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Schulz at 100: How ‘Peanuts’ lifts those on stage, on ice and in space

Fans take in a tile mural — composed of thousands of reproduced “Peanuts” comic strips — by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani at the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif. The museum is celebrating the Nov. 26 centennial of the birth of “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz. (Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle/AP)

You can’t keep a good dog down, Charlie Brown.

When NASA launched a mission to the moon last week, the unmanned cabin included a stuffed Snoopy in an orange flight suit. The space beagle was among the small items that serve as “zero gravity indicators,” which visually signal that the capsule has reached “the weightlessness of microgravity.”

Turns out, the agency couldn’t have picked a better pop culture symbol: For seven decades, Snoopy and the rest of the “Peanuts” gang have defied the forces of time, freed from the gravitational pull of trends.

The globally beloved cartoon characters still pop up daily in comic strips, books and gift shops, as well as in animated specials, both new ones and the classic holiday programs such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that now stream on Apple TV Plus. “Peanuts” is in the ether as surely as the jazzy Vince Guaraldi Trio riffs that bounce along the airwaves once Christmastime is here.

This year, the headquarters of Team Peanuts in Santa Rosa, Calif., has another reason to hold gatherings at its museum and library and ceremonies at its ice rink: It’s the centennial of the birth of “Peanuts” creator Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz, who was born Nov. 26, 1922, and raised in St. Paul, Minn.

Schulz died in February 2000, the same weekend that his final original strip was published. Yet what he launched into the zeitgeist in 1950 remains a cultural touchstone. On Saturday, many syndicated cartoonists will mark the centennial in their strips. So why does “Peanuts” endure so strongly — remaining so firmly woven into the fabric of popular culture — when so many aspects of mass entertainment all but disappear?

Jeannie Schulz, widow of the cartoonist and president of the Charles M. Schulz Museum’s board of directors, puts it concisely: “Sparky tapped into a universal humanity, and translated it into simple lines with a subtle humor.”

Those elegant, poignant, slyly simple lines curled and curved their way into religion and sports and war and mental health and love unrequited. To mark the centennial, The Washington Post asked celebrities from various areas of achievement what Schulz’s creation has meant to them.

‘As good as anything ever’

Producer Lee Mendelson approached Schulz in the mid-’60s with an idea: Coca-Cola was interested in a TV project. Out of that seed grew one of the two greatest animated Christmas shows to emerge from that decade: a classic that, like “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” melded the genius of artistic minds.

Schulz teamed with animator Bill Melendez and, working under a deadline of mere months, the three men created “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a masterpiece that daringly led with its heart. Charlie Brown battled seasonal depression, Snoopy engaged in flights of fancy and Linus Van Pelt delivered the biblical monologue that, out of the mouths of a babe, still moves viewers regardless of age or faith.

“Over the course of my life, I’ve probably watched ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ more times than any single episode of television,” late-night host Jimmy Kimmel says. “It’s one of the main reasons I decided to have more kids.”

Kimmel thinks that special reflects the larger excellence of what a boy from Minnesota ultimately gave to the world. “As soon as our daughter Jane learned to read, I bought her all the ‘Peanuts’ anthologies,” the comedian says. “I bought an original drawing of Snoopy by Charles Schulz that may very well be a forgery. I cherish it even if it is.

“The best of Peanuts is as good as anything ever. For me, it’s one of the greatest achievements in American art and literature.”

Pixar chief creative officer Pete Docter, director of such films as “Inside Out” and “Up,” says that brilliance was firmly rooted in the comic strip, which launched in fewer than a dozen newspapers before eventually being syndicated to thousands, becoming one of the most widely read strips in the world.

“Schulz was brave enough to talk about human, adult, often non-funny things in his strip,” Docter says. “He featured kids dealing with anxiety, insecurity, jealousy, unrequited love, which gave ‘Peanuts’ a real weight and importance.”

Growing up in Minnesota himself, Docter was drawn into a world that stays with him today. “As a kid, I was totally hooked by Snoopy and the escapist fun and humor of that character,” he says. “But whether Schulz was conscious of it or not, it was those deeper emotional things that made me continue to read into adulthood. Those deceptively simply drawn characters have real complexity and depth.

“And besides, they’re still funny 70 years later. How many comic strips can claim that?”

Bay Area author Gene Luen Yang considers how Schulz’s comic evolved from revelation to quiet revolution. Says Yang, author of such graphic novels as “American Born Chinese,” “He is so influential that pretty much every strip-format comic today, whether in the newspaper or on the web, has borrowed a bit of that innovation.”

‘We stayed close’

Ever the athlete, Schulz embraced baseball, golf and hockey from a young age. He grew to love sports like tennis, too, and these passions regularly found their way into his strip. Before he befriended some professional athletes well into his career, though, Schulz could not have known how much he buoyed them.

“As a young skater growing up, it was always fun to see the comic strip and celebrate everything we experienced at the rink,” says figure skater Scott Hamilton, who won Olympic gold in 1984. “To see the ‘Peanuts’ [characters] come alive on the ice made it seem like what we were doing was more than just skating. We had a place in popular culture.”

Schulz relocated to Northern California in the late ’50s, but you couldn’t take the Minnesota boyhood out of the man. In Santa Rosa, he built the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, also known as Snoopy’s Home Ice, in 1969. And there, in the early ’80s, Hamilton began working with Schulz on ice shows. (The skater will host “Sparky’s Ice Spectacular” at the venue on Saturday to mark the centennial.)

“Sparky was very hands-on in everything he did,” Hamilton says. “In one of the productions I did for him, he had this dream of doing a cocktail party where I got to play the host of the party. That character was interested in a girl at the party, but she gets swept off her feet by another guest, kind of like his stories of the Little Red-Haired Girl in the comic strip. Just when it seems he lost the girl, she comes back after all the other guests had left.”

Adds Hamilton, “To see how much Sparky loved that production made it one of my all-time favorite skating memories.”

Schulz also became a strong supporter of equality in sports, which included joining the board of trustees of the Women’s Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by tennis icon and civil rights activist Billie Jean King to “advance the lives of women and girls through sports and physical activity.”

Schulz would not only draw Snoopy serving aces. He would also reference his friend King.

“Sparky was actually very shy, and his comic strips were a great source of inspiration and comfort for me, especially as I traveled the world during my tennis career,” King says. “I knew if he added my name to a ‘Peanuts’ strip, he was checking in on me and wanted to have a chat.

“We stayed close until he passed, and I will always cherish that.”

’A perfect pairing’

Mendelson, who died in 2019, believed in creative serendipity. He once told The Post that the first time he heard the music of Vince Guaraldi — while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge — he thought he might use it someday.

Singer-songwriter Ben Folds views Guaraldi’s music as inseparable from the classic “Peanuts” animation it accompanied. “When you match the music with ‘Peanuts’ and the era and what it was doing and saying, then it starts to hit like Beethoven Piano Sonata time,” Folds says of Guaraldi’s sunny West Coast sound that “distilled jazz into something popular.”

Guaraldi’s “Peanuts” songs and the animated specials were “a perfect pairing,” he says, adding that the music “just gets the vibe.”

That “loomed large” when Folds was asked to write theme music for the recent streaming “Peanuts” special, “It’s the Small Things, Charlie Brown.” He meditated on Guaraldi’s music rather than trying to imitate it: “I didn’t try to drop riffs. I just went with the color.”

‘Pursue their dream’

This month, “Jump Start” creator Robb Armstrong appeared on a Schulz Museum panel with other celebrated cartoonists to share personal stories about the Sparky they knew. As he sat onstage, Armstrong appreciated that Schulz “made other budding artists either realize their dream, pursue their dream or smooth the road on their journey.”

“He was one of the most grand-hearted human beings I’ve ever encountered,” Armstrong says.

A 6-year-old Armstrong was inspired by “Peanuts” in the summer of 1968, when Schulz integrated the strip by introducing a Black character: Franklin. Armstrong’s reaction: “I’m in this strip.” (About a quarter-century later, Schulz gave Franklin the last name of “Armstrong” in a salute to his friend and syndicated colleague, an honor the “Jump Start” creator calls “otherworldly.”)

Barbara Brandon-Croft, the trailblazing creator of the comic “Where I’m Coming From,” also responded strongly in 1968. “I was excited to see a Black character in ‘Peanuts.’ Even if Franklin’s presence was only that — a Black kid amongst the group — it absolutely made a difference,” she says. “When you grow up as an ‘other,’ which is what this country laid out for us, when you see yourself represented, it gives you a sense of belonging.”

‘The cool astronaut’

Schulz, a World War II Army veteran, was long fascinated with aviation, and NASA and “Peanuts” have a long relationship that includes the Silver Snoopy Award, which is bestowed upon outstanding NASA contractors and employees.

In 1969, Schulz appeared in public alongside the Apollo 10 astronauts who rode in the module called “Charlie Brown.” That was also the year that a future astronaut was inspired by Snoopy and space.

“In 1969, the Mets won the World Series, [astronauts] landed on the moon and I went to see ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown,’ the new animated feature, at Radio City Music Hall, says Mike Massimino, an engineering professor and space adviser. “It all happened within a few months of each other, and it kind of set up the passions for the rest of my life.”

That year, Massimino received a stuffed Snoopy astronaut toy as a gift. In 2009, on his second NASA space mission, Massimino took that same Snoopy toy into space, a symbol of his lasting attachment to “Peanuts.”

Noting that his attempts to become an astronaut failed three times before he was accepted, Massimino says he admires Charlie Brown’s spirit of optimistic resilience. “Charlie Brown is the friend and person I wanted to be, and Snoopy is the cool astronaut I wanted to be,” Massimino says.

Adds the astronaut, “I think it’s the greatest comic strip and characters ever created.”

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