Charlie Brown Christmas Special
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. Put me in touch with Guaraldi, he asked.
Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist, was born in 1928 in San Francisco to a musical family which included an uncle, Muzzy Marcellino, a singer known for his whistling. After serving a stint as a cook in the Korean War, Guaraldi returned to his studies as a musician and composer, contributing to several bands and projects in the Bay area.. He wrote and recorded his first original piece in 1953. Then in the 1960’s, Guaraldi, who was the conductor and composer of the Eucharist chorus in San Francisco, released several recordings of waltzes and jazz pieces including an original piece titled “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” That’s when a certain aforementioned TV producer heard the song while stuck in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mendelson called Guaraldi. He asked the composer to score a planned documentary of Charlie Brown, an idea Mendelson had after producing a successful documentary of San Fransico Giants baseball slugger Willie Mays. “Why not do a documentary on one of the worst baseball players,” Mendelson proposed, perhaps half jokingly, to Peanuts creator Charles Schultz. Schultz liked the idea, and gave the project a green light. Guaraldi enthusiastically agreed to come up with something musical for the documentary. Several weeks later, Mendelson received a call. It was Guaraldi who performed a version of “Linus and Lucy” to Mendelson over the phone.
When the documentary idea was scrapped, Mendelson picked the song and Guaraldi’s music to accompany a new Charlie Brown Christmas special to air on television in 1965.
It was, as they say, a perfect fit. But it wasn’t an easy sell. Network executives didn’t like the special it at first viewing and thought the jazzy score was odd and that people wouldn’t get it.
Regardless, the program aired as scheduled and became so popular that it was included each and every Christmas after that and quickly became the holiday television institution it still is to this day.
Over the next 10 years, Guaraldi would score 17 “Peanuts” television specials, plus the feature film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.” In 1976, while on tour and resting in between sets at a club in Menlo Park California, Guaraldi collapsed and died from an apparent aortic aneurysm. He was 47.
“It was totally unexpected, ” said Mendelson. “He was so young.”
During the funeral service, “Peanuts” music was played over the church’s sound system.
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.
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.