I think it’s amazing that A Charlie Brown Christmas was in the news earlier this month. Sure, part of the media attention consisted of reports that in President Obama’s recognition of the Christmas special’s 50th anniversary, he explained the “true meaning” of Christmas without, you know, explaining the true meaning of Christmas.
But, a cartoon that airs once a year for 50 years? It’s inconceivable that a program created that long ago can still be watched on live TV, particularly in today’s hyper-competitive battle for a television-watching/data-streaming audience.
I grew up with A Charlie Brown Christmas and always looked forward to watching it as a kid. Today, as a risk-taker and entrepreneur, I have a real appreciation for what appears to be a simple, animated work because its creation is a remarkable story.
As detailed in The Christmas Miracle: The Making of a Charlie Brown Christmas, television documentary producer Lee Mendelson was in the office on a Thursday in April of 1965 when the phone rang. The call was from fabled ad agency McCann Erickson. The agency represented Coca-Cola, a huge account, and McCann wanted to know if Mendelson had a Christmas special that Coke could sponsor.
“Oh, absolutely!” Mendelson replied.
The McCann rep asked that the outline of the TV special be sent to him by Monday.
“No problem,” Mendelson said.
Well, there was a little problem. Mendelson didn’t exactly have a Christmas special. Or even an idea for one. Figuring that he would have weeks to come up with something, Mendelson stepped out on the limb with his “Oh, absolutely!” response. Then, understanding that he had to have the TV special outline completed and delivered to McCann Erickson in New York by Monday, he heard that limb cracking.
Mendelson had previously approached Peanuts creator Charles Schulz with the idea of producing a documentary on Schulz and his comic strip. But now, he called Schulz and enthusiastically stated, “I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
“What in the world is that?” Schulz replied.
“Well, it’s something that you’re going to write tomorrow,” Mendelson said.
Mendelson, along with animator Bill Melendez who flew to San Francisco, met Schulz to create a television idea… in a day. “Sparky (Schulz) was an incredible, creative… not just a cartoonist, he was a storyteller,” Melendez recalled.
The team began developing “building blocks” and putting them together to articulate their vision for the animated, Christmas special. As Mendelson promised, he sent the outline to the McCann and Coca-Cola representatives, meeting the Monday deadline. On Tuesday, they called Mendelson and said, “Let’s do it.”
And then the real work began. The group had never produced a half-hour television special before. Beyond that, Schulz and Melendez had to take comic strip characters and bring them to life, answering all of the questions about how these characters moved, how they interacted with each other and what they sounded like. Plus, the team needed to produce the “through-line” that would keep the audience interested for the entire program and still be faithful to the original Peanuts cartoon strip.
It was a monumental undertaking that included significant professional and creative risks. First, the team had to commit to delivering the finished work in six months; this was without the luxury of today’s computer animation technology. Second, Schulz had created a world-famous cartoon strip, and it was a tremendous asset, but now he was being asked to move the Peanuts characters into a completely different medium…which was outside his area of expertise. He took the risk and wisely relinquished control of the project to Melendez.
As the team approached the climax of the television special, Schulz stated that the character Linus would need to read from the Bible, explaining the birth of Christ and providing the resolution for a show in which Charlie Brown searched for the true meaning of Christmas. This was dangerous ground from the standpoint that taking biblical content and animating it had never been done before, and could be viewed as irreverent and even sacrilegious.
Schulz, who was pouring himself into the project, was somewhat offended by the notion. He believed that Bible verses weren’t meant to be restricted to church settings or to be controlled exclusively by clergy. His perspective was simply, “If we don’t do it, who will?”
Remarkably, when Mendelson, Melendez and Schulz viewed the final cut, they were disappointed. They believed the finished product moved too slowly, that it simply didn’t work, and that they had actually ruined Charlie Brown. Then they showed it to network executives.
And they didn’t like it either.
Fortunately, the public felt differently. On December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas became the highest rated Christmas special ever. With only three television networks in existence, 49% of all television viewers tuned in to watch Charlie Brown. The show won an Emmy Award and later a Peabody Award for television excellence.
It all started when one man took a risk and made a commitment. Schulz, Melendez and Mendelson were dedicated to their vision for the project; they were relentless in their pursuit of excellence – from casting the children’s voices to creating the unforgettable, original music.
And they delivered the true meaning of Christmas.