10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’
Charles Schulz's 'Peanuts' characters have become timeless classics, thanks to their long-lasting presence in newspapers and their many animated TV specials. (“It's Arbor Day Again, Charlie Brown!”) A big part of the characters' success is thanks to the classic 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' TV special.
Since it first aired in 1965, the beloved special has practically become required viewing for families celebrating the holiday season. Its message of anti-commercialism and good will towards man mixed with Schulz’s trademark humor of caustic kids in a cynical world is a perfect remedy for the holidays that can get sappier than your aunt’s homemade egg nog.
At the time of its airing, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' received rave reviews, record ratings and an annual presence on television and home video for decades to come. And yet 46 years later, few fans know about its rocky beginnings that were fraught with much frustration and cynicism by the network executives who commissioned it and the producers who fought so hard to preserve Schulz's humor and pathos. In celebration of the special's annual TV airing, here are some things you might not know about 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.'
Charles Schulz (known to friends and colleagues as “Sparky”) wanted to bring believable voices to the characters he created, so the producers cast real children to give life to the 'Peanuts' gang instead of adult voice-over artists. Professional child actors were cast in the roles for Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy since they were required to recite most of the dialogue. The rest came from children who lived in director Bill Melendez's Southern California neighborhood, most of whom had zero experience in acting or voice-over work.
Melendez and Schulz wanted to cast children in the special in order to preserve their innocence and voice because they believed it would not only make the cartoon more realistic, but also funnier and edgier. Their idea hit a snag when the production team realized that some of the children were so young that they couldn't read the script that was sitting in front of them. Melendez said in an interview for the book 'A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition' that he had to recite the script line by line for the children who couldn't read, including Christopher Shea who voiced Linus.
Since this was the first time Sparky's 'Peanuts' would be represented in an animated cartoon to a national audience, he had a strong hand in the production process and fought hard to preserve his creation by not letting the “suits” tinker with it. Schulz insisted that the cartoon not have a laugh track, something that was a standard for TV comedies at the time. Producer Lee Mendelson recalled in Schulz's biography that he was just as adamant that the special not have a laugh track to “help keep it moving along.” Sparky said at a staff meeting during production that the network should “let the people at home enjoy the show at their own speed, in their own way” and promptly walked out of the room ending the argument. Sounds like Schulz had a little bit of Lucy in him that day.
Musician and composer Vince Guaraldi's ensemble of holiday infused jazz for 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' became just as famous and as much of a yuletide favorite as the cartoon that popularized it. Sparky, however, wasn't a big fan of the catchy tunes. In fact, according to his biography, Schulz told a reporter two months after the special aired that he thought jazz music was “awful.”
Guaraldi's involvement with the 'Peanuts' dates back to before production started on the Christmas special. Mendelson had been working with Schulz on a documentary called 'A Boy Named Charlie Brown' that featured a soundtrack of jazz music composed by Guaraldi. Despite his feelings about jazz, Sparky insisted that they use Guaraldi's music again for 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' with a mix of traditional Christmas hymns because it created the perfect “bubbly, childlike tone” for the show.
Sparky was also a religious man and, according to his biography, “the life of Jesus remained for him a consuming subject.” He also insisted in the early days of production that the script feature some religious overtones, particularly a passage from the St. Luke gospel about the birth of Jesus Christ, to bring some meaning to the holiday that “had been lost in the general good-time frivolity.” The producers agreed to include a Nativity scene to represent Sparky's feelings, but by the time the script was finished, Mendelson realized he had included an entire minute-long speech directly from the New Testament. This led to the biggest arguments between Sparky and the producers, with Mendelson insisting that the special was an “entertainment show” and the speech would scare off advertisers by narrowing its audience. Thankfully, the now iconic speech survived the final cut and has aired in the special every year since.
Linus' famous speech was just one of the complaints the network executives and Coca-Cola, the special's chief sponsor, had with the final cut of the cartoon. They expected a TV comedy with a laugh track, and got instead a wry, melancholy commentary on the holiday season. (The network also objected to real children voicing all of the characters.) The brass was particularly wary of the religious overtones that Sparky insisted the special carry on the air. According to Mendelson, the executives agreed to air it “once and that will be all.” Of course, we all know what happened next.
If the network executives were a tad bit too hard on their first screening of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' the show's producers were downright cynical. Mendelson and Melendez were more pleased with the final product than the network, but they feared the public would not embrace it, let alone watch it. They also thought it would forever tarnish Sparky's characters and comic strip. Mendelson said in an interview, “We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room – he had had a couple of drinks – and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy.”
Both Mendelson and Melendez (who passed away in 2008) grew to appreciate the applause the special has received over the years despite their initial misgivings about the final product. They've also acknowledged some tiny animation mistakes that are still noticeable, even after all these years, such as the changing number of branches on Charlie Brown's scrawny tree. One of the biggest obstacles was transferring Sparky's comic strip characters into an animated form for the first time. The distinctive giant heads of the 'Peanuts' gang made them hard to animate in any kind of fast-paced sequence, so most of the action went to Snoopy, the most cartoon-like character of the group.
Despite its anti-commercial message, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' wouldn't have come together without its initial soft drink sponsor. Coca-Cola wanted to produce a Christmas special and 'Peanuts' stood at the top of their list. The first version of the special that aired on CBS not only included a brief announcement of Coca-Cola's sponsorship in the closing credits, but it also carried a product placement in the show's opening titles. As Charlie Brown and Linus are being tossed around by Snoopy while ice skating, Linus crashes head-on into a sign advertising the popular soda. The scene has since been cut due to expired advertising contracts and the sign was replaced with one that read “Danger.” (Check out the original ending with a message from Coke on the left.)
The drunken animator turned out to be the smartest person in the screening room. The first broadcast on Dec. 9, 1965 garnered more than 15.4 million viewers, received rave reviews by almost every major television critic and earned Schulz and Mendelson an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. CBS immediately commissioned more 'Peanuts' specials. Since then, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' has aired every year during the holidays on CBS and ABC, who scored the rights in 2001. The broadcasts still earn the highest ratings in their time slot. Even more impressive, it has become the second longest-running Christmas special of all time behind 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.' Poor Charlie Brown never comes in first.