ED. NOTE: In 2011, Comic Riffs got such a tremendous response to this article — about the “Peanuts” perennial “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” — that we decided to make this piece itself our own holiday classic. So with the “Peanuts’ gang’s Halloween special set to air Thursday night at 8, we again share this story.
SNOOPY TAKING first flight as a World War I ace. Charlie Brown taking grief as rocks pile up in his Halloween bag. And Linus taking to his patch as he awaits the mighty Great Pumpkin.
The scenes are so deeply poignant and richly imagined that “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” still resonates, nearly a half-century after the holiday classic first aired on CBS to high ratings. (The program airs Thursday night at 8 on ABC, followed by a bonus “Peanuts” show, “You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown.”)
“Great Pumpkin” debuted nearly a year after the first animated “Peanuts” special — “A Charlie Brown Christmas” — shocked network executives by winning the night and winning over a nation. (Half of all TVs in the United States were tuned to the first airing of “Christmas.”)
Creator Charles “Sparky” Schulz, director-animator Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson decided to choose another holiday for their third special. And the result, “Great Pumpkin,” pleased Schulz greatly.
“Sparky liked the Christmas show, but he really liked ‘The Great Pumpkin,’ “ Mendelson tells Comic Riffs. “It was the culmination of better animation and adapting the comic in the best possible way.” (Schulz, Melendez and Mendelson all received Emmy nominations for ”Great Pumpkin,” including Outstanding Children’s Program.)
Peter Robbins — the then-child actor who voiced Charlie Brown in those specials — feels similarly. “It was much better animation than the original,” Robbins says to Comic Riffs.
Of those two popular “Peanuts” holiday classics, Robbins adds: “How many times can you make two ‘Sgt. Pepper’ albums?”
“Great Pumpkin” continues to draw fans — in recent years; prime-time airings on ABC have attracted as many as 10-million viewers.
Yet after five decades in the spotlight, there are still some facts and behind-the-scenes anecdotes that remain little-known to most viewers. With that in mind, here are: Seven Things You Don’t Know About ‘Great Pumpkin’:
1. The director took Snoopy’s virgin flight as a personal challenge — turning the beagle into a silent star.
“ ‘Great Pumpkin’ was the first time Snoopy flew on the doghouse,” Mendelson tells Comic Riffs. “Sparky said: ‘I wish we could have him fly.’ Bill [Melendez] stood back and said [with mock umbrage]: ‘I can make him fly — I’m an animator! That’s what I do!’ ”
The result was the famed five-minute scene as Snoopy’s strafed flying ace chases the Red Baron. According to Mendelson: “This proved that Snoopy could be a ‘star’ without ever talking.”
2. Schulz filled Charlie Brown’s Halloween bag with rocks to “spite” his colleagues.
“Sparky said that maybe we ought to have Charlie Brown get a rock,” Mendelson recounts to Comic Riffs. “I said, ‘Oh, come on, that’s a little too harsh and cruel.’ But the more I protested, the more he wanted it. And after I protested more, Sparky said: ‘Okay, he’ll get three rocks!’ ”
3. For years, sympathetic viewers kept sending candy to Schulz’s studio.
Many viewers might know that in 1966, after “Great Pumpkin” first aired, fans felt sorry for Charlie Brown and his bag of Halloween rocks — so sorry that they sent sweet treats to Schulz’s Northern California studio, in care of the beloved character. What they may not know, according to Mendelson, is that this viewer reaction continued for many years.
4. “Charlie Brown” says he knows which child actor deserves the most praise: Christopher Shea — the voice of Linus Van Pelt.
“If not for Chris Shea, those two specials don’t work,” Peter Robbins says of “Christmas” and “Pumpkin.” “I give him all the credit in the world. I’m like the pitcher who sets him up for each line.” And Shea kept knocking the line-readings out of the park.
(Shea died in 2010 in Northern California; he was 52.)
5. “Sally Brown” nearly had to be replaced at the last minute.
By the time of “Pumpkin,” Mendelson was voicing the “Peanuts” gang with a mix of “Hollywood” children and kids from his Bay Area neighborhood. One Northern California girl, Kathy Steinberg, was voicing Charlie Brown’s sister Sally. Suddenly, though, Mendelson got a call.
“We had recorded half of [Steinberg’s] lines when I got a call that the girl was about to lose her front tooth. I said: ‘Thank you for telling me.’ And her mom said: ‘You don’t understand — she’ll have a terrible lisp.’
“So we rushed her to our San Francisco studios that night.”
Just in time.
“She lost the tooth the next day,” Mendelson recalls, “and you couldn’t understand her at all.”
6. Some of the kid actors’ lines had to be recorded syllabically — then spliced together.
“My favorite moment,” Mendelson says, “is when [Sally] is yelling at Linus in the pumpkin patch: ‘I demand restitution!’ “
But such words, of course, can be tough for a young grade-schooler.
“I couldn’t get [Kathy Steinberg] to say, ‘restitution,’ “ the producer recalls.
“So it went: ‘Res-ti-tu-tion.”
7. The spark to create the special came from ... the network.
Won over by the ratings and interest, it was the suits who made the call. Literally.
“CBS called and said: ‘We need another holiday blockbuster,’ ” Mendelson says. “It was prompting by the network because they wanted another holiday hit.”
“So we sat down and ... Sparky said: ‘We’ve got to go with the most obvious holiday — and it’s not Thanksgiving. Why don’t we do the Great Pumpkin?’ “
On Oct. 27, 1966, the 25-minute animated special found its way to roughly half the nation’s TV screens. The next year, the show would garner its three Emmy nods.
And the phrase “I got a rock” entered the national parlance.