little Fir Tree' by Hans Christian Andersen, and we wanted to do something with a tree. Then he said, 'Maybe we can do a school play,' because he had been mortified in some school play when he was a kid, and I had been one of the wise men, if you can believe it, in the sixth grade, and when I went to make my speech, the star hanging over me fell and hit me on the head and ruined the play, so I knew what that was all about."

But when the show was completed, CBS-TV executives hated it. They thought it was too slow, they disliked Guaraldi's score, and they were uncomfortable with using the voice of children instead of adults. They also fretted about the scene in which Linus recites from the Bible; no way that would fly on network TV. For a moment, the network considered burying the special altogether; it would suffer the same fate as its documentary predecessor, from which Mendelson lifted much of the Christmas special's music (including Guaraldi's composition "Linus and Lucy," otherwise known as "Charlie Brown's Theme").

Mendelson--who had spent 15 minutes writing the lyrics to Guaraldi's show-opening song, "Christmas Time Is Here"--knew he was doomed when the network tried to keep Time TV critic Richard Burgheim from seeing an advance copy of the show. Mendelson convinced CBS it would be worse to hide it from the critic, so they screened it for Burgheim at CBS' headquarters. A week later, his review appeared in Time: "CBS will carry a special that really is special," he wrote. "A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children's special that bears repeating." TV Guide also gave the show a two-page spread, which Mendelson and CBS hadn't been expecting.

"But still we didn't know anyone was going to watch it," Mendelson says, insisting he and Melendez believed they had "killed" Charlie Brown with their meditative, crudely animated show. "The day after the show was on, I went to this little coffee shop where I always go. There's usually about 20 people in there, and everybody had seen the show. That was the first inkling I got it was something. But I felt, 'Well, they kinda know me and knew we were gonna do it...' and so forth. Until the ratings came out, we didn't know. Then the ratings came out, and it's No. 2, second only to Bonanza--more than 15 million homes had it turned on that night--and that's when we knew we had a hit. Then, one of the execs from CBS who didn't like it called, and he said, 'We're gonna order four more [Charlie Brown specials], but I want you to know my aunt in New Jersey didn't like it either.' I always remember that, because he was going to go down fighting. Then the reviews were glowing, and we were staggered by it. I don't think we've gotten over it yet, and it's been 35 years." (Ironically, when A Charlie Brown Christmas airs December 11 on CBS, it will be for the last time; next year, the Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween specials move to ABC.)

The three (wise?) men had crafted the most elegiac cartoon ever to air on television--a show that is part Bible lesson, part jazz solo, part therapy session. It's at once beautiful and crude, this short tale about frail little children "confronted with the illogical, blind, and mechanistic world," as jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the original liner notes to the soundtrack album. It has endured precisely because it is so slow and contemplative; in an age when most television screams at you to make its point, A Charlie Brown Christmas offers a meditative whisper about how fine the line between yuletide cheer and despair.

No amount of presents or tinsel could cheer up Charlie Brown; the commercialism of Christmas--a " by a big Eastern syndicate," Lucy explains--left him only confused and despondent. "I just don't understand Christmas," he says at the beginning of the show. "I always end up feeling depressed." By its end, Charlie Brown, with Linus' speech still ringing in his ears, sees his faith restored by the very people who have always dismissed him as a blockhead. They turn his twig into a glorious tree, and his frown is, for a moment, rendered the smile of the truly faithful. As a result, Charles Schulz--artist, gag writer, philosopher--created his own A Christmas Carol; the show will live forever.

"When he retired, and then when he passed away, that outpouring of affection from all over the world was because he represented the common man," Mendelson says. "A French man we met in Quebec once said to him, 'Mr. Schulz, don't take this as an insult, but I think you are a very simple man,' and what he meant was he was very down-to-earth. He loved to sit down and have conversations with people, and the common-man touch came out, because all of us are Charlie Brown. All of us fail every day and want to get up and try again, and I think he hit a universal chord. His was the first strip to ever talk about feelings, emotions. It was funny: Here's a very shy man who was talking about emotions in a comic strip.

"The show was the antithesis of animation. I was thinking that people who are my age now were 32 when they first saw the show, so you have three generations who have seen it, and I do think adults do appreciate it more. It's like the comic strip, which he never drew for kids. He drew it for adults, but kids could enjoy it. It was the same thing when he wrote the show. He wrote it for adults and put funny little things in there for the kids. I think that's why the whole family could enjoy it at different levels and for different reasons. But back then, we really thought we had ruined Charlie Brown. It shows you what creative people know."

A Charlie Brown Christmas has left indelible footprints in the snow that will never vanish: The Simpsons lifted its "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" finale for one of its Halloween specials; South Park has borrowed from it at least twice (two weeks ago, its Thanksgiving special offered a parody featuring a desiccated turkey named Gobbles in place of the fir tree); and Robert Smigel, who creates Saturday Night Live's "TV Funhouse" cartoons, lifted Linus' entire true-meaning-of-Christmas speech for one of his episodes. In a cartoon that originally aired on SNL two years ago, Jesus returned to earth and found it overrun by pocketbook preachers and gluttonous heathens; he was sickened by what he found. Then, standing in front of a TV store, Jesus catches Linus' recitation from the Bible, and a single teardrop falls from Christ's eye. It was a punchline delivered with a frown; the joke stuck in your throat.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas is the greatest half-hour American TV has ever produced," Smigel told the Dallas Observer in 1998. "And you know I'm serious when I say that, because I'm Jewish. The range of subjects that show covers in 22 minutes, and the way it treats each one with humor and sadness at the same time, is amazing. These were kids with adult feelings; they knew what a lonely place the world could be, but they had the determination to keep going."

"You know," Mendelson says, "generations change, audiences change, but this show never will. I had never thought about it till this discussion that it is Sparky's Christmas Carol, and it will last just as long as those other epics, which is quite something. Of course, I'd never put it in that context." He then laughs, like a man caught tooting his own horn. It makes him uncomfortable, if only because he doesn't need to. "I shouldn't be doing that. I'll leave that to somebody else."

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