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"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown"

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown"

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Little Christmas, or Nollaig Bheag in the Irish language, is one of the traditional names in Ireland and Italy for January 6, more commonly known as the Epiphany. It is so called because it was, until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the day on which Christmas Day was celebrated. It is the traditional end of the Christmas season and the last day of the Christmas holidays for both Primary and Secondary schools.

For many families, Little Christmas is the day when the decorations finally come off the tree and get packed away for another year. And -- as for the tree itself -- it gets taken outside to the curb, where it's left for trash pick-up. Looking sad & bedraggled, with most of its needles gone at this point, the tree's now a dead ringer for the one that's featured in "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Speaking of that holiday special ...I have to tell you that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is my absolute favorite holiday special. Mostly because ... Well, truth be told, we're just lucky to have the thing.

You see, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" had an almost accidental birth. In 1963, Producer Lee Mendelson had just completed a documentary on the great Willie Mays, which aired on NBC. While reading a Peanuts strip and realizing the tremendous success of Charlie Brown & his pals, Mendelson thought it would be ironic if he went from producing something about the world's greatest ballplayer to something about the world's worst ballplayer - Charlie Brown.

So Lee got in touch with Charles Schulz, who was a big baseball fan. Schulz had seen Mendelson's Willie Mays special and was open to the idea of a documentary on Charlie Brown and the rest of his creations.

Lee had the notion to add a short amount of animation to his documentary. Short was all he could afford, about two minutes. Schulz, or Sparky as his friends knew him, suggested animator Bill Melendez. Melendez had a long history with none other than the Walt Disney Company working on some of the biggest films in Walt's canon such as "Bambi," "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia." Bill had also animated a series of commercials for Ford featuring the Peanuts characters, marking their first ever foray into animated form. Melendez was naturally on board and animated every other Peanuts special, film and commercial from that day forward.

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you'd like to see what one of these "Peanuts" TV commercials for Ford actually looked like, then you should head on over to Mark Evanier's terrific "Newsfromme" website. He's actually got a link up today to one of these ads which features another Ford. Tennessee Ernie, to be exact. Anyway ...

When filming of the documentary was finished, Mendelson realized he needed some music to complete the film. After hearing a jazz artist named Vince Guaraldi on the radio, Lee contacted him. Vince, it turned out, was a huge Peanuts fan and agreed to write some music for the documentary. A few weeks later Vince played Lee what would become his and Peanuts signature tune from that day forward, "Linus and Lucy," what most of us would probably call the "Peanuts Theme."

With all the pieces of the puzzle complete, Mendelson finished his documentary on Sparky & the Peanuts gang and began to shop it around to the networks and commercial sponsors. As Lee so eloquently put it, "In true Charlie Brown fashion, no one was interested."

After a year or so of no luck, Mendelson received a call from someone at a New York agency. He had seen the documentary and liked it, but was wondering if Lee and Schulz had any interest in doing a Christmas special. His client, Coca-Cola, was looking to sponsor a Christmas special and they needed an outline for said special in four days and needed production completed in just 6 months.

Without thinking or even asking Sparky, Mendelson said, "No problem." He phoned his friend and said they better get to work on a Charlie Brown Christmas show.

The next day, Schulz had a complete outline for the show. An outline which contained winter scenes, a school play, a scene read from the Bible, and a jazz and traditional music soundtrack. Basically, Schulz had the show down pat and, as we all know, it pretty much stayed that way through to the final edit.

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Several ideas flowed from Schulz's brilliant mind that day. There should be a tree that only Charlie could love. There shouldn't be any adult voices. There would be no laugh track. Snoopy couldn't talk, even though we could read his thoughts in the strips. It was animator Bill Melendez, who suggested that Snoopy have some sort of sounds. He spoke gibberish, sped up the tape and became the "voice" of Snoopy (and Woodstock) for the next 40 years.

Speaking of Melendez, this animation veteran from Mickey's and Bugs Bunny's worlds made sure, in his own words, not to "Disney-fy" Schulz's drawings. Instead, he chose a simple approach to animating the Peanuts gang. He really just wanted to move the strip and stick with Charles Schulz's style. To me, that speaks volumes about the respect that people in the animation and cartoon world had and still have for Charles Schulz. Here's a artist who worked with the biggies of the golden era of animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, choosing not to add his style to the Peanuts characters, choosing instead to stay as close to the original artists' style as possible.

With an all child cast, 10,000 drawings, a mix of original and classic Christmas music and a proverbial gun to their heads, the team completed "A Charlie Brown Christmas" just one week before its airdate on CBS. After the initial staff screening, one animator, Ed Levitt, proudly proclaimed, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" will run for a hundred years!"

When Lee Mendelson arrived in New York to screen the finished product for top CBS executives, they didn't share Ed Levitt's zest for the show. As a matter of fact, in true executive short sightedness, they were quite disappointed. One called it, "a little flat…a little slow." The other told Lee that at least they "gave it a good shot." They promised to air the show, but said they wouldn't be ordering any more specials from the team. They also claimed that perhaps Peanuts was just "better suited for the comic page."
It's comforting to see that the problems that we Disney fans have with our favorite companies' executives aren't exclusive or current for that matter.

These execs didn't even want to give the screening copy to the writer from "Time" magazine they had waiting outside their office. They realized they had no choice and braced themselves for a bad review. Of course, the writer had some sense and wrote a glowing review. He referred to it as a Christmas "special that really is special." He called it "unpretentious." He described the characters as having a "refreshingly low-key tone." He realized what we all have realized over the years, that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is one of the most endearing holiday specials ever made.

A week later, the special aired. Mendelson, Schulz, and Melendez waited to see if anyone was actually going to tune in. Much to their surprise and joy, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was a huge ratings success, coming in second place for the evening with more than 15 million viewers, losing out only to "Bonanza." Which was quite a feat back in 1966.

Once again, the executives were proved wrong. More importantly, Charles Schulz and his lovable Peanuts gang were shown to be right on.

A few months later, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" won the Emmy for Best Network Animated Special, beating out even Uncle Walt himself. 40 years later, the show continues to air and continues to gain fans.

As Sparky was fond of saying, "There will always be a market for innocence in this country." Four decades later, I'm quite sure, once again, Charles Schulz was right. He stuck to his simplistic, artistic vision and created a holiday masterpiece that lives on. Thanks -- in large part -- to its honest & innocent feel.

Anyway ... In honor of Little Christmas, I hope you folks enjoyed this short holiday tale.

Happy 2007, everyone !

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  • Thanks, Jim! In the language of the show, "For once, you did something right". :grin:

  • There are only 3 really good Charlie Brown specials IMO: "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" and "Charlie Brown's All-Stars". The main reason being in that in THOSE specials, the animators stuck very close to Charles Schulz's original drawings (and in those days, Schulz was at the top of his act in that regard). In the later specials, the Peanuts characters looked less and less like themselves. They became exaggerated and downright ugly. True, the strip went downhill too, but IMO the animators could have tried harder to retain Peanuts' original charm. What a pity...

  • Just a couple of notes:  the network also objected to the topic of religion in the show and wanted to use professional voice actors rather than the halting-voiced children that were actually used. I wonder if the CBS would have force those changes on Meldelson is there had been more time?  Just wondering:  what Disney special did Charlie Brown beat out for the Emmy?  Also, who else besides me thinks of Linus and his soliloquy while watching the Candlelight Processional?

  • An absolute classic! My daughter fell in love with it

    recently as I have it on VHS.

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