Schulz and Co. took a risk, created a classic

Better-than-good grief:
Better-than-good grief: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" celebrates its 45th anniversary this month. ABC will air the beloved "Peanuts" special Thursday night. ( )
  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2010

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."

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, in his recent autobiographical book, "Manhood for Amateurs," writes of the "Peanuts" special's lasting appeal.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company