IT IS A GENTLE afternoon in this Connecticut office park, where several floors up, a lighting artist is herself backlit by the glinting summer sun. “The Peanuts Movie” is in the home stretch of production, ahead of its November release, and here at Blue Sky Studios, the look and line of creator Charles M. Schulz are meriting both intense allegiance and 3-D reinvention. So at this moment, in that spirit, Jeeyun Sung Chisholm pauses before the screen, her right hand resting on a tablet as she sharpens the film’s big dance scene. And behold, there is Snoopy, and Charlie Brown, and Pigpen…
“And there is Franklin. We have to light him differently from Charlie Brown,” says Chisholm, the film’s South Korean-born lighting supervisor, taking great care as she adjusts the palette one day last week. There is an awareness that nearly a half-century after Franklin was created, thereby integrating America’s beloved comic strip, he still resonates as not just a character, but also as a symbol of cultural illumination.
Because when Schulz introduced his first “Peanuts” character of color 47 years ago today, the creation wasn’t just about one comic strip — it also became about providing a mainstream visual for integration in the throes of the turbulent ’60s. And Franklin was born because one woman, in the immediate wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination, felt the need to act, and reach out, in some small way, searching for a ray of hope in the darkness of racist and political violence.
“I was a retired teacher at the time,” says Harriet Glickman, quick and elegantly articulate while speaking by phone Friday. She had taught outside Los Angeles, in Burbank, before turning to other careers while raising her three children.
It was April of 1968, and King had just been gunned down in Memphis. “I was thinking about Dr. King, and about having lived through so many years of struggles and the racism and the [divisiveness] that existed,” Glickman, now 88, tells me. Her parents had raised her in the Depression era with a strong social conscience. Now, “This was a culmination that was so painful that I needed to do something.
“So I decided to write.”
Because she had worked with kids, and had kids of her own, Glickman was especially aware of the power of comics among the young. “And my feeling at the time was that I realized that black kids and white kids never saw themselves [depicted] together in the classroom,” says Glickman, noting that Morrie Turner‘s diverse comic “Wee Pals” was still a budding feature. And so she wrote to several syndicated-strip cartoonists — from “Peanuts” to “Mary Worth” — with the idea of cartoon integration.
“Allen Saunders was very thoughtful, and he sent a long letter, and we communicated for quite a while,” Glickman says of the “Mary Worth” scripter. “He and [artist] Ken Ernst wanted to do something like that … But he was very afraid that the syndicate would drop him.”
Glickman also received a prompt reply from “Sparky” Schulz, from up the coast in the Bay Area. The “Peanuts” creator appreciated her point — “He liked the idea,” she says — but he also shared the reasons for his reservations, including whether he, as a white creator, could write a black character without unintended condescension.
Glickman decided to write back, and suggested that she could seek input from African American friends who were parents. “With his permission, I shared his letter,” she recalls. “Ken Kelly was an old friend and a father of two, and I also asked Monica Gunning.” Those two parents wrote Schulz themselves, urging the integration of “Peanuts.” A short time later, Glickman received a response from the cartoonist.
“Schulz said that he’d got the letters,” she recalls, “and that I’d be pleased with an upcoming ‘Peanuts’ story.”
Schulz had drawn strips that introduce Franklin, son of a father who’s off in Vietnam, as this new “regular kid” plays at the beach. The storyline was set to begin July 31, 1968.
“Sparky faced a question from the head of the [United Feature] Syndicate … who said: ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” Glickman says. “If you know Sparky, you know what his response was.
“He said: ‘Either you run it the way I drew it, or I quit.’ ”
“Peanuts” at that point, of course, was already one of the preeminent comic strips in the world, followed and beloved by tens of millions of readers. “He was the voice in the comics at that time,” Glickman emphasizes. United wasn’t about to lose Schulz over this.
And so, 47 years ago today, Franklin joined the “Peanuts” gang. The introduction made the predictable cultural ripples.
“Schulz received some messages from the South from [editors], saying: ‘Please don’t send us any more strips with black children in the classroom with white children. We’re going through forced integration in our schools and don’t want to see any more of these strips,’ ” Glickman recounts.
Schulz was famous, of course, for doubling-down if you told him that something “couldn’t” be done. (Several years earlier, he’d included Bible passages in TV’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” after being challenged on Linus’s monologue from the Book of Luke.) So naturally, Franklin was now a fixture.
“I know I was personally pleased when he brought Franklin into the strip, and was excited to then add him to our television shows … ,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer of the “Peanuts” specials, tells me. And “one writer said — when Franklin was introduced — that he was glad to see Charlie Brown was colorblind.”
Forty-seven years ago, Glickman and her three children would read “Peanuts” in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. Today, Glickman picks up the L.A. Times and sees the “Peanuts” characters running in full color, in multiple meanings of that term. Because there, this week, she glimpses Franklin.
“I just love them,” Glickman tells me. “Franklin was, and is, my fourth child.”