“Christmas Classics” continues.
On December 9, 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was shown on television for the first time – establishing a Yuletide tradition that has stood the test of time, even though the program was rushed onto the air with a shoestring budget.
Charles M. Schulz had been drawing the Peanuts comic strip for 15 years when producer Lee Mendelson called him in the spring of 1965 with big news: Coca-Cola was interested in sponsoring an animated Christmas special starring the Peanuts characters.
The company wanted to see an outline in five days.
In his wonderful 2005 book “A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition,” Mendelson recalled visiting Schulz at his California home and scribbling notes as the artist ticked off his ideas for the show:
“If it’s to be a Christmas special, I want to certainly deal with the true meaning of Christmas,” he said. “And I’d like to do a lot of scenes in the snow and with skating. … And maybe we can do something with a Christmas play and mix some of that jazz music with traditional music.”
His ideas flowed nonstop, and by the end of the day, I sent a complete outline to Coca-Cola in Atlanta (an outline that, basically, would never change as the show evolved).
On a Fast Track
Coca-Cola bought “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which CBS would air in early December – just six months away.
Schulz began turning his outline into the now-familiar story of how Charlie tries to overcome his seasonal depression by directing the school’s Christmas play, ultimately discovering the holiday’s true meaning after Linus recites the story of Christ’s birth.
Meanwhile, Mendelson hired a director: Bill Melendez, the artist responsible for the only previous Peanuts animation – a series of early ’60s Ford ads that featured the characters and a brief segment in “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” a 1963 Mendelson-produced documentary on Schulz.
The score for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was provided by San Francisco jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, who had written the now-famous “Linus and Lucy” song for Mendelson’s documentary. (In the special, “Linus and Lucy” is used during the memorable dance segment.)
The first time Guaraldi played the special’s signature “Christmastime is Here” music for Schulz and Mendelson, everyone agreed the song needed lyrics, so Mendelson scribbled some on the back of an envelope – in just 15 minutes.
Finding the Voices
Mendelson auditioned “dozens and dozens of kids” to voice the Peanuts characters, he recalled in his book.
Child actor Christopher Shea, then 7, landed the role of Linus because, Mendelson wrote, his “slight lisp gave him a youthful sweetness while his emotional delivery gave him power and authority.”
Cathy Steinberg, who played Charlie’s sister Sally, was too young to read, so producers fed the young actress her lines one at a time – and sometimes a few words at a time.
Once the cast was assembled, they recorded all their dialogue in just a few hours.
A Mixed Response
Schulz maintained creative control over the special, rejecting suggestions to add a laugh track and overcoming the network’s objections to the religious themes and the use of jazz music.
Production wrapped one week before the show’s airdate; Mendelson then screened the special for CBS executives, who weren’t impressed, as he recalled in his book:
“Well, you gave it a good shot,” said one. “It seems a little flat … a little show,” said the other. I was crushed. “Well,” said the first, “we will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”
Some critics proved no kinder, chiding the show’s choppy animation.
Under a headline of “A Wet Blanket for Peanut Fans,” the Los Angeles Times’ Walter Dutton wrote in his next-day review:
It was not a bad show, but many of the strip’s purist fans probably experienced a letdown. Somehow, even though the script and storyboard were prepared by Schulz, something was lost in the translation from the printed page to the tube.
The Associated Press’s Cynthia Lowry concluded her review by declaring that “Charlie Brown and his friends fell on their little round faces as television stars last night. …”
Viewers felt differently.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted in 15.5 million homes, ranking second to NBC’s “Bonanza” in the weekly ratings.
The following week, CBS ordered more Peanuts specials, beginning with the baseball-themed “Charlie Brown’s All Stars,” which aired in June 1966.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was also honored with an Emmy Award for best animated special and a Peabody Award for best children’s program.
Schulz, Mendelson and Melendez went on to create more than 40 Peanuts specials, as well as four feature films.
CBS repeated “A Charlie Brown Christmas” each December for the next 35 years; the 1967 and 1969 broadcasts rank alongside a slew of late ’60s/early ’70s Bob Hope and Bing Crosby specials as the most-watched Christmas shows of all time.
In 2001, the Peanuts specials moved to ABC, where they remain popular: Two nights ago, the 45th anniversary showing of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was one of the evening’s most-watched shows, seen by 8 million viewers.
See for yourself: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is available on DVD and can also be purchased at iTunes and Amazon.com. “Christmas Classics” continues December 12.
Here’s the prime-time lineup for Thursday, December 9, 1965:
7:30: “Shindig!” (ABC), “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (CBS), “Daniel Boone” (NBC)
8: “The Donna Reed Show” (ABC), “Gilligan’s Island” (CBS)
9: “Bewitched” (ABC), “Merrill’s Marauders” (CBS)
9:30: “Peyton Place” (ABC), “Mona McCluskey” (NBC)
10: “The Long Hot Summer” (ABC), “The Dean Martin Show” (NBC)
For the week of December 5, 1965:
Top novel: “The Source” by James Michener
Top song: “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)” by the Byrds
Top movie: “That Darn Cat!”
Top TV show: “Bonanza” (NBC)
In the news: Russians protested U.S. policies in Vietnam
Captions: Scenes from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” courtesy TV Guide (top); a special two-page comic strip from the magazine’s December 4, 1965, issue (middle); CBS’s advertisement for the special, also from that edition (bottom).