"Charlie Brown, you're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem."
One of the most popular animated television programs of all time, it has been rerun perennially every December since its premiere in 1965. And it all started with the granddaughter of an advertising executive, and a documentary on Willie Mays.
On the Contrary, I Didn't Think I Looked That Good
In the mid-1950s, a fairly high percentage of television commercials were animation, and with that in mind, the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency was trying to come up with some sort of character to represent a new car model from Ford, the Falcon. Norman Straus, the president of the agency, held a dinner meeting at his house, and his little granddaughter interrupted and suggested "Peanuts." Straus hadn't heard of the comic strip, which was fairly new at the time and still not in many newspapers, but an account executive named Harry Trelevan explained the strip to him.
Trelevan got the go-ahead from Straus, but was initially told by United Feature Syndicate, which distributed "Peanuts," that cartoonist Charles Schulz might not be very receptive to the idea. However, Trelevan contacted Schulz directly and found out that he was a big fan of Ford cars, and liked the idea.
Schulz decided he didn't trust traditional Hollywood animators, but since they did so many animated commercials, J. Walter Thompson employed a few animators itself. One of them, Bill Melendez, was tapped for the "Peanuts" project; he met with Schulz at his home/studio in northern California, and quickly won the cartoonist's approval. With his experience at both Disney and the UPA studio, Melendez managed to translate the comic strip characters, which are two-dimensional, into animated characters, which are three-dimensional but only seen in two dimensions.
For the next several years, the "Peanuts" gang in animated form appeared not only in television commercials for the Ford Falcon, but also in the opening and closing credits for Tennessee Ernie Ford's variety show, which aired weekly on NBC and was, of course, sponsored by Ford.
We All Know That Christmas Is a Big Commercial Racket
In 1963, San Francisco-based documentary producer Lee Mendelson was looking to follow up on his recent film "A Man Called Mays," about San Francisco Giants star outfielder Willie Mays. At the time, Charlie Brown's baseball woes were a frequent topic for humor in the "Peanuts" strip, so when Mendelson decided that he should do a documentary on a subject who was the opposite of Mays, a bad baseball player, he immediately thought of Charlie Brown. He sold Schulz on the idea; it no doubt helped that Schulz was a fan of his "hometown" team, the Giants, and liked the Mays documentary.
Since the mockumentary form had yet to be developed, Mendelson found it a little hard to actually do a documentary on a fictional character. What emerged, although it was titled "A Boy Named Charlie Brown," was an hour-long documentary about the "Peanuts" strip as a whole, as well as its creator Charles Schulz. The live action interviews, footage of Schulz at his drawing board, and so on, were broken up by scenes newly animated by Bill Melendez, for the first time able to bring the "Peanuts" characters to life for more than 30 seconds or a minute at a time. For the musical score, Mendelson used several original tunes by San Francisco-based jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, performed by his trio.
Mendelson shopped the completed film around to the TV networks, none of which wanted to show it, and to various ad agencies, none of which wanted to sponsor it. It was a documentary about a shy cartoonist and some cartoon kids with big heads, and it didn't really fit in with the TV airwaves full of Westerns and sitcoms.
The "Peanuts" comic strip was surging in popularity, though, and then, on a Friday in May 1965, Mendelson got a call from a Coca-Cola account executive at the McCann-Erickson agency, and the conversation went something like this:
Account executive: Hey, that thing about Charlie Brown you did? Loved it. Listen, the guys at Coke really liked the animated parts. They want to sponsor a half-hour Christmas special like that this year. You got anything?
Mendelson (lying): Uh, sure.
Account executive: Great. Can I see an outline first thing Monday morning?
Mendelson: Uh, sure.
Mendelson paid an emergency visit to Schulz, and the two worked on the outline and the script all weekend. Coca-Cola approved, and the special went into production at a furious pace in order to have it ready to air December.
Gee, Do They Still Make Wooden Christmas Trees?
The script Schulz wrote for what came to be called "A Charlie Brown Christmas" drew heavily on his experiences growing up in Minneapolis. Therefore, there was ice skating, there were snowballs, and there was a Christmas pageant. He also incorporated various popular items from the comic strip, such as Lucy's "psychiatric help" booth, Schroeder's toy piano, Linus's security blanket. Even a current fad was incorporated, namely, the aluminum Christmas tree.
Most of the characters who were then regularly appearing in "Peanuts" made the cut, including Shermy, Pig Pen, Violet, and a certain pair of twin girls in purple dresses and a boy in an orange shirt. They were characters named 3, 4, and 5, respectively, siblings whose father had protested against the increasing use of numbers in daily life by changing the family surname to a ZIP code and everyone's first names to a one-digit number. Although they were in and out of the strip fairly quickly, once Schulz had wrung all the social commentary he could out of them, they happened to be in the right place at the right time and were plucked from the strip to serve as "atmosphere" in group scenes in the special.
Of course, the most popular character in "Peanuts," Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy, also appeared in the special. Throughout the run of "Peanuts," he had gradually been acting less and less doglike, and by 1965, it was well established that he walked on his hind legs and could at least think in English, if not speak. Snoopy's thoughts were easy to depict in the comic strip, in the conventional cloud-shaped-balloon-with-text-inside format, but that posed a problem in the animation. So in the special, he did most of his acting in pantomime, albeit with a few sounds provided by Bill Melendez himself, sped up to a higher pitch.
The plot and theme of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" were the result of Schulz's devout Christianity. Thus, Charlie Brown's search for meaning in the middle of Christmas commercialism didn't result in him learning about "friends and family," or "'tis better to give than to receive"; no, he learned that Christmas was a celebration of the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
Mendelson, Melendez, and the animation staff managed to finish the show on time, although a few animation mistakes were left in (most notably a constantly shifting number of branches on the little wooden Christmas tree). Coca-Cola and McCann-Erickson reviewed the finished product and approved, and then it went to the network on which it would air, CBS.
CBS didn't like it. At the time, animation on prime time television meant ABC's "The Flintstones," which followed a fairly conventional sitcom structure (with a laugh track, even) and was underscored by generic cartoon music. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" had Vince Guaraldi's jazzy versions of Christmas carols; it contained words and phrases little kids might not understand, such as "real estate" and "ailurophasia"; it had children doing the voices of children, which was almost unheard of at the time in animation; and it was not only anti-commercial, it was pro-Christian, even featuring a direct quote from the King James version of the New Testament (Luke 2:8-14).
However, since the "sponsor-controlled" model of prime-time television was still in effect, Coca-Cola basically owned the half hour of CBS's air time, and CBS couldn't complain too loudly. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" premiered at 8:00 PM Eastern time on December 9, 1965.
That Beautiful Sound of Clinking Nickels
Despite CBS's concerns, the popularity of the "Peanuts" comic strip led to high Nielsen ratings for the show. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" turned out to be the Number 2 show of the week, behind only an episode of "Bonanza" on NBC, garnering a 45% of the people who were watching TV at the time it was on. Probably of equal importance, precious few complaints came in to the network about the religious content.
Coca-Cola and CBS quickly commissioned more "Peanuts" specials from Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez, and there followed "Charlie Brown's All-Stars," "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," and on and on. Mendelson and Melendez even managed to reuse some of the content of the documentary "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" in a 1969 special called "Charlie Brown and Charlie Schulz," and reused the title for a feature film that same year.
During 1966, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was awarded the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program of the 1965-66 television season, as well as a Peabody Award for being "a little gem of a show" that "was a delight for the whole family."
The special was repeated that December, and every year since, always to fairly strong ratings. Slight edits were made in the late 1960s to take out the original sponsorship announcements ("Merry Christmas from your local Coca-Cola bottler"), as well as a brief scene of Linus hitting a Coca-Cola billboard after being thrown off the ice by Snoopy. These portions of the show were apparently lost forever; nobody could find them to include on the DVD release of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in the late 1990s.
As the amount of commercial time in prime-time television increased, a few other edits were made in the show, most notably a scene of some of the characters trying to throw snowballs at a tin can on a fence. To some fanfare, CBS restored those portions to the show when it was broadcast in 1997, allowing it to run over its time slot by a couple of minutes.
Following Schulz's death in 2000, instead of getting its broadcast rights to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" almost automatically renewed as usual, CBS found itself outbid by ABC. CBS grumbled about tradition and loyalty, but ABC had sold Schulz's heirs and business partners on a package deal that also included the rights to "It's the Great Pumpkin" and "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving."
For ABC's first broadcast of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," in 2001, they packaged it as an hour-long special. The first 35 minutes was the "restored" version of the show, and the rest of the hour was a "making of" documentary hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. ABC aired it on Thursday, December 6, at 8:00 Eastern, and it pulled in surprisingly good ratings, even despite the competition of "Friends" and "Survivor." When it was repeated nine days later on a Sunday night against weaker competition, the ratings were even better.
ABC continued with the hour-long format in 2002, but this year, the rest of the hour was filled with new animation, in the form of a series of vignettes based on Christmas-themed "Peanuts" comic strips, under the title "Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales."
Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" will probably continue to run on television until viewers can no longer relate to this exchange between Charlie Brown and his sister Sally:
"I've been looking for you, big brother. Will you please write a letter to Santa Claus for me?"
"Well, I don't have much time. I'm supposed to get down to the school auditorium and direct a Christmas play."
"You write it, and I'll tell you what I want to say."
"Dear Santa Claus -- How have you been? How is your wife? I have been extra good this year. That's why I have a long list of presents that I want."
"Please note the size and color of each item and send as many as possible. If it seems too complicated, make it easy on yourself -- just send money. How about tens and twenties?"
"Tens and twenties? Oh! Even my baby sister!"
"All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share."