'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Special Made Unlikely Debut 45 Years Ago
By Beverly Gherman Posted Dec 7th 2010 06:00PM
Charles Schulz, known by his friends and family as Sparky, drew his 'Peanuts' comic strip every single day beginning in October of 1950. Once television became popular, kids wrote to Sparky begging him to put Snoopy and the 'Peanuts' kids on TV. For 10 years Sparky wrote back, saying, "Never," his strip would never be on TV. Then Sparky noticed his five children enjoyed watching kids' programs and he became intrigued with the idea that maybe, just maybe, he could tell an interesting, televised story about his 'Peanuts' kids. Read on >>
Lee Mendelson, a local producer, told Sparky he had sold a Christmas show that could be animated by Bill Melendez. Sparky took his time, trying to decide whether they could pull off a good TV special. Finally, he said yes, he would do the show, but only if they let him have things his own way.
Sparky wanted the show to represent the true meaning of Christmas as he saw it. He didn't want a raucous laugh track like other shows used. He insisted they would employ real child actors, not merely adults who sounded like kids. And the last thing he wanted was to use traditional Christmas music. Mendelson and Melendez tried not to fight with Sparky over any of these choices. The producers agreed to all Sparky's wishes at first, hoping he wouldn't walk away from the idea.
Gradually, Sparky was willing to consider using Vince Guaraldi's jazz music written especially for the show. It was called 'Linus and Lucy,' and the sophisticated style made a tremendous difference in how warmly the audience responded to the program.
Meanwhile, Sparky wrote a simple script in which Charlie Brown searches for the meaning of Christmas and finds it when Linus stands up and recites the story of the Christ child's birth, using the Gospel of St. Luke to stress "peace and good will toward men."
On Thursday, Dec. 9, 1965, more than 15 million American households watched the first 'Peanuts' television special. It was said that the audience broke out in gooseflesh as Linus walked in silence to the center stage, dragging his blanket. "Lights, please," he called out, his gentle voice beginning to recite the gospel's tidings. Linus spoke for a whole minute. His stirring rendition of the Nativity scene is, in a word, unforgettable.
Linus completes his explanation by saying quietly, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." Then all the children help Charlie Brown decorate his skinny little fir tree, which is almost falling to the ground. Suddenly, the frail tree rises magically to stand tall.
The following day, CBS executives were relieved. They had worried about the religious content of the show and expected angry phone calls and letters from the public. Instead, they discovered, "all heaven broke loose." People said they were touched by the simple story and loved the original music. Newspaper critics wrote positive reviews. They found the quiet animation perfect for Sparky's characters and declared the program a classic after that very first showing.
With such success, CBS asked Sparky to create four more television programs. CBS president Frank Stanton said Sparky was a "pure cartoonist" and it was time that he brought his talent to the television screen as well as the daily newspaper. Soon there would be 'It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,' 'Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown,' 'A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,' and many more TV specials.
The special eventually received a George Foster Peabody Award and an Emmy. When Sparky appeared to receive the Emmy, he said, "Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you."
Beverly Gherman has written biographies about authors, dancers, presidents, scientists, and artists. She is the author of Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz.
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