'A Charlie Brown Christmas': Celebrating 45 Years of the Classic Holiday Special
by Kim Potts, posted Dec 7th 2010 6:30PM
'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is one of the TV specials we most associate with and look forward to at Christmas every year, and this week marks the 45th anniversary of the premiere. It was on Dec. 9, 1965, to be exact, that the Peanuts gang made its cartoon debut, in a special that almost didn't make it to air.
Once the initial deal was made with Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz and his team to make the show, "Sparky," as his friends and co-workers called him, had just six months to deliver the special, an almost impossible task for an animated show at that time.
And along the way, Schulz and company would have to convince network executives at CBS, the special's original network, that they didn't want to use a laugh track; that they wanted to use actual children to voice the young characters; and that audiences would respond to the special's message about the true meaning of Christmas, even, though executives fretted about it, Linus' quote from the Bible's Luke 2:8-14 to get that message across (check out tidbit "L" for more details and the clip of the quote.)
All the worry was for nothing, it turned out, as 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' was an immediate hit, drawing a nearly 45 percent viewership share, getting rave reviews from Time and TV Guide magazines and kicking off a four-decades-plus run that would solidify its status as a beloved holiday tradition.
Here, a look at the nuts and bolts of the special (which airs Dec. 7 and Dec. 16, at 8PM ET, on ABC), from A to Z:
A is for Awards, as in an Emmy and a Peabody Award, both of which 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' has won.
B is for the late Bill Melendez, who directed, co-produced and provided the voice for Snoopy in the holiday special. Melendez, who died in 2008 at age 91, also provided the voice of Woodstock, and would record gibberish into a tape recorder and then play it at a super high speed to give Snoopy and Woodstock their non-word voices.
C is for Cast, which was made up of children. Unlike other animated specials that featured children, the young characters in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' were actually played by children, one of the many things that worried CBS executives about the special when it premiered.
D is for Doghouse, Snoopy's doghouse, which wins the blue ribbon prize in the "spectacular, supercolossal, neighborhood Christmas lights and display contest" in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.'
E is for Extras, as in the bonus material on the 'Charlie Brown Christmas' Blu-ray DVD (Warner Home Video): 'It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown,' a 1992 CBS special that was the second Christmas-themed Peanuts animated special, and 'A Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas,' a making-of featurette.
F if for First; 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' was the first animated special adapted from Charles Schultz's beloved Peanuts comic strip, and it is the second longest-running TV Christmas cartoon special, after 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' As for Peanuts, the gang has starred in three other Christmas-themed specials -- 'It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown' (1992), 'Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales' (2002) and 'I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown' (2003) -- though none have ever become as popular as the 1965 original.
G is for Guaraldi, as in Vince Guaraldi, who composed the music for the 'Charlie Brown Christmas' special, along with 16 more Peanuts TV specials that followed, and the feature-length movie 'A Boy Named Charlie Brown.' Guaraldi died at age 47, and his jazzy Peanuts tunes, which were the first exposure many children had to jazz music, were played at his funeral. The Christmas special soundtrack remains a classic holiday album, and Guaraldi's jazz piano gem 'Linus and Lucy' has become synonymous with Peanuts TV specials.
H is for 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,' the tune the Peanuts gang sings after admitting that Charlie Brown's sad little Christmas tree really isn't such a bad tree after all.
I is for Ice Skating Pond, where the action opens in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' as the Peanuts kids are skating, with 'Christmastime Is Here' playing in the background, and Snoopy is whipping himself and the kids around the ice.
J is for 'Jingle Bells,' which Lucy bugs Schroeder to play. She's unhappy with his classical version, urging him to play "'Jingle Bells' ... you know, deck them halls and all that stuff." Schroeder tries an organ version, which also fails to impress Miss Van Pelt, though he finally wins her over with a frustrated, one-fingered version that sounds like he's playing a toy piano.
K is for Kathy Steinberg, the voice of Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally. Kathy had just turned six-years-old when she recorded the voice of Sally for the Christmas special, and she hadn't learned to read yet, so her lines had to be fed to her, one line, and sometimes a few words, at a time, which explains why the dialogue sounds choppy in places. After more than four decades, Sally's stilted delivery of lines like "All I want is what I have coming to me, all I want is my fair share," just sound charming.
L is for Linus' Speech. Though again, CBS executives were worried about featuring a Biblical message in an animated show, Linus' quote of Luke 2:8-14 from the King James Bible, to explain the true meaning of Christmas, is still considered the real heart of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.'
M is for Mendelson, as in Lee Mendelson, the executive producer of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' who met Charles Schulz while making a documentary about the Peanuts creator. While shopping the Schulz documentary, Mendelson was approached by the Coca-Cola company about producing a holiday TV special, he presented the idea to Schulz, and 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' was born. The team of Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson would go on to create more than 40 Peanuts TV specials.
N is for Nativity, a key part of the Christmas play Lucy invites Charlie Brown to direct, although, at the helm, C.B. continues to get little respect from the gang, including Snoopy, who boos him. One highlight: Pig Pen as the innkeeper, who promises Charlie Brown and his assistant, Lucy, "In spite of my outward appearance, I shall try to run a neat inn."
O is for Outkast, as in the 'Hey Ya'/'A Charlie Brown Christmas' mashup created in 2004 by Cincinnati-based artist Dan Hess and his Venis Productions company. Hess had to take the parody down after a cease-and-desist letter from United Feature Syndicate, but it remains a viral video hit, with Outkast's snappy tune perfectly in synch with many memorable moments of the Peanuts gang singing and dancing.
P is for Patty, who, in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' is not the Patty most familiar to Peanuts fans, Peppermint Patty. The Christmas special Patty was one of the original characters in the Peanuts comic strip, and the only female, and in the Christmas special, she's the brown-haired girl with the checkered dress who tries to catch snowflakes on her tongue with Lucy, Linus and Schroeder. Original Patty's appearances waned throughout the years, especially after the 1966 introduction of Peppermint Patty.
Q is for Quack, as in the fake psychiatrist played by Lucy, who charges Charlie Brown a nickel and dispenses advice to him. During this particular visit to her "Psychiatric Help" booth, Lucy tells C.B. about the Christmas play, but also convinces him that he was pantophobia, i.e. a fear of everything.
R is for Real Estate, what Lucy wants for Christmas, even though she always gets "a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that," instead.
S is for 'Scrubs,' as in the 2006 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' parody featuring the voices of the 'Scrubs' cast. Created by a 'Scrubs' editor and a writer's assistant as a treat to replace the usual bloopers reel at a 'Scrubs' holiday party, the 10-minute clip is a decidedly less kid-friendly version of the Peanuts classic, particularly the scene-stealing voiceovers of the Emmy-worthy John C. McGinley as prickly Dr. Cox.
T is for Tree, the sad little tree that Charlie Brown selects at the Christmas tree lot. Linus warns him that the real tree doesn't fit the "modern spirit" of Christmas -- Lucy had ordered him to buy an aluminum tree, which was in vogue at the time -- and when he takes it back to the theater to show it to the gang, they mock him and his purchase. Later, of course, they see the beauty of the tree and deck it out with the ornaments from Snoopy's prize-winning doghouse, with Linus' beloved security blanket as a tree skirt. Some credit the Charlie Brown special with the sharp decline in sales of aluminum Christmas trees that began soon after 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' aired, though today, the fake trees have become retro chic, and replicas of C.B.'s scrawny tree, with its lone red ornament, are also popular.
U is for "Ugh! I've been kissed by a dog! I have dog germs! Get hot water! Get some disinfectant! Get some Iodine!" -- Lucy's reaction to Snoopy planting a smooch on her during the holiday classic, something he would do repeatedly throughout Peanuts history.
V is for Violet, who seems impervious to Charlie Brown's sarcasm when he sees her reading a Christmas card and "thanks" her for sending him one. "I didn't send you a Christmas card, Charlie Brown," she says. "Don't you know sarcasm when you hear it?" he responds. Apparently, she does not. PS -- Violet trivia: though it's mentioned only once in a Peanuts comic strip, her last name is Gray.
W is for Whoopi Goldberg, who hosted the 'A Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas' special when it first aired on TV in 2001. She's MIA from the version that's included as a DVD bonus feature. The documentary provides a wealth of information on the special, which, as Lee Mendelson points out, was not only the first Peanuts holiday special, but the creation of the Peanuts gang in cartoon form.
X is for Xmas, an abbreviation that sums up the antithesis of what Charlie Brown, and Charles Schulz, thought Christmas should be. Charlie Brown rails against the commercialization of Christmas in the Peanuts special, and it was Schulz who insisted, against advice from producers and over the objections of network execs, that Linus use a Bible quote to explain the true meaning of the holiday to a depressed Charlie Brown. When director Melendez tried to talk him out of it, Schulz replied, "If we don't do it, who will?"
Y is for Yahtzee, as in 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Yahtzee, one of the many pieces of tie-in merchandise fans of the Peanuts classic can buy. There's also 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Uno, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' pop-up book, the 'A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition' book, the soundtrack, an action figure set depicting the special's Christmas pageant, and, of course, replicas of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.
Z is for Zingers, as in the red, coconut-covered Dolly Madison snack cakes that were among the 'Charlie Brown Christmas' special's sponsors throughout the years. The show's original sponsor was Coca-Cola, and McDonald's has also sponsored the Peanuts classic.
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