By Ken Zurski
When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was produced for television in 1965, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had one specific, but important directive. That the program be about something. Namely, he insisted, it be about the true spirit of Christmas. Otherwise, he said, “Why bother?
Of course, as we know now, Schulz had his way. Mostly lighthearted and inspirational, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is punctuated by its infectious original music, a catchy song, and the now iconic symbol of recognition and hopefulness: a seemingly lifeless little tree.
The highlight of the special , however, is a moving scene in which the Linus character, blanket in hand, stands on a spotlighted stage and explains the true meaning of Christmas. It includes a biblical passage from the Book of Luke.
Specifically, Luke 2: 8-14.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
When he is finished with that last line, Linus turns and address someone directly: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Linus’s words, like the special itself, has been charming audiences ever since.
Charming, however, was not the word CBS executives used when they first viewed the completed special. They hated it -– or just didn’t get it. The pacing was off, they thought, and the music was different: classical in parts, jazzy in others.
They considered scraping it altogether, but were committed to the time slot and soft drink giant Coca-Cola, the sponsor of the program. “This is probably going to be the last [Peanuts special],” one executive chirped. “But we got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it.”
The producers of the special were deflated by the network’s initial reaction. “We thought we’d ruined Charlie Brown,” one exclaimed. Until then, the only controversy among the writers was whether or not to include the use of an actual biblical verse in an animated special. Behind the scenes, executives thought it might alienate viewers. Schulz again insisted. “If we don’t do it,” he said “who will.” Coca-Cola gave their blessing too. Today the scene is still considered, as one producer described it, as “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation.”
Linus’s speech is also credited to the child actor who provided the voice. Before the special, Peanuts characters had only been heard in a Ford Commercial. The producers wanted them all to be voiced by children. Christopher Shea was only 8 years old at the time. He had the most innocent sounded voice and was tapped for the Linus character. His measured, straightforward reading is considered legendary. “It’s one of the most amazing moments ever in animation,” raved Peter Robbins, the original voice for Charlie Brown. Robbin’s voice was picked for Charlie Brown because it sounded “blah.”
Even though CBS thought it would only run for a year and be forgotten, once it was in the public consciousness, attitudes changed. Instantly, people began talking about it. The next year, the special won a Peabody award and an Emmy for Outstanding Christmas Programming. A lasting tribute to Charles Schulz original vision that it be about something – – something with a message.
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).