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Ruminations: "A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition"

Ruminations: "A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition"

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As far back as I can recall, I was always a fan of Charles Schulz Peanuts comic strips. Living here in Northern California, Sunday just was not complete until I had the chance to read the large panels on the front of the San Francisco Chronicle's comic pages that carried those adventures in full color. And when, on Thursday, December 9 1965, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first aired at 7:30 p.m., it certainly seemed that I was pretty much the same age as those memorable characters. As an oldest child and having a group of friends just like Charlie Brown, it was not too hard seeing myself in a similar situation with very similar results. (In fact, my baseball team was all too much like his; especially as we managed to win only one game all summer long.)

Christmas was and continues to be a special time for our family. And the messages conveyed in those 30-minutes continue to ring as true today as then did almost 40 years ago. Without too much trouble, I will hazard a guess that the same holds for many of you and yours as well.

So, when a trip to my local bookstore provided me the chance to pick up a copy of the book "A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition" I knew that this was one book that I will enjoy for some time to come. And who better than to tell us about the efforts behind the production than the two gentlemen who convinced Charles Schulz to bring it to the small screen in the first place? Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez.

Lee relates that this classic half-hour of television has roots that stretch back to his first independent film production company in 1963. One of the first projects they produced was a documentary for NBC-TV about San Francisco Giants all-star Willie Mays.

A few weeks later, I was reading a Peanuts comic strip in which Charlie Brown was losing another baseball game. The idea of following my first special about the world's 'greatest' baseball player with a program about the world's 'worst' just popped into my mind.

That idea led him to pitch the concept of another documentary to Charles Schulz. It was to be a look at the life of Schulz and a look at the world he had created, and which millions of readers enjoyed every day in newspapers around the world. With a half-hour format, it was to include a few minutes of animation.

It was Charles Schulz who suggested that Mendelson contact an animator who would be able to handle the task. That person was Bill Melendez. His credentials as an animator were (and still are) impressive. He started in the field at Disney in 1938, working on such features as Pinocchio and Bambi and short subjects with both Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Through the Forties, he worked at Warner Brothers doing shorts with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. From there he went on to directing everything from industrial films, television programs and commercials.

Before being approached by Lee Mendelson, he had one very important credit to his name. In 1959, Bill worked directly with Charles Schulz to create animation featuring the Peanuts characters for a television commercial for Ford to introduce their new line of automobiles for that year. (Since then, he has been the sole animator permitted to work using the characters including the MetLife commercials, Hallmark promotions, every television special and cartoon as well as every theatrical production.)

As interesting as that half-hour documentary was to everyone involved, it just wouldn't appeal enough to network television programmers for a sale to be made. (It finally did make it to television some seven years later and won an Emmy. So much for programmers...)

For a year and a half, it looked like the documentary would just gather dust on the shelf in a storeroom. Finally, a phone call from a New York advertising agency offered the opportunity to produce a thirty-minute animated Christmas special featuring the Peanuts characters. And the sponsor wanted to see an outline of this show in only five days. When asked if that was possible, Lee Mendelson said, "Of course."

From the book, Lee tells what came next:

I hung up the phone and stared at it for a few minutes. Then I called Sparky. "I think I may have just sold a Charlie Brown Christmas show," I said. "And what show might that be?" Sparky asked. "The one you need to make an outline for tomorrow," I replied. Without missing a beat, he calmly said, "Okay. Come on up."

The next day I took notes as Sparky outlined his ideas. "If it's to be a Christmas special, I want to certainly deal with the true meaning of Christmas, "he said. "And I'd like to do a lot of scenes in the snow and with skating." (He grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, after all!) "And maybe we can do something with a Christmas play and mix some of that jazz music with traditional music." His ideas flowed nonstop, and by the end of the day I sent a complete outline to Coca-Cola in Atlanta (an outline that, basically, would never change as the show evolved).

The rest is history. Bill Melendez and his crew managed to have the show done a week ahead of the broadcast date. Vince Guaraldi added just the right touch with his special brand of jazz creating songs for the holiday that have become standards in their own right. Even though some network executives had second thoughts about the show, it was an overwhelming success with 45 percent of the television sets in the country tuned in to watch.

The book does a wonderful job of taking us behind the scenes during the production. With comments from many of the then children who provided both the voices for the characters to even insights from some of the members of the choir who sang the memorable songs, there is plenty to discover here. Both Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez offer their own insights into the show in a pair of great in-depth interviews. Lee Mendelson shares a wonderful look back at Charles Schulz and how his life touched (and still touches) those of so many other people. Bill also describes working with Sparky and how they both wanted to keep the simplicity of the strips. A good example was that this show made use of two-dimensional animation. The Peanuts characters don't move as they do in three-dimensional animation such as the traditionally animated Disney short subject or feature. That maintained the look and feel of the strips.

But the documentation does not end there, by any means. The book includes a look at that 1959 Ford commercial that started it all. From the show's production, we see some storyboards, the complete, original scene production sheets, a selection of original background sketches, and even bar sheets (used to place dialogue, action, and music frame-by-frame). The book is full of wonderful art from images from frames to special promotional artwork. But the real treat is the illustrated script and even a flip book of the opening scenes of ice skating.

A sample of the storyboards from the book

If there is anything truly missing from the descriptions of the work on the production, it has to be more information about the animation staff that actually produced the project. While it is nice to see a few photographs, it would have been even better to have learned more about who they were and why Bill had them as part of the team. At least the full production credits appear as they did at the end of the show.

Unidentified "Graphic Blandishment" team members and Bill Melendez review the work in progress

The musical side of the show gets attention as well. A look at the career of Vince Guaraldi and the music he brought to the Peanuts cartoons is a rare treat. Also included are original artwork for the covers of the albums the Vince Guaraldi Trio released afterwards, and even sheet music for "Linus and Lucy" and "Christmas Time Is Here" -- complete with the lyrics Lee Mendelson wrote on the back of an envelope in all of fifteen minutes!

While the book first appeared in a hardback edition in 2000, the paperback edition is a real bargain. With a retail price of $14.95, this is a must have for anyone with an appreciation of animation. You might even want to throw in a copy of the DVD or other merchandise related to the show through the link here to Amazon. And if you want to truly step up, copies of the hardback edition are also still available. Or if you want it all, throw in copies of the original soundtrack on CD's by the Vince Guaraldi Trio for both "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "A Boy Named Charlie Brown." Of course, the soundtracks are also available here and here, respectively, on the iTunes Store.

As this is a special anniversary for the show, there are a number of activities and products planned to commemorate that first airing in 1965. ABC will air the show twice in December, and it will be released in a special 40th anniversary package by Paramount Home Video on both VHS and DVD. Even NASCAR got into the spirit as Bill Elliot drove a specially painted car to commemorate the anniversary. And a variety of other special 40th anniversary merchandise will also be available. Check this link for further details.

Bill Elliot's NASCAR Dodge featuring the 40th

And of course, the Charles M. Schulz Museum will participate in the festivities as well! From their web site:

"From November 16 through January 9, 2006, the Schulz Museum will commemorate the anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas with an exhibition of books, figurines, and archival artifacts from the last forty years including the toy piano used to record Schroeder's plinking piano notes from his reluctant rendition of Jingle Bells."

Something I may have to do and share will all of you, too. Especially as the Museum has this event coming:

"Saturday, December 17, 12 - 5pm. Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the animated special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," with memories, music, and a viewing of the movie. Producer Lee Mendelson will join original cast members to talk about the making of the movie."

Now that sounds like a trip well worth making!

I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I have. The message of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is a simple one and it hasn't changed in all of those 40 years. While the world is a more complicated place since that time, perhaps this look back at such a simple and enduring piece of entertainment helps to remind us how important such things can be to all of us.

With the holidays approaching, it is definitely going to be a difficult time for many people across the country. If you can find a way, do what you can to share with those in need. A donation to a charity in your community will go a long way right now. Everything from the United Way to the Salvation Army to Toys for Tots and more will appreciate your help.

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