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Bless the Blockhead 

How A Charlie Brown Christmas almost wasn't, then became a tradition

Wednesday, Dec 6 2000
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Christmastime is here, but for the first time, Charlie Brown's father will not be around to watch his depressed, round-headed child celebrate the holiday. He will not be in front of the television next week to watch his little boy seek psychiatric help from a nickel-grubbing girl who diagnoses her patient with pantophobia, "the fear of everything." He will not see his child open a mailbox to find emptiness instead of good wishes; he will not watch his boy direct the Christmas play or buy the world's scrawniest, loneliest little Christmas tree. And he will not hear his son's best friend deliver a lisped speech about the true meaning of Christmas: "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill toward men."

For the first time in 35 years, Charles M. Schulz will not be here to usher in A Charlie Brown Christmas, the most beloved, contemplative, and melancholy holiday special ever aired on network television. And for those who knew, worked with, and loved the Peanuts creator, the holiday loses just a little bit of its joy.

"For all of us, it's going to be very sad," says Lee Mendelson, the man with whom Charles Schulz -- whom Mendelson still fondly refers to as Sparky -- made nearly 50 Charlie Brown specials, the first of which came in 1965 with A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Of course, the spirit will still be there. He has his own piece of immortality now, and he had it through the comic strip; he didn't need the show. But whenever there are polls taken asking people what their favorite animated Christmas TV show is, they usually pick A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is gratifying, and we get tons of mail every year. It's the one time our family sits around and enjoys something together. As they say, the beat goes on, and the music goes on, and for a show we thought was gonna be on once, it never ends.

"I think Schulz finally summed it up best. About 30 years ago, he said, "There will always be an audience for innocence in this country. I don't care what comes along, and there will be room for everything, but there will always be an audience for innocence.' It's the innocence of that show that is probably why it has sustained so well. It's the simplicity of it. But when we started working on it, Sparky wondered if anyone would even watch it. He used to say he was a humble egotist, so he went back and forth between humility and egoism all the time. Little did we dream it would take off like this."

It would not be overstatement or revisionist history to say that without the 67-year-old Mendelson, who has just written the book A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, there would have been no show at all. In 1963, Mendelson -- then a documentarian responsible for a film about Willie Mays -- contacted Schulz about making a similar half-hour film about the cartoonist and his "children"; Mendelson thought he should follow up a film about the world's greatest baseball player with one about the world's worst. Mendelson, working with animator Bill Melendez, created a show titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which featured music by jazzer Vince Guaraldi (who played piano as though his fingers were snowflakes) and a few minutes of animation. To the amazement of the three men, all the networks passed; no one wanted Charlie Brown. The blockhead who would never kick the football once more crashed to earth with a humiliating thud.

But in April 1965, Time magazine featured the Peanuts cast on its cover, and shortly after the magazine appeared, Mendelson received a phone call from John Allen, the head of the New York-based McCann Erickson ad agency. Allen had seen and liked the 1963 documentary, and he asked Mendelson if he and Schulz could put together a Christmas special for one of his clients, Coca-Cola. The problem was, Coke wanted to air the special in December, which gave Schulz, Mendelson, and Melendez only a few months to write, animate, and score the show.

In May 1965, he and Schulz sat down to write an outline for the show. Schulz had only one request: "Whatever we do," he told Mendelson, "somehow I want to have this show express to people what I think is the true meaning of Christmas." In three hours' time, they had penned a rough draft that contained these basic plot points: a Christmas play, a reading from the Bible, a skating scene, and a little fir tree. They would never waver from their original outline -- something Mendelson had forgotten until he began working on the book with Schulz and Melendez last summer, shortly before Schulz's death on February 12 of this year from colon cancer.

"Sparky thought about what was the opposite of the true meaning of Christmas, and that was commercialism," Mendelson says. "We were both living in California, but since he grew up in St. Paul, he said, "We need some winter scenes.' I also mentioned I had read "The Little Fir Tree' by Hans Christian Andersen, and we wanted to do something with a tree. Then he said, "Maybe we can do a school play,' because he had been mortified in some school play when he was a kid, and I had been one of the wise men, if you can believe it, in the sixth grade, and when I went to make my speech, the star hanging over me fell and hit me on the head and ruined the play, so I knew what that was all about."

But when the show was completed, CBS-TV executives hated it. They thought it was too slow, they disliked Guaraldi's score, and they were uncomfortable with using the voice of children instead of adults. They also fretted about the scene in which Linus recites from the Bible; no way that would fly on network TV. For a moment, the network considered burying the special altogether; it would suffer the same fate as its documentary predecessor, from which Mendelson lifted much of the Christmas special's music (including Guaraldi's composition "Linus and Lucy," otherwise known as "Charlie Brown's Theme").

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky

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