When it came time to create a Halloween special in 1966, producer Lee Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez weren’t under too much pressure: They just had to produce a blockbuster on the order of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Never mind that CBS hadn’t liked that special in the first place, Mendelson recounts in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” Its ratings told another story: Nearly half of Americans who watched TV on Dec. 9, 1965, saw Linus recount the Christmas story. (The show also won an Emmy.)
Mendelson and Melendez were asked to repeat this success in two more holiday specials. After agreeing to the deal, the producer and animator immediately got on a plane to see Charles Schulz, known to friends as Sparky.
Schulz asked, “And did you promise them a blockbuster?” There was a long silence. Then Schulz said, “Well, let’s do it.”
Mendelson’s handsome commemorative book — which marks the 48th anniversary of the show — tells the story of just how they did it. The book features storyboards, production materials, the scores for “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” and “Red Baron,” and a fully illustrated script, which alone is worth the price of the book. (The only thing missing is the movie itself .) There’s also a cel from the movie, starring Linus, Sally and Snoopy, reproduced in the lower-right corner of every page, which readers can animate in time-honored flipbook fashion.
“It’s the Great Pumpkin” also includes interviews with the children who provided the voices for Lucy, Charlie Brown Linus and Sally — in the Pumpkin film as well as in other Peanuts creations. “It’s funny, when I listen to the show now I don’t recognize my voice at all,” says Anne Altieri, who voiced Frieda and Violet, “but I remember every feeling I had about every line I delivered thirty-nine years ago.” She also recalls throwing up on the way home after every recording session. Melendez, the voice of Snoopy, also left an impression on the voice-over kids in the studio, who remember how his handlebar mustache would quiver when he made Snoopy howl at the moon.
The book also includes some fun trivia. Among the 150 children who voiced the Peanuts over the years, Fergie of Black Eyed Peas fame was one of the Sallys. And for those wondering whether it was Schulz or his son, Monte, who came up with the idea of the World War I Flying Ace, who makes his first television appearance in “Great Pumpkin,” the book provides the answer: It was Monte. (Also reproduced is the comic strip in which Schulz included Mendelson’s home phone number as a joke.) Vince Guaraldi, whose music is inextricably linked with Peanuts, offers some comedy.
While composing “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” late one night, Mendelson writes, Guaraldi took a shower and heard strange noises coming from outside. He ended up locking himself out of the house — sans towel. Seeing a second-story window ajar, Guaraldi got a ladder. He was halfway up when the police arrived to see the naked composer trying to break into his own house. Asked to identify himself, Guaraldi replied, “Don’t shoot. . . . I’m the Great Pumpkin.” Such anecdotes are a delight for anyone with even a passing interest in the children’s television classic, although it’s hard to imagine a non-fan picking up this book in the first place.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.
By Lee Mendelson
Harper. 148 pp. $19.99