Thursday, October 27, 2016

The 50th Anniversary of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

It was fifty years ago today, on October 27 1966, that the Halloween special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown debuted on CBS. It was actually the third of the Peanuts specials to air, after A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965 and Charlie Brown's All-Stars earlier in 1966. Alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas it would arguably become the most popular of the Peanuts television specials. Along with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman, it is one of the very few holiday specials that has aired every single year since the Sixties.

As anyone familiar with the comic strip Peanuts knows, the Great Pumpkin is a mythical figure associated with Halloween (not unlike Santa Claus and Christmas) in whom Linus is his only believer. The first reference to the Great Pumpkin was in the Peanuts comic strip for October 26 1959, almost exactly seven years before the TV special debuted. In the comic strip Lucy catches Linus writing and asks him what he is doing. Linus informs her that he is writing to the Great Pumpkin and telling him what he wants for Halloween. He goes onto say that the Great Pumpkin loves children and he could see the Great Pumpkin now rising from the pumpkin patch with his bag of toys. The Great Pumpkin proved to be a rather popular, recurring joke in Peanuts, with Linus the only person who believed in him over the years. When it came time to produce a Peanuts special for Halloween, it should not have been surprising that the Great Pumpkin would play the central role in its plot.

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown would not only be historic as the first time in the Peanuts TV specials in which the Great Pumpkin was referenced. It was also historic as the first TV special that portrayed Snoopy's recurring fantasy of fighting the Red Baron, a running joke that had been introduced only a little over a year before the special aired (on October 10 1965).

One of the most memorable comic bits in the special would also enter popular culture--Charlie Brown receiving rocks in his trick-or-treat bag. Charles Schulz had wanted Charlie Brown to receive a rock at one of the houses he visited.  Bill Melendez thought it would be better if it happened three times. Executive producer Lee Mendelson didn't approve of the idea at all. Ultimately Lee Mendelson was outvoted and the special portrays Charlie Brown getting a rock in his trick-or-treat bag three times, each time exclaiming, "I got a rock." Viewers were very sympathetic to Charlie's plight. After the special's first airing candy came in from around the world just for Charlie Brown.

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown aired on CBS for 34 years. It was in 2001 that ABC got the rights to the Peanuts specials. Ever since then it has aired yearly on ABC. In both 2014 and 2015 ABC aired the special twice. It is airing twice again this year. 

Given its enormous popularity, it should come as no surprise that It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is frequently referenced in popular culture. In 2005 the stop motion animation sketch comedy show Robot Chicken featured a parody titled "O Great Pumpkin" as part of their episode "Vegetable Funfest". The Simpsons also included a parody of the Great Pumpkin, "It's the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse", as part of their annual "Treehouse of Horror" in 2008. The Great Pumpkin has been referenced in everything from the TV show Adam-12 to the sitcom Roseanne to the horror series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Earlier this month Lee Mendelson told the Washington Post, "Of the 50 prime-time specials we created with Charles Schulz, I believe It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is Bill Melendez’s animation masterpiece." It would seem that many TV viewers might well agree with him. As mentioned earlier, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has aired every single year since its debut in 1966. It was released on VHS and is available on DVD. After airing annually for fifty years, it seems that it will probably still be aired fifty years from now.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

My favourite bit is Snoopy's manipulation by Schroeder with the WWI tunes.