- Deseret News - Thursday, November 26, 2015

For a lot of families, tuning in to the annual broadcast of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is as much a holiday tradition as decorating a tree or singing carols.

This year, the beloved holiday special based on Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip turns 50, and to celebrate, actress Kristen Bell (“Frozen”) is hosting a retrospective event on ABC titled “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown.” The event will feature live musical performances, celebrities reminiscing about favorite Charlie Brown memories and more, according to ABC — all to commemorate a show that was itself a bit of a Christmas miracle.

Before it aired on Dec. 9, 1965, nearly everyone, including its producers and the network, predicted “A Charlie Brown Christmas” would be a complete and total disaster that could forever ruin the Peanuts brand.

Originally commissioned by Coca-Cola, according to USA Today, the project came together on a shoestring budget and in a whirlwind of activity that, from conception to premier, took just six months — a window of time director Bill Melendez wasn’t sure would even allow them to finish animating it when he first signed on.

Ever protective of his creation, Schulz insisted on writing the script himself, and he used the opportunity to touch on themes he felt were missing from a lot of entertainment in the 1960s.

In his book “A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition,” producer Lee Mendelson recalls Schulz saying, “If we can talk about what I feel is the true meaning of Christmas, based on my Midwest background, it would really be worth doing.”

And that’s what he did. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” famously culminates with a nearly minute-long recitation from the Gospel According to Luke that, even in 1965, was controversial.

Mendelson and Melendez tried to get Schulz to nix the scene, arguing that it would scare off advertisers. Schulz’s response has gone down in history: “If we don’t do it, who will?”

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” broke other rules, too. Schulz adamantly refused to let the producers include a laugh track — a feature of all TV comedies back then, animated or otherwise — saying they should “let the people at home enjoy the show at their own speed, in their own way,” according to Schulz’s biography.

He also insisted on having real kids voice the characters. The majority of the parts went to kids from Melendez’s own neighborhood, some of whom were too young to even read their lines, so they had to have them read to them before each take (according to The FW). (By accident, Melendez ended up voicing Snoopy — a role that, even posthumously, he still fills, appearing in this year’s “The Peanuts Movie.”)

Just weeks before “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was scheduled to air on CBS, the producers finally got some of the animation staff together and watched a completed cut of the show for the first time. As Mendelson describes (from “The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation”), afterwards, “Bill (Melendez) turned to me and said, ‘I think we’ve ruined Charlie Brown.’ But Ed Levitt, one of the main animators, stood up and said, ‘This show is going to run for a hundred years.’ Everybody thought he was nuts.”

Network executives were even less gung-ho about what they saw. They thought the show was slow, crudely animated, and they hated the choice of music — a mix of jazz, Beethoven and Christmas songs. As Mendelson told Pop Matters, the network executives said, “We’ll play it once and that will be all. Good try.”

Of course, when “A Charlie Brown Christmas” finally premiered, it wasn’t just a success; it was a phenomenon. Fifteen million people tuned in — 45 percent of all possible viewers, according to The Enquirer.

And people are still tuning in 50 years later. As Time Magazine’s initial review said (according to Parade), “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is “a special that really is special.”

“It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown” airs Monday, Nov. 30, from 6-7 p.m., Mountain Time on ABC. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will air immediately after.

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