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This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A month before A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on CBS in December 1965, producer Lee Mendelson invited the animators who helped make the show — the very first Peanuts special — to a private screening. As it began unspooling, with the opening wide-shot of children skating on a frozen pond, the haunting and bittersweet Vince Guaraldi instrumental filling the air, Mendelson grew increasingly despondent. “I thought we ruined Charlie Brown,” he recalls. “[Director Bill Melendez] and I said, ‘Oh my God — it’s so slow!’ But then one of the animators in the back stood up and said, ‘You’re crazy — this is going to run for a hundred years.’ ”
That animator was half-right — 2015 marks the 50th consecutive year A Charlie Brown Christmas will be broadcast on network TV (ABC picked up the rights from CBS in 2000), making it the longest-running animated special in television history. It has been translated into dozens of languages, shown in 73 countries and has spawned nearly 50 other Peanuts specials (all produced by Mendelson), as well as four feature films, with a fifth — the first computer-generated Peanuts movie — due in theaters this November. THR chatted with the 81-year-old producer in advance of the 42nd annual Annie Awards — held in Los Angeles on Jan. 31 — where Mendelson will be one of three legends honored with the Winsor McCay Award for his career contribution to animation.
You started out as a documentarian and were going to do a documentary about Peanuts. How did that turn into A Charlie Brown Christmas?
I had done a show on Willie Mays — my first big network special — and a month later, I was reading a comic strip about Charlie Brown. I looked [Peanuts creator] Charles Schulz up in the phone book — he lived in Sebastopol, Calif., at the time and was listed! I said I would like to do a documentary about him, but he wasn’t interested. I was about to hang up, and I asked him if he had seen my Willie Mays show. He said, “If Willie Mays can trust you with his life, I guess I can trust you with mine.” We hired a young San Francisco piano player, Vince Guaraldi, to write the music for it, and Schulz got his friend Bill Melendez to do a couple of minutes of animation. We took the documentary all over, but we couldn’t sell it. Two years later, Coca-Cola called and asked if we’d ever thought of doing a Christmas show.
When CBS first saw the Christmas special, the network had problems with it. What did CBS complain about?
They thought it was too slow. They didn’t like that we used kids instead of adult actors. They didn’t understand the jazz music. They just didn’t get it. They said, “We’ll put it on the air, but we are not going to buy any more.” It went on the air and got a 49 share. One of the executives called on Monday and said, “We are going to order four more shows, but I want you to know my aunt in New Jersey didn’t like it, either.”
The specials often tackled big issues such as religion, history and illness. How did that come about?
For the Christmas special, Schulz said, “I’m going to have Linus read from the Bible.” Bill and I looked at each other and said, “I don’t know if you can have cartoon kids reading from the Bible.” He said, “If we are going to do the Christmas show, we have to talk about the true meaning of Christmas. If we don’t do it the right way, why do it at all?” That was certainly a breakthrough. And when we did the show about the little girl who had cancer [Why, Charlie Brown, Why?] and how everybody reacted to that, no one had ever done a cartoon like that.
One of the enduring parts of the animation is the way the grown-ups talk — “mwa-mwa-mwa.” What is the origin of that?
Since there were no adults in the strip, there would not be any adults on the shows. So I went to Vince Guaraldi and asked if there was an instrument you could use that would sound like a person talking. He had these fellows with a trombone come in. A year ago, I was speaking at a school, and a little girl told me her great uncle played in the Vince Guaraldi trio and showed me the trombone he played 50 years ago. Talk about serendipity.
Do you have a favorite piece of Charlie Brown memorabilia?
It’s a funny thing. I don’t have a single cartoon from Charles Schulz. I would have felt presumptive to ask him for one because we were close friends. This was a friendship first and creative team second. I don’t really have any memorabilia, as strange as it sounds. I guess it’s the 50 shows we did.
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Jamie Lee Curtis