When I met Charles Schulz in 1998, there was already much talk about how to tout the golden anniversary of his beloved "Peanuts" in 2000. If possible, tomorrow's 60th anniversary of the comic's launch has the feel of even a bigger deal.
This morning at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, a photograph of Schulz will be unveiled in a private ceremony. The 1986 portrait and an original comic strip will be on view after the ceremony, in the museum's New Arrivals exhibit.
Then Saturday -- six decades to the day after "Peanuts" debuted in a handful of newspapers -- the gallery will hold a Family and Friends Day from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The event will feature cartooning workshops, guest appearances and an ever-seasonal screening of the animated classic, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."
And starting today, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History -- hard past Archie Bunker's chair and Seinfeld's puffy shirt -- will spotlight a case graced with some items from the late great cartoonist, including a "Great Pumpkin" animation cel, comic panels and drawing materials.
Jean Schulz, the cartoonist's widow, will be at the unveiling Friday, as will other family members and Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning executive producer who -- working with "Sparky" Schulz and artist Bill Melendez -- created "Peanuts" animated specials for decades, including the classic 1965 Christmas special.
"It's something I suppose I never thought much about before, having his photo in the Portrait Gallery," Jean Schulz tells Comic Riffs. "You have portraits of Washington and Lincoln in there, and you forget as time goes by that other people -- like Sparky -- become giants in history and in the culture."
The photograph -- the gallery's first portrait of the cartoonist -- has yet to be seen by the general public, so Schulz described it for us.
"He's at his drawing board, and on his board you can see a comic strip well enough to identify it," she says of the photograph, by acclaimed portraitist Yousuf Karsh. "He's smiling and wearing a wonderful red sweater."
Schulz noted that the same image in black-and-white has hung in the artist's studio at Peanuts Central in Northern California.
"In the black-and-image portrait, he looks much more pensive but alert -- I can see why he chose it as a more classic piece for his studio," Schulz says. "I thought it was very dignified. But the portrait in color is a bright and wonderful piece."
As for Charles Schulz's lasting place in American culture, his wife says: "You try to place people in a swaddle of importance, but someone who touches their hearts and brings them happiness has to be considered a great American hero and worthy of this honor."
Mendelson, who is scheduled to speak at the unveiling (which he calls "a huge honor"), echoes that sentiment.
"On the [event's] invitation there is a quote from Sparky that says for something to be true art, it has to appeal to many generations, not just for the time it's done," Mendelson tells Comic Riffs.
"Well, 41 years ago, there was a day in December when over 100-million people were reading the comic strip; the first 'Peanuts' feature film played to 6,000 people at a sold-out Radio City Music Hall; half the TV sets in the country were tuned to the Charlie Brown Christmas special; and the 'Peanuts' musical was playing off-Broadway to a standing-room-only audience."
"Forty-one years later," Mendelson continued, "the comic strip is read by over 100-million people; ABC has just signed on to air his holiday shows for five more years; the 'wah-wah' sounds of 'Peanuts' adults is part of our vernacular; the musical is performed everywhere; and Warner [Bros.] signed up for eight years of DVD releases. 'Peanuts' is hotter than it was was then. ... "
"So 'Peanuts' has proved to be true art by Charles Schulz's own definition."
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