DAY ONE: I’ve just been given the Little Red-Haired Girl’s phone number. And to be honest, as a lifelong “Peanuts” fan, I feel just a bit of a tingle. Today, I’m actually going to talk to the Little Red-Haired Girl.
Her real name is Donna Johnson Wold. She’s now in her mid-80s and still lives in Minnesota — the same place where, six decades ago, she knew Charles M. Schulz, shortly before he created “Peanuts.”
Yes, right before his comic strip became beloved by the world, Donna was beloved by “Sparky” Schulz. But then Donna chose another man over Charles, and so Schulz not only gave the world Charlie Brown, but also the iconic Little Red-Haired Girl. She is the one “Peanuts” character who comes to stand more for an unshakable idea and an unattainable ideal than she does real and knowable human qualities.
The Little Red-Haired Girl is that person or concept or fantasy we fixate on, even obsess over, but who resides just beyond our grasp, which is why Schulz forever shielded her face in his strip. Much like the pursued blond woman in George Lucas’s “American Graffiti,” we know this beauty more by her hair color than her full appearance. There is magic in the silhouette. For the reader to glimpse this girl’s smile, to be able to peer into her eyes, would evaporate just a bit of the mystery.
Which is precisely what the makers of “The Peanuts Movie,” due in theaters this November, are doing today.
This morning, right here in The Post’s Comic Riffs, Team Peanuts is offering the exclusive first look at the Little Red-Haired Girl as she’ll be revealed in animated 3D motion in the visually striking feature film from Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox.
Craig and Bryan Schulz, Charles’s son and grandson, in working with fellow screenwriter Cornelius Uliano and director Steve Martino, have decided to make the Little Red-Haired Girl a crucial component — a catalyst, even — within their story.
And so we get to see her, and try to suss out what Charlie Brown sees in her, and realize anew that she is partly character as mirror: She reflects yet another facet of good ol’ humble Chuck.
But what, exactly, did the late cartoonist see in Donna Johnson all those years ago?
If only I could get her on the phone.
DAY TWO: If only the real Little Red-Haired Girl would pick up the phone.
I call the main number in the building where she lives, and ask for Donna Johnson. “There’s no one here by that name.” Odd. Then I remember to ask for Donna Wold, her married name. “Oh, here she is. We’ll ring her.”
Hmm. No answer. I call back in a bit, not wanting to appear too eager. No pick-up. I try again later this day. Same result.
That’s okay. So she’ll remain mysterious a bit longer. I comfortably have days till deadline.
DAY THREE: I finally have her on the phone.
No, no. Not the real Little Red-Haired Girl. It’s the real Jean Schulz, who was married to Sparky for the better part of three decades. Jeannie now deftly guides the Peanuts empire from the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., home base of operations. And in the ’90s, she actually met Ms. Wold for the first time after Sparky shared with the world the news that Donna was the inspiration for his Little Red-Haired Girl.
“She is a dear woman,” Jean Schulz tells me by phone, when speaking about Donna.
“She was the first person Sparky was in a real relationship with — the first person he let his love all hang out for,” says Jean, noting that her longtime husband was in his 20s at that time. “When they were working together, they would pass each other drawn notes.” Tame, harmless stuff.
But then, ultimately, young, red-maned Donna Johnson chose a Mr. Al Wold over our man Sparky, and Schulz absorbed that deep sense of being spurned. The sting of being the runner-up in love.
“When Sparky was rejected, this rejection became something separate from [Donna] the person,” says Jean, noting that creatively, her husband “used everything” from his life.
And so while writing “Peanuts,” which United Feature Syndicate launched in a handful of newspapers in 1950, Charles Schulz began to put form to feeling with the truest instrument he had available. On Nov. 12, 1963, Charlie Brown said for the first time, dreamily: “I’d sure like to eat lunch with that little red-haired girl … .”
“She’s this object of affection,” Jean says of the Little Red-Haired character that emerged. “We can’t [really] know her. … There’s this mystique and this fantasy.”
It was 14 years before we would finally see the Little Red-Haired Girl’s face in the 1977 animated special, “It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown.” And she made later appearances in animation. But in the comic strip proper, she only appeared in silhouette, in 1998, just a couple of years before Charles Schulz died.
Now, though, for the feature film, the Little Red-Haired Girl actually has a speaking part.
“It’s a very difficult thing to write, when you are the object of someone’s imagination,” Jean says. “It’s hard to put that into reality. I think what they did in [‘The Peanuts Movie’] was to make that experience ephemeral. And then in the end, she makes a real statement about Charlie Brown.”
Jean Schulz so richly illuminates the movie for me. But still, Donna Johnson Wold remains elusive — the object of a reporter’s deadline narrative.
I remain positive that the Little Red-Haired Girl will surely be around tomorrow.
DAY FOUR: Where in the world is the real Little Red-Haired Girl?
I mean, I’ve heard of playing hard to get. But this?
At last, though, I’m able to get a direct number for Ms. Wold. Now the building’s operator won’t become alarmed that I might be some bizarre stalker of “Peanuts” inspirations.
*Ring-ring* … *ring- ring*…*ring-ring*
I’ve now tried calling most every time of day, with no luck. I’m beginning to doubt she exists. I laugh facetiously: Did Sparky simply pull comics’ greatest would-be hoax?
But then I think back to talking with Sparky in 1998 at a black-tie comics-industry function. I remember telling him that a colleague, a newspaper columnist, believed that “Peanuts” deserved a Pulitzer, much like how Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel received one.
“It’ll never happen,” Sparky replied matter-of-factly. “They would never give it to a comic strip.”
What struck me, then and now, was that Sparky’s default reaction seemed to be that he wouldn’t be chosen. That somehow his form wasn’t directly worthy. That ultimately, no matter the love for his strip, he wouldn’t get the brass ring. For all his success, the Pulitzer was yet another Little Red-Haired Girl.
Speaking of: Where is she today, and why won’t she pick up?
“I’d sure like to share thoughts with that little red-haired girl … .”
As a boy, reticent and unsure, Steve Martino was Charlie Brown.
“Like Charlie Brown, I was shy and insecure about even acting on liking someone,” he says. “So this story is like looking in a mirror.”
The Little Red-Haired Girl may not be picking up her phone, but fortunately, Martino, director of “The Peanuts Movie,” is.
Martino, who previously directed “Horton Hears a Who!” and ” Ice Age: Continental Drift,” has endlessly studied the late Bill Melendez’s “Peanuts” animation.
“But for me,” Martino says of his film, “the comic strip was always the principal source. … I read those comic strips with Charlie Brown sitting out on the playground and [was] consumed with what he’s going to do when he walks up to the Little Red-Haired Girl.”
“She is kind of the catalyst for this film,” the Emmy-winning director says. “She is present throughout the movie, and drives Charlie Brown’s actions and emotions. It’s very much like the story in the comic strip, where we experience the feelings through Charlie Brown.”
Because “The Peanuts Movie” depicts her, though, Martino and his team had some key challenges.
“We wanted to make her feel like she’s sitting in this world, and that she’s a girl who will be accessible, so her hair’s not perfectly groomed in every way,” the director says. “But, we’re still inspired by that beautiful silhouette that Sparky drew.”
Because his canvas is animation, Martino also needed to determine how her movement would inform her character. “There’s a real grace and athleticism in the way that she moves. And we see her through the filter of [Charlie Brown’s] projecting the best that you could ever think she is — the best that you can imagine.”
And then, later this afternoon, it happens. I get the Little Red-Haired Girl on the phone. No, not Donna Wold. It’s Francesca Capaldi, the 11-year-old actress from Disney’s “Dog With a Blog,” who voices the Little Red-Haired Girl in the new film.
“I came in to audition to play Lucy or Sally,” Capaldi recalls. “And then I was going to play Frieda.” But then came the call: Capaldi, who has her own red curls, would play the red-haired girl.
“It’s so cool to be playing a part, a character, that no one has ever voiced before,” she says.
Capaldi is too young to have experienced Charlie Brown’s heartbreak and longing, but Martino says he was deeply impressed with how she taps a vivid imagination to nail the emotional beats within her line readings. Capaldi offers praise right back.
“Steve will describe the scene for me, the emotions,” the California fifth- grader tells me. “And then, because he’s so good at that, I am able to picture it in my head.”
And now that she’s part of the “Peanuts” family, would Capaldi ever want to meet the woman who inspired her character?
Definitely, she says. “That would be cool to meet her.”
That makes two of us, Francesca.
In the morning, I ring.
In the midday, I ring.
In the evening, I ring.
The real Little Red-Haired Girl, I decide, is the most elusive woman I’ve ever encountered. And that’s when I realize: I’m developing a bit of a Charlie Brown complex. No wonder Sparky couldn’t get her out of his head.
Good grief, I give up. You win, Ms. Wold. I’ve kicked footballs and flown kites and won baseball games and even seen a pretty great pumpkin, but I apparently will never talk with you.
You’re a better man than I, Charlie Brown.
DAY SEVEN: It’s evening. It is a dark and stormy night. Deadline looms. Almost as if to torture myself, one last time I hit redial.
Before it can even fully ring, Donna Johnson Wold picks up. “Hello?”
In disbelief, I’m momentarily at a loss for words. I hem for a second. She repeats: “Hello?”
And then I proceed to have the warmest of conversations.
Yes, Donna says, she was always a true redhead, and always got a fair bit of attention for it.
Yes, Donna says, she long knew that she inspired the character well before Sparky told the world. And she always enjoyed reading the strips featuring the Little Red-Haired Girl.
And yes, she had a great life married to Al Wold, a Minneapolis firefighter with whom she raised four children and fostered scores more.
So why did she reject Sparky?
“Oh, we dated for about two years,” she says. “I loved him. I guess I chose Al because I knew all Al’s friends, who became my friends. I didn’t really know Sparky’s friends.”
“But it was a long time ago.” A separate life unlived, in a way, one road not taken.
“I’ve had a good life,” she says. “A very happy life.”
Donna Wold is pleased to hear how big a part the Little Red-Haired Girl has in the new film. She is reassured to know that the character she inspired will be introduced to future generations through the movie. And she is warmed to learn that another true redhead is voicing the character.
But I have to ask: Does she like the character? Is she fond of the creation that sparked decades of writing within Sparky?
“Oh yes,” the real Little Red-Haired Girl says. “Because she hasn’t spoken her mind just yet.”
She knows, in other words, as well as Charles Schulz did: The magic is in what’s about to happen, and about to be heard.
The magic is in that very moment when fantasy is about to touch reality.
And on the eighth day, the new Little Red-Haired Girl was revealed.