THE ART AND MAKING OF PEANUTS ANIMATION: CELEBRATING FIFTY YEARS OF TELEVISION SPECIALS
By Charles Solomon
Chronicle Books, $45, 192 pages
With the Christmas season in full swing, familiar items have appeared in our homes and communities. Beautiful trees with ornaments, colorful lights on front lawns, department store displays, wreaths on doors and stockings hung with care. There also will be glasses of milk and plates of cookies, accompanied by important letters for Santa Claus, left this evening.
For nearly 50 years, there has been another important tradition during this festive season: families watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” together. This award-winning half-hour animated special, based on the popular Peanuts comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, was first broadcast in 1965 to 50 percent of all U.S. households. Many more Peanuts specials have followed and won over audiences young and old.
Charles Solomon, an animation historian and critic, has produced an excellent book, “The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation.” It covers every Peanuts special from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to last year’s “Happiness Is a Warm Blanket.” Mr. Solomon’s volume is well-researched and includes gorgeous full-color plates of animation cells, various pencil sketches and early artwork as well as fascinating interviews and behind-the-scenes accounts.
In the book’s foreword, Lee Mendelson notes that Schulz’s “leap of faith” into the world of animated specials “was rewarded by one of the greatest animation teams in entertainment history.” This team was a talented trio composed of Mr. Mendelson (executive producer), Bill Melendez (animator) and Schulz, the great cartoonist known affectionately as “Sparky.” Mr. Solomon provides a masterful account of their work, including “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown” and the brilliant miniseries “This Is America, Charlie Brown.”
Yet as ridiculous as this may sound, some people thought the first animated Peanuts special also would be the last. As Mr. Solomon writes, “‘A Charlie Brown Christmas‘ had been made quickly and on a minuscule budget.” Network executives at CBS thought it was going to be a colossal failure, calling it “flat” and “slow” and “only aired it because it had already been scheduled.” The three artists “feared they had created a flop, ending Charlie Brown’s television career just as it was beginning.” Instead, it turned out to be a massive success, winning Emmy and Peabody awards, and is still earning accolades to this day.
One of the things that set “A Charlie Brown Christmas” apart from other animated specials was when Linus recited the Gospel of St. Luke (2:8-14). Schulz wanted this important biblical passage in the special even though CBS expressed concern. Melendez also was “initially dismayed,” telling the cartoonist, “Sparky, this is religion. It just doesn’t go in a cartoon.” Schulz apparently looked at him “very coldly and said, ‘Bill, if we don’t do it, who will? We can do it.’” Melendez acknowledged Schulz “was right,” and that particular scene is kept intact each year.
The words Peanuts and Christmas are synonymous in today’s popular culture. Even so, the relationship of the Peanuts gang with this holiday isn’t limited to animated cells. Two exclusive Christmas stories created by Schulz for women’s magazines have been unearthed for the first time in decades. The well-respected comics publisher Fantagraphics Books has reprinted them in a beautiful little book, “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking,” so they’ll always be treasured and won’t soon be forgotten.
The first story, “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking,” was done for Good Housekeeping in 1963. It’s a lovely little tale of Charlie Brown speaking to other Peanuts characters about hanging their stockings. Linus has decided against it because “it’s not scriptural!” Lucy has put up two stockings because “I have two feet, don’t I?” (This leads Snoopy to put up four stockings on his doghouse.) Shermy is worried Santa Claus won’t find his house: “… on our block, all the houses look alike!” Even good ol’ Charlie Brown begins to fret, stating, “A house with no fireplace! Oh, the trials of being part of the wrong generation!” Fortunately, he comes up with a solution that makes his sister Sally proud of her big brother.
The second story, “A Christmas Story,” appeared in Woman’s Day in 1968. Snoopy is the main protagonist, trying to figure out the meaning of Christmas. On one hand, Linus reads important passages from the Bible out loud to show him “what Christmas is all about.” On the other hand, Lucy sends off a letter to Santa Claus, “this fat guy up at the North Pole,” who “brings all of these kids the things they’ve asked for.” A puzzled Snoopy, not knowing what to think, retreats to his doghouse, wondering if “all this theology could ruin my Christmas!”
Good grief, Snoopy. Please don’t worry: People of all faiths and backgrounds enjoy Peanuts at Christmas. That’s a holiday tradition all of us want to preserve.
Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a columnist with The Washington Times.