In December 1965, CBS aired a Peanuts holiday special they were sure was going to bomb with audiences. It was considered so bad there was doubt as to whether it would ever see the light of day. Instead, A Charlie Brown Christmas has become one of the most treasured holiday specials in cultural history.
So why was everyone convinced the children's holiday special would fail? And how did Peanuts originate?
Tune in to find out all of this and more.
Brown, Jennings. “How A Charlie Brown Christmas Almost Wasn’t.” New York Magazine. November 16, 2016. (LINK)
Cavna, Michael. “‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’: The gospel truth behind how a humble ‘Peanuts’ holiday classic defied the odds.” The Washington Post. December 5, 2011. (LINK)
Halleman, Caroline. “The Untold Story Behind A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Town and Country Magazine. November 17, 2016. (LINK)
“The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Everything Peanuts. Via YouTube. (LINK)
Rivett-Carnac, Mark. “Snoopy Gets a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.” Time Magazine. November 2, 2015. (LINK)
“Timeline: The Life of Charles Schulz.” Charles Schulz Museum. (LINK)
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
If you’re listening to this on release day, then Happy Holidays! And for those who celebrate, Merry Christmas Eve.
Ask those who know me - I adore this time of year. Baking sweet treats, trimming the tree, and enjoying the company of friends and family are just a few of the things that bring a smile to my face every year. I also enjoy holiday movies - my playlist includes Disney’s The Santa Clause and the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which originally aired as a television special back in 1964. There is one other holiday special, however, that makes its rounds every year around this time and continues to bring joy and entertainment to the masses - A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Starring the well-known characters from the beloved Peanuts strip, A Charlie Brown Christmas originally aired in 1965 and has been delighting audiences ever since. But what if I told you the special almost did not see the light of day?
Today I am going to dive into all things Peanuts. Who has Charles Schulz? When did Peanuts begin? And why did A Charlie Brown Christmas almost become a victim of the cutting room floor?
Grab your peppermint mochas, peeps. Let’s do this.
As a Bay Area native, I am surrounded by all things Peanuts and Charles Schulz. Even today, some twenty years after his death, the memory, legacy, and influence of Charles Schulz are tangible. From the regional airport bearing his name to the numerous large character statues found throughout the various shopping districts, Northern California very much embraces our Schulz history. So who was Charles Schulz?
Born on November 26, 1922, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Schulz was an only child. His German immigrant father Carl earned a living as a barber and his mother Dena worked as a waitress before marrying Carl, after which she became a stay-at-home wife and mother. Sometimes referred to by his nickname Sparky, Schulz had an early love of comics. The name Sparky even originated from a comic strip. Written by Billy DeBeck, the strip Barney Google included a character, a horse, named Spark Plug. Apparently, as a young toddler, Schulz’s uncle took to calling him Sparky and it was a name that stuck with him throughout his life.
Growing up in the depression era midwest, there were few sources of entertainment, but Schulz enjoyed reading comic strips and knew early on that one day he wanted to draw his very own. He began drawing at an early age, earning praise from his teachers as young as five. Practicing his craft, Schulz was published at just 14, when the paper Ripley’s Believe it or Not featured a drawing of his dog Spike, who was the inspiration for the beloved pooch we all now know as Snoopy. After high school, Schulz enrolled in a correspondence school, known as Federal School, because it had an art program. More importantly, they featured cartooning, which spoke to Schulz’s long-term career goal of becoming a comic strip author. While completing his coursework Schulz continued to submit his drawings to magazines for publication and looked for jobs in the animation industry, even applying to work for Walt Disney. His career efforts were paused as the United States entered World War II in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Drafted at just twenty years old, Schulz was stationed overseas until shortly after Germany’s surrender in 1945. His first comic strip, titled Just Keep Laughing, was published in 1947 in the Topix comic book. It was his next strip, titled Lil Folks, that would turn him into a household name. After securing weekly publication in his local newspaper, Schulz eventually signed on with United Features Syndicate in 1950. However, there was just one small problem. The title of Schulz’s comic strip was too similar to one that had come before, Tack Knight’s Little Folks. The new name for the strip? Peanuts.
Despite it being a household name today, Schulz was never truly a fan of the title but grew to live with it saying quote: “I’m still convinced it’s the worst title for any comic strip - it probably doesn’t matter what it is called so long as each effort brings some kind of joy to someone, someplace,” end quote. And so it was on October 2, 1950, that the newly retitled strip, Peanuts, debuted in several national newspapers, including The Washington Post. Schulz’s contract was for six days' worth of strips - to run Monday through Saturday - and he was paid $90 for the first month. While that doesn’t sound like much, when adjusted for inflation, it would equate to about $1,000.
Schulz’s partnership with United Features Syndicate proved to be the shot in the arm needed to propel his career forward. Just two years after the first set of Peanuts strips debuted, Schulz began publishing a special colorized version for the Sunday paper. From there, Peanuts secured sponsorship deals with companies like Kodak and Ford and quickly became a household name. The strip received even more national attention in April 1965 when Time magazine chose Peanuts as its cover. This cover appears to be what prompted the discussions about creating a Peanuts-themed Christmas special.
Lee Mendelson, a producer who had just finished a documentary on Willie Mays was shopping around the idea of a profile on the man behind the Peanuts comic strip. Unable to generate interest in Schulz, Mendelson received a phone call from Coca-Cola asking if he and Schulz had any plans to do a Christmas special. Seeing a golden opportunity, Mendelson told a white lie, falsely confirming there had been several such conversations. Upon terminating his call with the soda company, Mendelson reached out to Schulz where Mendelson told Schulz he had just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas. Schulz’s reaction? What is that?
The following day Mendelson, Schulz, and animator Bill Melendez gathered at Schulz’s home in Sebastopol to sketch out the plot of the special and prepare an outline for their sponsor. Not one to waste the opportunity, Schulz wanted to make sure there was a story grounding the special, landing on the true meaning of Christmas. Having mapped everything together, the team of three sent out their proposal the following week and waited patiently to hear back. Coca-cola liked the proposal and green-lit the project. The only downside? A short turnaround. Coca-Cola was aiming for a release in time for the 1965 Christmas season, which meant Mendelson, Schulz, and Melendez had only six months to complete their project. From story and animation to music and recording. Everything had to be ready for a television audience in just a few months. For context, the 1964 holiday special for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer took eighteen months to produce. The team of three wasted no time and immediately began drafting panels for animation.
One of the most iconic pieces of the special is the music from Jazz musician Vince Giralldee (GUR ALL DEE). Like most of the story of this holiday special, his selection was the result of good luck and timing. A piece of Giraldee’s music came on as Mendelson was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. Mendelson liked what he heard and thought it would go along nicely with the special and gave Giraldie a call and asked him to write music for the special. Giraldi agreed and immediately began putting together different pieces.
One of the most iconic moments from the special, Linus reciting the Bible verse, was also the source of the most debate between the production team and Schulz. Focusing on the true meaning of Christmas, Schulz felt the verse played nicely into their overall narrative. Mendelson and Melendez were worried including a biblical reference in a cartoon would rub people the wrong way. Despite their reservations, Schulz got his way and Linus went down in Peanuts and animation history.
And unlike Hollywood productions, Schulz and team decided that since the Peanuts characters were children, it should be children to voice the characters. While some were child actors, several were not and had to have their lines read to them in small bits to successfully record their parts. This did not go over well with the executives at CBS, who felt the recording was not as polished as it should be for a television audience.
Accomplishing the impossible, a draft of the show was delivered to network executives four weeks before it was due to air on television. Both Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson later said he was sure he had ruined the Peanuts brand as they watched the final cut of the special. To them, it didn’t seem to flow right and the story progressed too slowly. Their feelings of failure were only exacerbated once the CBS executives had their chance to review the final product. Executives were less than impressed with the special, feeling it didn’t translate well and were unimpressed with the inclusion of jazz music in a children’s Christmas special.
Despite their reservations and displeasure with the final product, television executives were stuck as the show had already been announced and put into the television guides. For my younger audiences, a television guide, or TV guide, was a written booklet or article in the newspaper that outlined what was playing on television for the weeks ahead. In 1965 this was a much easier task as there were only three networks to worry about. So, even though they felt it would be a flop, CBS nevertheless went forward with letting the show air, confident it would not connect with audiences.
On December 9th, 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas hit the airwaves and, to the surprise of everyone except perhaps Charles Schulz, was a smash hit. In reviewing the ratings for the program, it was estimated that nearly half the country watched the show, and was the second most-watched show for the week. Not only did audiences love it, but so did the critics. The special was nominated for, and won, an Emmy in 1966 as well as a Peabody award. The surprise success led to the studio ordering several more Peanuts specials, leading to more than fifty different peanuts programs over the next couple of decades, including A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving in 1973 and a special about cancer titled Why, Charlie Brown, Why which aired in 1990.
The special only further propelled the popularity of Peanuts. In 1967 the strip provided the inspiration for a stage show titled You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Snoopy was officially added to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1968. Even NASA caught the Peanuts fever, asking Schulz to allow Snoopy to be NASA’s Manned Flight Awareness Program mascot. Throughout the years, the world of Peanuts continued to expand with the additions of characters like Peppermint Patty, my mom’s favorite, in 1966, and Franklin, who was added in 1968 partially as a response to the national conversations of the era. One of my favorite Peanuts characters, Woodstock finally got a moniker in 1970 and was, of course, named after the iconic music festival.
Charles Schulz received a star on the Hollywood walk of fame in June of 1996 and finally retired from writing the comic strip in 1999. At the time of his retirement, the strip was published in over 2600 newspapers throughout the world and was translated into over twenty-five languages. Schulz passed away from colon cancer just a couple of months after his retirement, passing away on February 12th, 2000.
Peanuts continues to be as popular as ever, with a museum dedicated to them and their creator opening in Santa Rosa in 2002. The ever-popular pooch, Snoopy, received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015, joining other fictional characters such as Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck. The comic strip continues to be printed to this day, however, they are reprints of old strips as Schulz secured an agreement that Peanuts would not be transferred to another artist once he retired.
And of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas airs every holiday season and continues to introduce the world of Peanuts to new generations. I know many who continue to find joy in the holiday-themed show, making it an annual tradition in their household. And to think - it may have never happened.
And with that, I wish you a merry holiday season. Thanks for spending a little time with me and I hope you have a restful and joyous time.
Before I sign off I do want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Artifactual Journey for their recent donation through Buy Me A Coffee! Your donations help mitigate the costs of this podcast and go towards things like books and hosting fees. If you would like to buy me a coffee, head on over to the website at www dot civics and coffee dot com.
Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.