By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 8:18 PM
Before the steady stream of Emmy Awards and Grammy nominations and Oscar consideration came The Idea - the one that producer-director Lee Mendelson, nearly a half-century later, calls with a certain zest "the best idea I've had in my entire life."
"I'd just made a documentary about the best baseball player in the world," says Mendelson, referring to his award-winning NBC work about Willie Mays. "So I decided to make a documentary about the worst baseball player in the world."
That, naturally, would be Charlie Brown. Mendelson read a "Peanuts" strip about the perennially losing hurler and thought: Why not make a documentary about the cartoon's creator?
It turned out to be the best pitch Mendelson ever made.
Mendelson called fellow Northern California resident Charles Schulz - "His phone number was listed right in the book," the producer recalls - and proposed the documentary. Fortunately, Mendelson says, Schulz had seen "A Man Named Mays" and liked it.
"Sure, come on up," Schulz replied, so Mendelson motored up from San Francisco to Sebastopol and, right there in the heart of wine country, the inspired ideas began to ferment and a 38-year friendship and creative partnership took root.
By 1965, the two men - working with veteran Disney and Warner Bros. animator Bill Melendez - collaborated on their first work, the holiday special "A Charlie Brown Christmas," a TV show that took chances, defied certain conventions - eschewing even a laugh track - and, ultimately, remained authentic to the trio's collective vision.
The debut of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" would capture not only the Emmy and Peabody awards but also roughly half the people watching television across America. Its place in the nation's holiday hearth has remained fixed ever since. As the special celebrates its 45th anniversary this month - and the strip enjoys its 60th year - ABC airs the "Peanuts" special on Thursday.
As viewers tune in to see a sparse and wilting "Charlie Brown Christmas tree" - a conifer embodiment of Chuck's hard-luck seasonal mood that soon entered our national vernacular - a question about this beguilingly humble cartoon perseveres: Why, precisely, does "A Charlie Brown Christmas" endure?Subtle power of 'Peanuts'
"I think it has to do with the impact that 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' had on the viewer when he or she first saw it," says Jean Schulz, the late cartoonist's wife and shepherd of the "Peanuts" estate. "It might have been as a child sitting with parents. Or it might have been adults in their 40s or 50s who were delighted to see a meaningful, adult-themed show that brushed aside the platitudes that surround public dialogue and then passed this on to their children and grandchildren.
"I think," she emphasizes, "these first impressions are very important to us."
"That show, in its plot, characters, and perhaps above all in its music, captures an authentic bittersweetness, the melancholy of this time of year, like no other work of art I know."
"Mother Goose and Grimm" creator Mike Peters worked with Mendelson on a '90s animated series based on Peters's strip. To Peters, the greatness of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" springs eternal.
"There has not been a Christmas that we or one of our kids hasn't bought a sad, pathetic Charlie Brown Christmas tree - the smallest, most scrawny tree we could find for some cherished place in our home," Peters says.
"Sparky [Schulz], Mendelson and Melendez have touched something deep in our American soul with 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' " the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist continues. "As with any great piece of art, as many times that you see it , you take away something new - the humor, the heart, the laughter and the tears."Kissed by kismet
Lee Mendelson smiles like a man who believes in serendipity.
"I've never actually looked up the word in the dictionary," Mendelson, 77, says with a laugh, "but, yes, I believe in serendipity. I had it with 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' and it continued for 40 more years. It's happened too often not to believe in it."
(Mendelson had come to Washington in October for the "Peanuts" 60th anniversary celebration and Charles Schulz photograph unveiling at the National Portrait Gallery.)
Part of the magic of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Mendelson says, is the evocative appeal of the music. It was in 1963 that the producer was in a car heading across the Golden Gate Bridge when he heard Vince Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind."
Mendelson was struck by the jazz track and contacted Guaraldi, who happened to be a fellow San Franciscan. The producer hired Guaraldi for the planned documentary and soon after got a call from the composer.
"He said, "I've got to play this thing for you,' " Mendelson recounts. "I said, 'I hate to hear it over the phone,' but he insisted. He played [what became] 'Linus and Lucy.' It was jazz for adults but still had a childlike quality.
"Right then, I had the weirdest feeling, the strangest thought, that someday this music is going to have an effect on my life."Stops and sudden starts
Mendelson and Schulz's first collaboration was the planned documentary, which featured the cartoonist drawing and discussing "Peanuts." The strip launched in October 1950 in only a handful of newspapers but by 1963 had amassed a large national following. The two men shopped their new project to agencies, but to the producer's surprise they couldn't land a buyer.
Stymied, Mendelson took industrial production jobs to pay the bills. He had worked at the Bay Area station KPIX-TV after graduating from Stanford in 1954 and had rapidly become a veteran of documentary filmmaking. His film on the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair, "The Innocent Fair," had led to a "San Francisco Pageant" series that won a Peabody Award. Buoyed by that success, Mendelson left the station to hang out the shingle of his own production company.
Yet one thing Mendelson had never attempted was animation.
Early in 1965, however, Coca-Cola came calling. Executive John Allen - whom Mendelson calls "the hero who had kept the flame burning" - remembered the "Peanuts" pitch of two years prior. Now he had a counter-pitch.
"Charlie Brown was getting huge by April 1, 1965, when Time magazine put 'Peanuts' on its cover," Mendelson says. "We got a call from [ad agency] McCann Erickson, which had Coca-Cola as a client. . . . They weren't interested in a documentary, but they said, 'Have you and Mr. Schulz considered doing a Charlie Brown Christmas show?'
"Of course I said yes."
Mendelson called Schulz with the pitch: "There was a long pause - it felt like an hour, though it was probably five seconds. Then Sparky said, 'Okay, come on up.' "Birth of the cool
Charles Schulz was long viewed as a man plagued by anxiety, self-doubt and fear of rejection. Yet when it came to the production of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Mendelson says, Schulz was the epitome of confidence and assured cool.
After the initial call to Mendelson, Coca-Cola and McCann Erickson were going to make their decision in one week's time. Translation: In an era when Western Union was their fastest form of written communication, Mendelson and Schulz had only a few days to cobble together an outline.
They immediately brought aboard Melendez, who several years earlier worked with Schulz on a Ford account featuring "Peanuts." Melendez - who had never headed the animation of a full-length cartoon - flew up from Southern California. On the clock, the collaboration moved swiftly.
"Schulz's first thought was to have this revolve around a Christmas play," Mendelson says. "He also said we should have some winter scenes, outdoor scenes. We also talked about the music. We would have some Beethoven, some traditional, and Schulz had liked so much of the music Guaraldi had written for the documentary."
"I had read 'The Pine Tree' by Hans Christian Andersen and threw out the idea of decorating this ugly duckling of a tree," Mendelson continues. "And Bill suggested that we animate some kind of dance sequence, and we wanted to have them skate. All these ideas were flying around with no form, all in about an hour."
Schulz wrote an outline that day.
"And that was pretty much what we did," Mendelson says. "Ninety percent of the show was out of whole cloth."
Days later, Coca-Cola bought the project. Now the creative trio's work really began.The gospel of 'Peanuts'
Schulz insisted on one core purpose: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" had to be about something. Namely, the true meaning of Christmas. Otherwise, Schulz said, "Why bother doing it?"
Mendelson and Melendez asked Schulz whether he was sure he wanted to include biblical text in the special. The cartoonist's response, Mendelson recalls: "If we don't do it, who will?"
To Coca-Cola's credit, Mendelson says, the corporate sponsor never balked at the idea of including New Testament passages. The result - Linus's reading from the Book of Luke about the meaning of the season - became "the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation," the producer says.
In writing about the "Peanuts" special in "Manhood for Amateurs," Chabon - a self-described Jewish "liberal agnostic empiricist" - waxed: "I still know that chapter and verse of the Gospel of Luke by heart, and no amount of subsequent disillusionment with the behavior of self-described Christians, or with the ongoing progressive commercialization that in 1965 had already broken Charlie Brown's heart, has robbed the central miracle of Christianity of its power to move me the way any truly great story can."
Mendelson also credits part of the power of the scene to child voice actor Christopher Shea, whose tone of wise innocence, the producer says, fits the moment perfectly.
Several years earlier, young voice actors were cast as "Peanuts" characters for a Ford commercial - this at a time when adult actors were typically cast to voice animated children.
"They were 6 or 7 years old when they made the commercial," Mendelson says of the "Peanuts" actors, "and now they were 10 or 11. But they were still the best voices."
(Melendez, meanwhile, was drafted to voice the sounds of Snoopy, which were speeded up by 10 times the rate at which they were recorded.)
"We needed an innocent voice for Linus, and a more blah voice for Charlie Brown [actor Peter Robbins]," Mendelson says. "Once we recorded the kids, I knew we had something strong - especially when the Linus actor read from the Bible."Show time
With the national network debut just weeks away, Mendelson and Melendez were convinced they were going to become the guys who turned "Peanuts," the national treasure, into an animated flop.
"We thought we'd ruined Charlie Brown," the producer says.
So much had come together in a matter of months, including the opening theme. Mendelson had decided to use a Guaraldi track to help create a bigger opening, but they needed lyrics. All the songwriters they turned to were busy, so in desperation Mendelson sat at the kitchen table and wrote a poem in 10 minutes, he says.
The result: "Christmas Time Is Here."
"The words just came to me," Mendelson says. In short order, a Bay Area children's choir was hired to sing the enduring, much-covered tune.
At one point, McCann Erickson executive Neil Reagan - brother of the future president - was dispatched to San Francisco to check on the show's progress. The genial ad exec was not encouraged by what he saw. But much to the animation team's gratitude, Mendelson says, Reagan kept a tight lip on his opinions when he returned to the agency.
Finally, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was screened for CBS executives - who promptly didn't get it.
"They didn't get the voices. They didn't get the music. They didn't get the pacing," Mendelson recalls. "They said: 'This is probably going to be the last ["Peanuts" special]. But we've got it scheduled for next week, so we've got to air it.' "
On Dec. 9, 1965, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" debuted. The special garnered glowing reviews. And half the United States tuned in.
"The next morning, I walked into my neighborhood coffee shop," Mendelson, says referring to Towle's Cafe in Burlingame, Calif., "and everyone was congratulating me. That's when I knew we might have something."
The next year, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" received a Peabody Award, as well as an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program. The irony, Mendelson notes, is that Schulz always wrote "Peanuts" with an adult audience in mind - but with enough warmth and distilled emotion and universality that the feature appealed to kids.
The Christmas special also kicked off a creative partnership among Schulz, Mendelson and Melendez that spanned 38 years, dozens of specials and multiple Emmys before Schulz died in 2000.
And still, the meaning of a "Charlie Brown Christmas tree" continues to burn bright in America's homes.
"Bravo for the 45th year," Mike Peters says. ". . . I know it will be as fresh and funny and touching 45 years from now."