This article is from the November 2015 Issue of Forever Young

 2015 dec charlie brown christmas

 

Endearing Christmas special starts off skating on thin ice.

By Bill Brioux

Good grief! Can it really be 50 years since “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered?

The 1965 holiday classic was an immediate hit, scoring a massive audience and winning an Emmy and a Peabody. It has become a holiday perennial, charming three generations of parents and children. Yet, surprisingly, half a century ago, it was a tough sell.

Making it happen was a small band of TV newcomers from around the San Francisco Bay area: Charles Schultz, creator and artist on every single Peanuts cartoon strip ever drawn; Lee Mendelson, a fledgling TV producer; Bill Melendez, a former Disney and Warner Bros. animator who went on to animate hundreds of TV ads and Vince Guaraldi, a local jazz musician.

Schultz had penned Peanuts for 15 years, and while it was rapidly becoming the most widely-syndicated newspaper strip in the world, it hadn’t quite become a pop phenomenon. TV would drive Peanuts to greater fame, with feature films and a Broadway play all part of a ‘60s embrace.

Mendelson had just produced a documentary on Willie Mays and wanted his next project to be about the artist who drew Charlie Brown and Snoopy. He contacted the Peanuts creator—a big baseball fan—who agreed to the project. Schulz recommended Melendez--who Schultz collaborated with on a series of Ford TV commercials—to do the two-minute animated segment needed for the doc.

The producer was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge when he heard a jazz tune on his radio. The local paper put him in touch with the musician and Guaraldi agreed to score the doc.

Mendelson, however, had trouble selling the documentary to a network. Then, in April of 1965, Life magazine put Charlie Brown and Snoopy on their cover. That same month, an ad agency representing Coca-Cola contacted Mendelson and asked if he could deliver an outline for a half-hour animated Peanuts Christmas special.

Mendelson and Schultz wrote an outline in a day and sold it to the agency. When I interviewed Mendelson and Melendez in 2002, the pair admitted they were in way over their heads. For one thing, nobody knew how much to budget for a half-hour, animated, TV special. Mendelson guessed at US$75,000—then had to dip into his own pocket for another $15,000 in order to meet CBS’s

Dec. 9, 1965, airdate.

Six months may seem like a reasonable amount of time to do a half-hour TV show but not an animated special. Each episode of The Simpsons, for example, takes nine months from script to storyboard to voice recordings, animation, music scoring and delivery.

Adding to the challenge was the fact that Schultz had a very specific vision for how his comic strip should look and sound. Mendelson suggested a laugh track at an early meeting. “Schultz stood up and walked out of the room,” said Mendelson. There would be no more laugh track talk.