- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

Lee Mendelson is still amazed at the continued popularity of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” an animated television special he produced 40 years ago.

“I was watching CNN the other night, and they showed the world’s largest pumpkin,” he says, “and the anchor concluded the report by saying ‘Linus, there is your Great Pumpkin.’ ”

Based on the escapades of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts gang, the cartoon first aired on the CBS network Oct. 27, 1966. It has been a staple in homes around the world ever since — honoring the traditions of Halloween while celebrating the joys and cushioning the anxieties of childhood.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” began to take shape soon after the success of a “A Charlie Brown Christmas” back in 1965.

The network executives and sponsor Coca-Cola did not much like the Christmas show but the ratings went through the roof, so Mr. Mendelson was asked to quickly deliver another blockbuster the following spring “that could run year after year.”

So, the producer once again teamed up with the famed cartoonist and animator/director Bill Melendez in his San Francisco office to make more magic through a creative formula that would yield another 47 specials over their 38-year collaboration.

Most of the show was to be derived from a Schulz script and strips, but there was plenty of room for creative input as the trio brainstormed and the final story began to take shape.

Mr. Schulz had just started drawing Snoopy as the Flying Ace in the comic strip, and Mr. Melendez suggested that would be fun to animate. He also said it looked like the dog was in a costume and maybe they could do a Halloween special.

Mr. Mendelson recalls, “Bill then had the idea to drop the rock in Charlie Brown’s bag, and I suggested a party with the bobbing of the apples. We ultimately started talking about Linus, whom Mr. Schulz had drawn in a bunch of strips in the pumpkin patch.”

Even though Charlie Brown’s name appears in the title of the show, make no mistake: Linus is the star. While most of his buddies have a party, the determined child waits amidst gourds for the arrival of the mythical Great Pumpkin to deliver him presents.

Linus also happens to be Mr. Mendelson’s favorite Peanut.

“I think Linus is such a beautiful character,” he says. “He has his thumb in his blanket but is brilliant. There is a mixture of innocence and intellectual fervor with him.”

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” became the blockbuster the network was looking for as it captured a 49 percent share of the overall television audience. Mr. Mendelson believes it was such a hit because children found it easy to relate to the show’s theme.

“Charlie Brown gets bullied, but he survives, and certainly Linus gets bullied for his belief in the Great Pumpkin and survives,” he explains. “Also the show reveals that you can not get a gift and still survive.”

The producer of more than 300 specials proudly reports that ABC and CBS gave free rein to creative ideas for all of the Peanuts programs and never messed with a winning ratings formula. The creative team were their own censors, and during the production of the Halloween show they were slightly concerned about how the stressful scenes in the pumpkin patch might affect their young audience as well as the actors.

“Sally is six, and Linus is 10, and we were worried about whether the young actors could pull it off because there was quite a bit of yelling and dramatic stuff going on,” Mr. Mendelson recalls.

Mr. Mendelson believes “It’s the Great Pumpkin” and all of the other Peanuts’ cartoons over the years succeeded above all because his collaborators and he enjoyed the creative process and each other — and it showed in the work.

“It was never a job,” he remembers. “We would get together as friends once a month, do our thing, and everybody trusted one another. We never had an argument in forty years.”

As for his favorite Charlie Brown special, it’s a no-brainer.

“I loved ‘Great Pumpkin.’ … I knew at the time that if we did not come up with another blockbuster we would be done,” he says.

“It was the show that gave us forty more years of fun.”

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” airs tonight at 8 on ABC.

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