Charlie Brown Christmas

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I know of two great Charles Schulz biographies. One is by David Michaelis and came out very recently. Another, by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, came out in 1989 while Schulz was still alive. I've read and own Johnson's, but have read only snips of the newer volume. It was covered fairly extensively on many of the illustration blogs that I follow. (For the non-readers, there's Charlie Rose's interview of Schulz on YouTube; Schulz is about 20 minutes in...)

Before starring in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, the gang appeared in animated form in Ford television commercials. I don't remember them at all. The spots had been animated by Bill Melendez, once an animator with Disney and then Warner Brothers. Shultz respected the man for his ability to stay true to the spirit of his characters and asked that he be the one to animate Charlie Brown in animated snips to be included in a biographic documentary being filmed of Schulz by Lee Mendelson. The documentary A Boy Named Charlie Brown also included the music of Cast Your Fate to the Wind jazz pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi. Guaraldi wrote Linus and Lucy originally for the Mendelson documentary then used it again when he scored the Charlie Brown Christmas special for Mendelson.

I love the quietness in the Christmas film. There are moments when it seems that the sound has been turned off. The jazz, the delicate line, the gentle voices, all make the film memorable. For me, the colors could have been toned down a bit, though, in the end it's good that they followed a singular vision, didn't listen to critics, and waited till the last moment to present it...

Quotes from the two biographies help describe the specialness of the special, and point out how close it came to not being the show we love:
From Good Grief, pp.193

The jazz of Vince Guaraldi audibly marked the feature as adult fare, whereas cartoon specials in the past had targeted children exclusively. The traditional laughter soundtrack was left out at Schultz's insistence. Important too was the "voice" of the film. Charles Schulz was not and is not the voice of Charlie Brown. People often ask. Children did all the talking.

and from Schulz and Peanuts, pp.358, 359:

A week before the show was to air Mendelson delivered Melendez' first print to Coca-Cola and CBS. In a screening room at network headquarters in New York, two CBS vice presidents watched the show in silence. "Neither of them laughed once," Mendelson recalled. When the lights came on, the executives shook their heads and shrugged. "Well," said one, "you gave it a good try." "It seems a little flat," said the other. "Too slow," said the first, "and the script is too innocent." "The Bible thing scares us," said the other. The animation was crude-couldn't it be jazzed up a bit? The voice talent was unprofessional-they should've used adults. The music didn't fit-who ever heard of a jazz score on an animated special? And where were the laughs?"

Almost half the people in the United States tuned in-some fifteen and a half million households-and found themselves breaking out in gooseflesh as Linus walked in silence to center stage, dragging his blanket, called out, "Lights please?," and filled the auditorium with his clear recitation of the Gospel's tidings of great joy to all people.

(Michaelis, on page 359 in Schulz and Peanuts, claims the premiere of the Charlie Brown special preempted The Munsters at 7:30 on a Thursday night. Johnson, on page 193 of Good Grief says it preempted The Beverly Hillbillies. I wish I could recall. Wikipedia says it was The Munsters; or is that just where Michaelis did his research? In '65, the Hillbillies were on Wednesdays at 8:30. Maybe Johnson is wrong? Damn life's mysteries.)

4 Comments

Cole said:

Thanks for the background! All I know is that growing up we never missed this special ... I remember the way we'd all be allowed to stay up a little later when it was on to watch. It is honestly one of the only things we always (and the Great Pumpkin) did as a family that revolved around TV. We didn't really watch a whole lot when I was little (and still don't in my house to this day with our children).

I felt very at odds with my decision to bring it in for the staff meeting. I watched it on the couch with Madeline the other night while Kristin was putting Max to bed and the purity of our shared laughter and the messages behind it seemed to talk to me differently this year. Maybe it is the fact that I am seeing Christmas through the eyes of wonder my children bring to it or maybe I am reflecting on things differently. Certainly it is all related.

EIther way, I hope it was received with the spirit that I presented it with. I just felt like sharing a different kind of moment with everyone.

dave said:

I hope you told Madeline you shared it at a staff meeting!
I wish we could end every meeting with a cartoon.

Derick Burns said:

I think my two favorite quotes from Charlie Brown are "I've killed it" and "I got a rock." Three words each that exemplify Charlie Brown's uphill struggle with daily life.

dave said:

They're classics! I've had a few side conversations, too; Charlie Brown touched a lot of people. At least we can imagine the best for the guy. I wonder how long the original strips will be considered relevant when parents watch with kids saying, "I used to watch this with your grandfather. It really made his eyes sparkle!"?

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