Some of the best characters of Christmas were developed from the real-life experiences of their creators. It was true of Dickens, whose Ghost of Christmas Present reflected his own enthusiasm for Christmas and his political views. And it was true of Charles Schulz, who put the Charlie in Charlie Brown.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1922, Charles Monroe Schulz was about as average an American as a boy could get. He was shy. He loved to draw. And he loved comic strips.
In fact, his nickname – Sparky – was taken from a character in a beloved comic strip of his youth. The name was given to him by his uncle while Schulz was quite young – and those closed to him up until his death called him Sparky.
Those few character traits about a man who would come to be considered a creative genius generations later go far to explain how much of himself landed in his classic comic strip, Peanuts, and why he connected so easily to his readers.
Schulz himself was the model for the central character of the strip, Charlie Brown. When he was in first grade, his mother helped him get valentines for everybody in his class, so that nobody would be offended by not getting one; but he felt too shy to put them in the box at the front of the classroom, so he took them all home again to his mother.
That story, and countless regular human emotions and stories like it, were continuously conveyed in his comic strip that he vowed would outlive him. He was nearly right: the last Peanuts strip ran just a few hours after Charles Schulz passed away in the year 2000.
Schulz’ impact on Christmas is measured not by his work in print but for his animated Christmas television special that almost never saw the light of day.
In 1963 television producer Lee Mendelson produced a documentary on Schulz, who had emerged in American pop culture due to the successful run of Peanuts, a comic strip featuring the now familiar characters of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and gang. That documentary featured a 2-minute animated segment of Peanut characters brought to life by Disney animator Bill Melendez. Set to original music composed by Vince Guaraldi the animated clip was the foundation for what others hoped would be a jump of Charlie Brown and gang from the newspaper comic pages to American television.
The documentary never went anywhere but visionary advertisers at Coca-Cola saw the beauty of an animated Charlie Brown and asked Mendelson if Schulz could craft a Peanuts Christmas special for TV.
Mendelson nonchalantly agreed it could be done and in rushed fashion he and Schulz crafted an outline for what would become A Charlie Brown Christmas. Working by the seat of their pants they tossed out ideas for what Christmas would be like for Charlie Brown. There was talk of a Christmas play, and a sad Christmas tree.
Charles Schulz insisted on one core purpose: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” had to be about something. Namely, the true meaning of Christmas. Otherwise, Schulz said, “Why bother doing it?”
Mendelson and Melendez asked Schulz whether he was sure he wanted to include Biblical text in the special. The cartoonist’s response, Mendelson recalls: “If we don’t do it, who will?”
It is important to note the distinction of the creative process behind the creation of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was commissioned by Coca-Cola, not CBS television. Schulz and Mendelson’s one-page outline proposal was thin on details that likely would have been rejected by the corporate-minded CBS. But Coke responded with a just a short telegram:
“CONFIRM SALE OF CHARLIE BROWN FOR CHRISTMAS TO COCA-COLA FOR DECEMBER BROADCAST AT YOUR TERMS WITH OPTION ON SECOND SHOW FOR NEXT SPRING. GOOD GRIEF!”
With just a few months to produce Schulz, Mendelson and animator Melendez put together a special that comprised of all the wrong elements necessary for a successful television special: There was not enough action. It moved too slow. The voices had been done by real kids, not adult actors. There was no laugh track. And Linus read from the Bible.
In short, the execs at CBS hated A Charlie Brown Christmas. But they had just a week to preview the special and a commitment to Coca-Cola to air it. It was scheduled with no expectations of success and great fears that it might, in fact, create a backlash of sorts for CBS.
They were wrong.
Half of America tuned in – and they loved it. A Charlie Brown Christmas drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after Bonanza. A few months later, Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson found themselves onstage accepting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program.
Like other Christmas classics A Charlie Brown Christmas has lived on for decades with seasonal re-runs on television. The special has been hacked by various network television editors seeking to stretch out commercial breaks and lessen controversial aspects. But the original, uncut version of A Charlie Brown Christmas is available on DVD, Blu-ray and via digital delivery means like Netflix, ensuring continued life to the visionary efforts of Charles Schulz.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is the Christmas Film Festival title for February 2013. Please join us at the Merry Forums of My Merry Christmas for discussion of this title.