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The Charles Schulz Museum celebrates the 40th anniversary of "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

The Charles Schulz Museum celebrates the 40th anniversary of "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

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Christmas time is here

Happiness and cheer

Fun for all that children call

Their favorite time of the year

Snowflakes in the air

Carols everywhere

Olden times and ancient rhymes

Of love and dreams to share

Sleigh bells in the air

Beauty everywhere

Yuletide by the fireside

And joyful memories there

Christmas time is here

We'll be drawing near

Oh, that we could always see

Such spirit through the year

Oh, that we could always see

Such spirit through the year...

Forty years ago, Lee Mendelson wrote those words on the back on an envelope. Something quick to add a touch to a nice piece of music Vince Guaraldi had written.

Today, it is hard to imagine this simple sentiment not being a part of this holiday season. All because of a little animated television show that the world has come to love and cherish, called "A Charlie Brown Christmas".

This past weekend, the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California hosted a retrospective for that little television show. Among the guests sharing their memories were Lee Mendelson (the show's producer), Peter Robbins (the voice of Charlie Brown for the first five Peanuts animated specials), David Guaraldi (son of composer and jazz legend Vince Guaraldi), and many of the members of the children's choir that brought those words above into the hearts of millions of people.

The Lobby of the Museum, with the little tree.

Lee Mendelson was the first guest speaker of the event. As well as relating the tale of how the show came to be, he shared some stories of how Charles Schulz was to work with on the Peanuts specials. One in particular was during an early conference on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with animator Bill Melendez and "Sparky" (Charles Schulz nickname, taken from Barney Google's horse, Sparkplug). Lee mentioned that the show was going to need a laugh track to help keep it moving along. Quietly, Charles Schulz stood up, walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. Lee, rather shocked, asked Bill what that was all about. Bill replied, "I guess that means we're not having a laugh track!"

One concern that came along early in the development of the show was that of the true meaning of Christmas. Even in those pre-Politically Correct days, religion was something that you didn't see or hear on prime time television. When Bill Melendez asked Charles Schulz about the reading of the Bible passage by Linus, he was told, "If we don't do this, who else will?"

Lee also related how "Sparky" loved to play jokes on him. Even going so far as to put him into the comic strips on occasion. In one where Snoopy is the World Famous Check Out Clerk at the grocery store, he asks Mrs. Mendelson if her husband has found work yet. In one Sunday strip, the gang is playing croquet and Charlie Brown's ball has been knocked clear across town. So he calls Lucy and asks her to call him at a telephone number when it is his turn in the game. And yes, that phone number was Lee's home number. So on that Sunday morning when the strip appeared, he got plenty of phone calls. One of them was answered by his then six year-old daughter. She was asked if Charlie Brown was there and replied, "No, this is Lucy". All she heard was a click as the caller hung up the phone.

Another great story was how Charles Schulz hated telephone answering machines. At the time, Lee had an hour tape in his machine. One day he noticed he had a message and went to check it. Yes, it was from "Sparky". Reading Tolstoy's "War and Peace"; a book referenced on a number of occasions in the strips. This went on for Forty-Two minutes! At the end, all he heard was Schulz giggling and then hanging up.

The trio of Mendelson, Melendez and Schulz combined for over 70 animated projects, the last of which is being finished now, entitled, "He's A Bully, Charlie Brown". It features a game of Marbles. And according to the way "Sparky" had written the story, Charlie Brown actually wins that game. No one believes him, of course. Lucy even goes so far as to say the game was fixed! Look for that to air some time in the coming year.

Peter Robbins shared some of his memories from working on the first five Peanuts specials. As a child actor, he worked on a number of television shows, but this one has become his favorite. He told of how it was hard to be so depressed as he loved Christmas time. Working with Bill Melendez as a coach being fed the lines from the script, he got the timing down for the voice, even to the point of taking on some of Bill's Hispanic phrasing for some of the words!

It was considered a big risk to use children for the voices in the show. At that time, the practice was to use adult voice talents because they were used to the pace of recording for such a show. They could handle the many retakes better, so it was thought. But the use of realistic voices was one of the successes of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and all of the Peanuts specials. Lee related how they have always looked for voices similar to those used in the first show as people have come to know them so well over the years.

The same held true for the voices used to sing the Christmas songs for the show. A children's choir from St. Paul's Episcopal Church, under the direction of Barry Minnah, in San Rafael, California was where those singers were from. In 1964, Vince Guaraldi was composing a jazz mass for performance at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and this choir was to be a part of that mass. About a year later, 12 children volunteered to help with a "little choir project", that led them to a Fantasy Records studio on Treat Street in San Francisco. Several people remembered how much of a big thing it was to travel to San Francisco on a bus for those sessions and that they were allowed to stay up late on school nights. The retrospective was something of reunion for them with some members traveling from as far as way as Washington and Michigan. One of them even had a photostat (remember this was 1965, before Xerox and photo copies) of one of his paychecks from one of the recording sessions. They each were paid all of five dollars for a session.


David Guaraldi (left), the members of the St. Paul's choir
and Lee Mendelson (kneeling).

The members of the Choir in attendance for the event were:

David Willat, Dan Bernhard, Marcia Goodrich, Nancy Goodrich, Steve Kendall, Ted King, Debbie Presco, Mark Jordan, Cam Cedarblade and Kristin Minnah (daughter of Director Barry Minnah)

Lee Mendelson shared that this day was the first time he had ever met any of the choir as the completed tapes had just been delivered to him for the show. For forty years, he had been under the mistaken impression that the songs were sung by his son Glenn's sixth grade class. He was glad to be able to finally know who these people were and could now give them the credit they so richly deserved for all those years.

 

The afternoon continued with showings of "A Charlie Brown Christmas", "The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas" (one of the special features found on the DVD of 2003's "I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown") and a choral performance of Christmas favorite songs.

The Santa Rosa High School Chamber Singers performed
"Christmas Time Is Here" and other holiday favorites.

After the retrospective in the Museum's auditorium, many of the guests were available for further questions as well as autographs. It was also the perfect time to explore the Museum, something I had not done before. After hearing Lee tell about the fiftieth special and the marbles, it was interesting to see a wooden box of marbles among the items on display of Charles Schulz office upstairs. Another exhibit that brought me a number of great laughs was the Ode to Schroeder. It brought back great memories of reading those strips as well as my own days of piano lessons. A nice complimentary item on display upstairs is the toy piano played by Schroeder for the music in "A Charlie Brown Christmas".

If you haven't been to the Charles Schulz Museum before, you need to make the trip. Considering just how much the work of this man has become a part of our culture, this museum is a wonderful chance to learn more about him. And it doesn't hurt that there is all of the wonderful artwork to see at the same time. This link has directions to the Museum and other information.

And don't forget to check in next door at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena a.k.a. Snoopy's Home Ice as well as Snoopy's Gallery and Gift Shop. Plenty of things to tempt even the mildest of Peanuts fans there.

Speaking of other things to tempt you, a newly remastered superdisc version of the soundtrack for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" has arrived. A must for the audiophile or even just a fan of the great music of Vince Guaraldi. Check it out!

Finally, let me wish all of you the happiest of Christmases. Here's hoping that you get to share the season with those who bring joy into your lives, no matter how far away they may be.

 

A special thanks to "sjlocke" for the generous donation to upgrade  our EZBoards and remove the pop-up's. These boards are enjoyed by  many of you, and we all appreciate the support.

This year, the Christmas holiday is 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 (such as your local food bank) will go a very 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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