Monday, December 23, 2019

A Charlie Brown Christmas

In the history of American television there have been only three animated specials that aired uninterrupted on the broadcast networks since their debut. One is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which has aired every year since its debut in 1964. Another is Frosty the Snowman, which has aired every year since 1969. Four years before Frosty the Snowman there debuted another of the three specials that have aired every year on a broadcast network without interruption. A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on December 9 1965. It has aired every year on a broadcast network ever since. In fact, the past several years it has aired multiple times each holiday season.

The origins of A Charlie Brown Christmas go back to a never completed documentary on cartoonist Charles M. Schulz and his comic strip Peanuts. By the late Fifties and early Sixties Peanuts was a veritable phenomenon, easily the most successful comic strip in the world. Having just completed work on a documentary on baseball player Willy Mays, producer Lee Mendelson decided that Charles M. Schulz would be the subject of his next documentary. To provide animation of the Peanuts characters in the documentary, Lee Mendelson turned to animator Bill Melendez. Bill Melendez had already animated the Peanuts gang in a series of commercials for Ford Motor Company that started airing in 1959 and ran into the early Sixties.

Despite the popularity of Peanuts, Lee Mendelson was not able to interest any of the broadcast networks in the documentary. It was after Peanuts was featured on the April 9, 1965 cover of Time that John Allen, an account executive with the McCann Erickson Agency, called Lee Mendelson with a proposal of an animated Peanuts special to be sponsored by McCann Erickson's client Coca-Cola for the Christmas season. Lee Mendelson and Charles M. Schulz had to move on the proposal quickly. Mr. Allen had made the call on a Wednesday and Coca-Cola wanted an outline for the special by the following Monday. The two of them got to work on the outline right away, with the majority of ideas coming from Charles M. Schulz.  The outline was ultimately created in less than a cay. After they had made their pitch for the special, they heard nothing for several days. John Allen finally contacted them, letting them know that Coca-Cola had approved the special, but they wanted it ready for an early December broadcast. This gave them only six months to produce the special.

Charles M. Schulz then got to work on the writing the teleplay for the special. The teleplay not only included holiday-oriented scenes of ice skating, snow, and a Christmas play, but also Linus reading about Jesus Christ's birth from the Bible. This last scene concerned Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez, who were concerned that religion could be a controversial topic on American television in 1965. Mr. Schulz held firm that Linus's reading from the Bible remain in the special, pointing out that very few Christmas specials referenced religion at all.

In the end, the teleplay was completed in a matter of weeks and the special began to take shape. Lee Mendelson suggested that the special use a laugh track, which was common on many animated television cartoons of the era (particularly those of Hanna-Barbera). Charles M. Schulz rejected the laugh track out of hand, feeling that audiences did not have to told when to laugh. It was decided that the music for the special would be a mixture of jazz and traditional Christmas music, along with Schroeder playing Beethoven just as he did in the comic strip. The original jazz music for the special was composed by Vince Guaraldi and performed by The Vince Guaraldi Trio. Mr. Guaraldi had previously had a hit with his 1962 composition  "Cast Your Fate to the Wind."

A unique approach was taken to casting. Not only were children cast in the lead roles, but primarily non-actors at that. The only character not voiced by a child was Snoopy, who was voiced by Bill Melendez himself. Mr. Melendez created gibberish for Snoopy to utter, then sped it up. As to the voice of Charlie Brown, Peter Robbins had provided the voice of Charlie Brown in Lee Mendelson's unfinished documentary and had already appeared on such shows as The Munsters, The Farmer's Daughter, and The Joey Bishop Show prior to A Charlie Brown Christmas. He would voice Charlie Brown in several more specials, the last being It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown in 1969. If anything, Tracy Stratford, the voice of Lucy, had even more experience than Peter Robbins did. She had guest starred on Bonanza and Ben Casey before playing the regular role of Maria Massey on The New Loretta Young Show. Before A Charlie Brown Christmas she would also guest star on such shows as The Twilight Zone, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Fugitive.

Of course the animation was provided by Lee Melendez. Initially CBS had wanted an hour-long special. Mr. Melendez talked them out of it, not only believing an hour long animated special was too much, but harbouring his own doubts that even a half hour of animation could be completed in six months. Fortunately, the animation was completed in only four months. CBS had budgeted A Charlie Brown Christmas at $76,000 and it went over by $20,000.

As to the title, A Charlie Brown Christmas, it must be pointed out that Charles M. Schulz hated the title Peanuts. The origins of Peanuts go back to Charles M. Schulz's single panel comic strip that ran weekly in the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1947 to 1950, Li'l Folks. When Charles M. Schulz submitted a revised version of Li'l Folks as a multi-panel comic strip to United Features Syndicate, the Syndicate had planned to use the title Li'l Folks. Unfortunately, objections were raised by cartoonist Tack Knight, who felt the title was too close to his early Thirties comic strip Little Folks. As a result, United Features Syndicate sought to come up with another name for the new comic strip. Ultimately, a production manager of United Features Syndicate came up with the name Peanuts, drawing upon the child audience of the TV show Howdy Doody who were seated in "the Peanut Gallery." Charles Schulz hated the title, maintaining that it made no sense unless the comic strip featured a character named "Peanuts." It is for that reason that none of the Peanuts specials ever used the comic strip's name in their titles.

 In the end A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed only ten days before it was set to be broadcast. The special's production team had mixed feelings about what they had produced. Bill Melendez was convinced that they had produced a flop. Lee Mendelson also had his doubts about the special. While Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson thought they had killed Charlie Brown, animator Ed Levitt disagreed. He said, "This show is going to run for a hundred years." 

Messrs. Melendez and Mendelson's doubts about the show were nothing compared to the reaction of CBS executives. The CBS executives thought the pace of A Charlie Brown Christmas was too slow. They did not like special's jazz score. They did not like the voices. Bill Mendelson later said of the executive's reactions, "I really believed, if it hadn't been scheduled for the following week, there's no way they were gonna broadcast that show."

Fortunately, there was one very important person  who not only disagreed with the executives, but signalled that A Charlie Brown Christmas would be well received. The CBS executives had invited critic Richard Burgheim of Time to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. His review, which was published in the December 10 1965 issue of Time, was extremely positive. He called it "...a special that is really special." Most critics were in agreement with Richard Burgheim. Fortunately, most critics agreed with Richard Burgheim, so that in the end A Charlie Brown Christmas earned overwhelmingly positive review. The audience also agreed with Richard Burgheim.  Fifteen millions viewers tuned into A Charlie Brown Christmas.  It placed second in the ratings for the week, beaten only by no. 1 show Bonanza. Not only would A Charlie Brown Christmas proved to be a hit with critics and viewers alike, but it also won awards. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program and a Peabody for excellence in programming.

With such success A Charlie Brown Christmas would have a lasting impact. Its most immediate effect was that CBS ordered four more Peanuts specials (one of which was another major success and soon-to-be-classic, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown). In the end over thirty specials would air on CBS alone, with yet more Peanuts specials airing on other networks.

Also immediate was the way in which the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas became a part of the American holiday tradition The soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas was released in December 1965 by Fantasy Records. The album proved to be a success, as did the song "Christmas Time is Here."

One immediate effect of A Charlie Brown Christmas was also unexpected. Starting in 1958 aluminium Christmas trees proved to be all the rage. At the peak of the aluminium trees' popularity, the primary manufacturer of the tree, Aluminum Specialties, employed 750 people to make them. Unfortunately for the manufacturers of aluminium Christmas trees, A Charlie Brown Christmas was in large part a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, and in the special's plot the aluminium tree was used as a symbol of that commercialization. In fact, Charlie Brown chose a rather scraggy real tree rather than an aluminium one. The special's impact was immediate. Still selling phenomenally well in 1965, by 1967 aluminium trees had very nearly disappeared from the market.

While A Charlie Brown Christmas was the template for all Peanuts specials to come, it would also have an impact on animated Christmas specials to come. According to Charles Solomon in The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas "..established the half-hour animated special." It is to be noted that the two major animated Christmas specials before A Charlie Brown ChristmasMr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, were an hour long. Following A Charlie Brown Christmas, there would be such half-hour holiday specials as  How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969), and many others. While the majority of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated specials and Air Programs' 1969 animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol were an hour long, they were the exceptions to the rule.

A Charlie Brown Christmas and the other Peanuts specials would also have a lasting influence on various artists to come. Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo (2003) and  WALL-E (2008),, among other animated films, has acknowledged the influence of the Peanuts specials on his work. Pete Docter, who directed Monsters Inc. (2001), Up (2009), and other animated films, also credits the Peanuts specials with influencing his work. The music of A Charlie Brown Christmas has influenced such diverse music artists as Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and jazz pianist David Benoit.

There would also be other spinoffs from A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has never gone out of print since 1965. Various manufacturers would eventually begin making "Charlie Brown Christmas trees," replicas of the scraggly tree Charlie Brown chose for the school play. In 2013 Tams-Witmark Music Library, which provides licenses to Broadway productions to both professional and amateur theatres, began licensing a stage version of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

In the end it is impossible to completely calculate the entirety of the impact of A Charlie Brown Christmas. A smash hit upon its initial release, A Charlie Brown Christmas has received extremely high ratings ever since. It would have a lasting impact not only upon television, but upon artists in various media and even on the celebration of the holiday of Christmas itself. Few, if any animated specials, have ever had the impact of A Charlie Brown Christmas.


Jon said...

Thanks for a nice look back at a pioneering Christmas special. Lucy was voiced by Tracy Stratford (not Stafford), and I've seen her in lots of 1960s shows like TWILIGHT ZONE & DICK VAN DYKE SNOW. This show is now more than halfway to the 100 years that the critic expected the show to be on tv.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the correction, Jon! Autocorrect had struck again.