Dec. 04--Editor's note: This is adapted from a column that first appeared in 2009.
The executive producer didn't realize what they had. The director didn't either. The TV network was clueless.
But Charles Schulz knew what had been created when "A Charlie Brown Christmas" debuted on CBS in the mid-1960s.
Long a holiday treasure, it has been broadcast for 49 consecutive years, and millions watched it again when it aired on Monday evening.
A few years ago in Nashville, I got to participate in an interview with Lee Mendelson, who was the executive producer of the Christmas cartoon classic.
"I took a call in 1965," Mendelson, who was a successful documentary filmmaker who had been working on a documentary about Peanuts creator Schulz, recalled. "Coca-Cola was interested in a Christmas show. They called on a Wednesday and said, 'Are you and Mr. Schulz working on one?'"
"Absolutely!" Mendelson declared.
"Good. We need an outline on Monday," he was told.
An excited Mendelson called "Sparky" Schulz to say, "Coca-Cola is going to buy the Charlie Brown Christmas show."
"Sparky said, 'What's that?'"
"It's the show you're going to write tomorrow," Mendelson replied.
An outline of the story -- a disheartened Charlie Brown's quest for the meaning of Christmas -- was hustled together and transmitted by Western Union to Coke's headquarters the following Monday. "They bought it on Tuesday," Mendelson said.
In the months that followed, Schulz, Mendelson and animator-director Bill Melendez assembled the first Peanuts TV special.
There were reasons to think it would flop. Melendez insisted on using child actors to provide the voices of the Peanuts characters; some experts believed adult actors could have provided more polished childlike dialogue.
To be sure, there were challenges. "We had 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds that we would give one line at a time to," Mendelson said. "That's why it's kind of sing-songy."
Most noticeable was the little girl who voiced Sally, Charlie Brown's little sister. Young Kathy Steinberg couldn't yet read and her spoken lines had to be spliced together, sometimes with peculiar -- and yet endearing -- gaps.
It's also claimed, years later, that CBS objected to the scene in which Linus quotes from the King James version of Luke 2:8-14 -- the famous and most poetic translation of the Christ birth story -- and then declares: "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
It's been claimed that the network objected to the Scripture recitation that Schulz insisted upon.
"No," Mendelson said. That wasn't the problem.
Simply put, "They didn't like the show."
The director and producer were dejected. "Bill Melendez and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown," Mendelson said.
"There was the jazz music (instead of familiar Christmas music). There were the real kids" doing the dialogue, he said. "It was kind of slow."
Further, there wasn't a laugh track -- the infusion of artificial guffaws to remind viewers when they are supposed to be amused. "If there's a laugh track, I won't do it," Schulz said, according to Mendelson.
Television executives -- rarely known for recognition of groundbreaking genius -- viewed "A Charlie Brown Christmas" dimly. CBS bureaucrats told the Peanuts producers, "We'll put it on (the air), but this will be the last one."
What CBS didn't appreciate is how eagerly kids across America awaited this broadcast.
But I did. I was 8. In 1965, "Peanuts" was the best comic strip of its day. The humor was fresh; the final panel each day presented surprises that delighted children and adults. As a kid of that era, I can tell you that the airing of an animated Peanuts TV show was awaited with an anticipation matched only by Christmas Day itself.
Tens of millions of kids demanded that the family television set be tuned to CBS that evening. The result, Mendelson said, was stunning.
"We got a 49 share," meaning nearly one-half of all television sets in the United States were tuned in to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" that Thursday evening in December 1965. Even in an era when there were only three TV networks, it was a significant achievement. Today, it is utterly unimaginable.
The message of the show makes it all the more improbable that a commercial network should embrace it: Repeatedly condemning the greed and commercialization surrounding Christmas.
But the simple truth is that the show is charming, funny and inspirational.
A "Time" magazine critic previewed the show days before the broadcast. "He wrote a glowing review," Mendelson said. "He said it was 'a classic that they should show forever.' I didn't know what he was smoking."
The show won an Emmy and a Peabody award, and jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi's score is beloved.
One person who wasn't surprised by it all was Schulz.
"Sparky was never shocked," Mendelson said. "He loved the show."
"Mr. Schulz dealt with eternal truths," he said. "He always said there is a market for innocence in this country."
The many Peanuts specials that followed may have exceeded "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in polish, but never in spirit.
"Sparky knew it was a classic from the start," Mendelson said.
And he wasn't the only one.
Business Editor Chuck Stinnett can be reached at 270-831-8343 or email@example.com.
(c)2013 The Gleaner (Henderson, Ky.)
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