If you were a kid in America (or probably a lot of other places) anytime in the past half-century, you probably know all about A Charlie Brown Christmas. The first and probably the best of the classic half-hour Christmas specials that became a staple of holiday TV, the cartoon based on the endearing characters of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, which first appeared in newspapers in 1950, has made a permanent place in our hearts and our popular culture, regardless of our age, background or religion. (I’m Jewish and I love A Charlie Brown Christmas!) It’s incredible to think that this classic cartoon first ran 50 years ago tonight, on December 9, 1965, and its success and acclaim is even more incredible when you know a little bit about the story behind it–and how virtually no one involved in the special thought it was going to turn out to be a success.
Television mechandising for kids was in its infancy in the early 1960s, and in fact A Charlie Brown Christmas didn’t even start out as an animated story. Its original incarnation, in 1963, was as a documentary about cartoonist Charles Schulz and the Peanuts strip, which by then had been running for over a decade and found tremendous success. Producer Lee Mendelson got together with Schulz and eventually the idea came up to do a short (2 or 3 minute) animated segment featuring the Peanuts characters in the documentary. Schulz suggested an animator, Bill Melendez. The idea of a Peanuts documentary, though, didn’t really catch advertisers or TV execs. Then the grubby hand of merchandising set in: McCann Erickson, the New York ad agency prominently featured in the fictional show Mad Men, put Mendelson together with some people from Coca-Cola, who were looking to sponsor a half-hour holiday special. Suddenly–within one day, in fact–the basic story concept of A Charlie Brown Christmas was born.
The groovy jazz music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, showcased in this scene from the special, was by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.
That the special turned out the way it did is amazing considering the haste with which it was produced. Coca-Cola wanted an early December airdate and had already reserved one, and the special got rolling in the summer–in total they had only six months to produce it. In certain respects this accounts for the “bare bones” nature of the show, especially the animation, which was fairly primitive by 1965 standards. Evidently Charlie Brown was the hardest character to animate due to his deliberately dull features, which is partially why Snoopy is so vivacious, to balance this. The script and dialogue are curiously spiritual, reflecting Charles Schulz’s deep and complicated relationship with religion. It was pretty unprecedented for a cartoon kids’ special to contain direct quotations from the Bible, as Linus reads toward the end. Had the show not been so rushed and the advertisers already committed to a December 9 airdate, they probably would have sent the special back for significant editing.
Haste aside, Schultz and Mendelson made some pretty bold decisions which clearly, in hindsight, accounted for the success of the show. One of them was to cast actual children as the voices of the Peanuts characters. This sounds like a no-brainer to us, but using children as “voice talent” was unknown in 1965 and a major gamble. Some of the children chosen, like Cathy Steinberg who voiced Sally, were too young to know how to read. The directors had to feed them their lines one by one in “repeat after me” fashion. But using real kids instead of adults pretending to be kids was a major contributor to the show’s success, because their voices add a kind of innocence to the whole presentation.
This song, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” dating from 1962, inspired the decision to involve Vince Guaraldi in creating the iconic music for the Charlie Brown special. Listen to the whole song–it’s delightful!
Another key decision was the music. Everyone remembers the music from the Charlie Brown cartoons, and even decades later who can’t immediately recall the melody of “Linus and Lucy”? Choosing jazz for the score of a kid’s cartoon must have seemed almost madness in 1965, but Mendelson had been taken with a popular jazz song on the radio that year, “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. He got Guaraldi to write the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas, resulting in the odd but wonderful mix of smooth piano jazz and traditional Christmas tunes. “Linus and Lucy” became Guaraldi’s contribution to the cultural history of America. In addition to being used in every Peanuts presentation for 50 years, the song has been covered by countless bands–surf guitarist Gary Hoey, for instance, did a rocking version of it in the 1990s. In my opinion the music is the number one key to the special’s success.
Amazingly, when A Charlie Brown Christmas was finally completed on November 30, only ten days before its scheduled airdate, almost everyone connected with the production was convinced it would be an utter disaster. Producer Bob Mendelson sat in a screening room, watching the final cut, and was aghast: the pacing was too slow, the music too weird, the animation too primitive. Coca-Cola execs didn’t like it either, but as they’d already paid for the December 9 time slot and it was too late to replace it with another program, they reluctantly went ahead. To everyone’s astonishment the special got buko ratings. When broadcast at 7:30 PM that Thursday night on CBS, A Charlie Brown Christmas beat every other show on television except Bonanza. Reviews were glowing and many hailed it as an instant classic. After winning an Emmy in 1966 for Best Children’s Program, A Charlie Brown Christmas became a staple of CBS’s holiday programming, usually airing twice in the holiday season. Ad revenue, soundtracks, merchandising and video releases have added millions to the show’s take in the 50 years since. Not bad for an initial investment of $96,000, which was beyond its original budget; the show was supposed to cost $76,000.
“Linus and Lucy” has had a big cultural impact. Here’s a cover by surf rocker Gary Hoey, recorded in 1994.
As you probably did, I grew up with A Charlie Brown Christmas. I remember as a very young child being sentenced one evening to the dreaded “base nursery”–a child care center on the military base where my father was stationed–which happened only very rarely, but the one saving grace was it happened to be the night A Charlie Brown Christmas came on TV. The bully in the class tried to block the TV by putting his feet up on it but was shouted down by the rest of us kids. I also specifically remember watching A Charlie Brown Christmas in one of my college dorms, while drinking beer with friends, sometime in the early 1990s. Probably 15 years separate those experiences but I remember them both fondly.
It’s amazing that a simple half-hour cartoon produced 50 years ago has had such a huge impact on our lives and culture. This is the magic of certain cultural artifacts: you never know which ones are going to become classics passed down from generation to generation. A Charlie Brown Christmas is clearly one of those. Happy birthday, and happy holidays, Charlie!