The Real Story Behind A Charlie Brown Christmas (and why it almost wasn't shown)

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04.jpgIn my mind, the Christmas season doesn't officially start until CBS shows A Charlie Brown Christmas. Who out there doesn't picture Snoopy dancing joyfully with his nose in the air whenever they hear the familiar strains of that jazzy piano music? Interestingly enough, this Christmas staple - the longest-running holiday special on TV - started out as an afterthought.

The Original Dog-umentary

Back in 1963, TV producer Lee Mendelson had the idea to make a documentary film about cartoonist Charles Schulz and his popular Peanuts comic strip. Schulz agreed, and collaborated with animator Bill Melendez to create two minutes of the first-ever animated Peanuts footage. The rest of the special featured "Sparky" Schulz in his studio, driving his kids to school, and even bowling a few frames. Songwriter Vince Guaraldi agreed to write some original music for the special, and the first composition he came up with was an incredibly catchy tune he called "Linus and Lucy."

031.jpgThe Peanuts documentary never sold, but one of the interested advertisers included Coca-Cola. Executives from the soft drink giant asked Mendelson if he'd be interested in putting together an animated Peanuts Christmas special. Within a few days, Mendelson and Schulz had the outline of a script ready, with notes like "sad Christmas tree," "school play," and "ice skating" scribbled in the margins. The "Lucy and Linus" song was resurrected for use in a scene that featured the characters dancing at their play rehearsal, and a choir of children were gathered from a Bay Area (California) church to record vocals for "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Why Snoopy Gets all the Action Scenes

When it came to actually producing the special, Charlie Brown was truly a problem child. Unlike most of the other characters, Chuck's head was completely round, which made it difficult for the animators to turn and indicate movement from side to side. Snoopy, on the other hand, was the easiest character to manipulate, which is why they had fun making him do everything from the jitterbug to impersonating a vulture.

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The Blockheads at CBS Hate It (then change their minds)

When CBS executives previewed A Charlie Brown Christmas, they were vastly underwhelmed. There was just so much wrong with it. There was not enough action. It moved too slow. The voices had been done by real kids, not adult actors. There was no laugh track. And Linus read from the Gospel of Luke in one scene. ("You can't read from the Bible on network television!" they declared in unison.) At the end of the meeting, Mendelson was told: "Well, you gave it a good shot. Believe me, we're big Peanuts fans, but maybe it's better suited to the comic page."

011.jpgBut CBS had made a commitment to their sponsor, so they aired the special as scheduled on December 9, 1965. And, as often happens in the world of entertainment, the original gut reaction of the suits was completely wrong. A Charlie Brown Christmas drew in 15.4 million viewers, placing it second in the ratings that week after Bonanza. A few months later, Charles Schulz and Lee Mendelson found themselves onstage accepting an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program. (See? Christmas really is the season for miracles.)

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December 19, 2007 - 10:02am
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