The Golden Gate Bridge, Willie Mays, and the Inspiration For ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’
By Ken Zurski
In 1965, while traveling by taxi over the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, television producer Lee Mendelson heard a single version of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” a Grammy Award winning jazz song written and composed by a local musician named Vince Guaraldi.
Mendelson liked what he heard and contacted the jazz columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Can you put me in touch with Guaraldi? he asked.
Mendelson was a producer at KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco at the time and had just produced a successful documentary on Giants outfielder Willie Mays. “For some reason it popped into my mind that we had done the world’s greatest baseball player and we should now do a documentary on the world’s worst player, Charlie Brown” Mendelson explained.
“I called Charles Schulz, and he had seen the [Willie Mays] show and liked it.” Mendelson’s mind raced with ideas. That’s when he took a taxi over the idyllic Golden Gate Bridge and was inspired by the music on the radio. Why not score the documentary with jazz music? he thought.
Mendelson called Guaraldi, introduced himself, and asked him if he was interested in scoring a TV special. Guaraldi told him he would give it a go. Several weeks later, Mendelson received a call. It was Guaraldi. I want you to hear something, the composer explained , and performed a version of “Linus and Lucy” over the phone.
Mendelson liked what he heard.
But the documentary never aired. “There was no place for it,” Mendelson said. “We couldn’t sell it to anybody.” Two years later soft drink giant Coca Cola contacted Mendelson and inquired about sponsoring a “Peanuts” Christmas special. “I called Mr. Schulz and I said ‘I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and he said ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘Something you’re gonna write tomorrow.”
Mendelson decided to use Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” which had already been composed for the documentary. “The show just evolved from those original notes,” Mendelson described.
The rest is musical animation perfection.
Over the next 10 years, Guaraldi would score numerous “Peanuts” television specials, plus the feature film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.” Then in 1976, it sadly ended. In a break during a live performance at Menlo Park , California, Guaraldi died from an apparent heart attack. He was 47
Although Guaraldi was working on another “Peanuts” special at the time of his death, his first score, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” is still his most famous and most popular work.
The soundtrack released shortly after the special in 1965 and reissued in several formats since, remains one of the top selling Christmas albums of all-time.
(Sources: Animation Magazine – Lee Mendelson, Producer of This is America, Charlie Brown and all of the other Peanuts primetime specials – Sarah Gurman June 1st, 2006; various internet sites).