Charles M. Schulz
1950 - 2000
was drawing round-headed kids in The New Yorker
long before they coalesced into a cartoon called Li'l Folks
, which eventually spread beyond its native St. Paul, Minnesota
and hit national syndication
on October 2, 1950
, taking on a new name: Peanuts
Calling Peanuts the world's greatest comic strip is an understatement, as it has matured into something greater: a piece of Americana. Strips of Lucy pulling her football away from Charlie Brown's foot now hang in the Smithsonian Institution alongside Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. Charlie Brown and Snoopy have gone into outer space as components of the Apollo 10 spacecraft. There's even a rapper named after the pooch. Did Schulz ever think that his little drawings would someday become a key part of America's national consciousness, and spread to an audience throughout the world?
He drew the first four-panel strip with just three characters: Charlie Brown, Shermy, and Patty. He soon added a beagle pup named Snoopy to bring the character count up to three and a half. But as the character of Charlie Brown emerged into a quintessenial loser, interacting with the prodigious Linus Van Pelt and his evil sister Lucy Van Pelt, the strip began to darken, almost turning into a philosophy tome.
Said Snoopy in one 1957 strip, "I think I'll just sit out in the rain until I catch pneumonia, and DIE! Nobody cares about me anyway!" Charlie Brown walked by and shouted, "HEY, STUPID! GET OUT OF THE RAIN!" As Snoopy ran through the downpour, he thought, "Gee, somebody cares..."
At the time, Schulz was going through a spell of loneliness, which manifested itself in Peanuts icons like the little red-haired girl, Charlie Brown's unrequited love, who first appeared in 1961. But then, as Schulz's comic began to see financial success, and as his personal life began to brighten, the strip lost its air of melancholy, gaining all sorts of whimsical characters like carefree Sally Brown, little birdie Woodstock, and the summer camp girls Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Snoopy's likeness changed so much during this period that his copyright had to be re-filed, and his lifestyle also changed to include a million and one journeys into imagination.
In the 1980's, Schulz was getting old, and his strip began to reflect a more idyllic view of childhood. Gone were the dark philosophical pieces of the old guard: instead, Sallyisms and Snoopy's imagination carried the comic onward. Charlie Brown finally hit a home run in 1993, and Lucy finally caught a fly ball in 1994.
Some purists believed that Peanuts had strayed too far from what made it brilliant in the fifties and sixties. But Schulz, who had funneled his entire life into each set of four panels, had already decided that he would draw the strip until he died, even though his health was deteriorating, and his hands trembled so much by the early nineties that all of the strip's lines came out jagged. On December 14, 1999, he finally drew his last strip, and went into retirement.
Schulz died on the very night the last Peanuts strip, number 17,897, was going to press around the country. He was 77: his world on paper was just shy of fifty.
Reruns of Peanuts continue to run in thousands of newspapers. The characters come on our televisions every Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. And then, of course, there's all the merchandising, which made Schulz one of the wealthiest entertainers in the world.
Who makes it happen? Well, Charlie Brown and Snoopy are at the center of it all. CB's world is centered around his neighborhood, and all the kids within: his sister Sally Brown, and friends Shermy, Patty, Violet, Frieda, Linus Van Pelt, Lucy Van Pelt, Rerun Van Pelt, Schroeder, Eudora, and Pig-Pen. Then there are characters detached from the strip itself, but heavily involved in its plot, like Miss Othmar and the little red-haired girl.
Snoop's world mostly revolves around himself and a posse of birds—Bill, Oliver, Harriet, and Conrad—led by Woodstock. He also has an extended family of his own: Spike, Belle, Andy, Olaf, and Marbles, the children of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. Then there are his many arch-enemies, like the cat next door, Manfred von Richtofen, and the entire publishing industry.
Finally, there are the kids across town, who entered the strip's world by being opponents of Charlie Brown's baseball team. Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Franklin are the main characters in this group.
Since A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered in 1965, Lee Mendelsohn and Bill Melendez, along with generation after generation of voice actors, have brought the gang to the small and big screens. Here's a list of all the Peanuts specials that have aired on television since then, in chronological order (significant ones are bolded):
Charlie Brown's All-Stars
It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
You're In Love, Charlie Brown
He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown
It Was A Short Summer, Charlie Brown
Play It Again, Charlie Brown
You're Not Elected, Charlie Brown
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
There's No Time For Love, Charlie Brown
It's The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown
It's A Mystery, Charlie Brown
Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown
It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown
What A Nightmare, Charlie Brown
It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown
You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown
You're the Greatest, Charlie Brown
She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown
Life's a Circus, Charlie Brown
It's an Adventure, Charlie Brown
Someday You'll Find Her, Charlie Brown
This Is America, Charlie Brown (miniseries)
It's Magic, Charlie Brown
A Charlie Brown Celebration
What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?
Is This Goodbye, Charlie Brown?
It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown
Snoopy's Getting Married, Charlie Brown
Happy New Year, Charlie Brown
It's the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown
Why, Charlie Brown, Why?
It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown
It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown
You're in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown
It Was My Best Birthday Ever, Charlie Brown
It's the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown
A Charlie Brown Valentine
CBS also experimented with airing Peanuts in a Saturday morning format called "The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show." This only lasted for one season in 1983, but was eventually picked up for reruns on The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
We can't forget Vince Guaraldi, the jazz pianist whose career was made by playing the soundtrack for these specials. The music of Peanuts was a great influence on modern-day jazz titans like George Winston and Wynton Marsalis.
Four feature films were also made: A Boy Named Charlie Brown in 1969, Snoopy Come Home in 1972, Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown in 1977, and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown in 1980.
Two musicals have been made based on the comic strip. You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, by Clark Gesner, is the more famous of the two, but Warren Lockhart's Snoopy!!! is equally awesome. Both have been released in animated form, which follow the originals fairly well.
Let's not forget Camp Snoopy, Snoopy One, or the Snoopy harp, little pieces of our world that owe their existence to a man named Charles, and a boy named Charlie who's every man in every town.
Rest in peace, Charles Schulz.
Live forever, Charlie Brown.