For many viewers, it simply wouldn’t be Christmas without Charlie Brown.
Fifty years ago, on Dec. 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas made its television debut and quickly became an enduring holiday favorite.
The staying power of this sweet, understated animated special is especially remarkable given the disposable age in which we live. What’s hot today is often forgotten tomorrow, but not so with this show.
ABC is celebrating the milestone anniversary of the Charles Schulz classic with a new one-hour retrospective and music special, It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, airing 7 p.m. Monday.
It will be followed at 8 by a repeat offering of the first — and the best — of the many Peanuts TV specials.
A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a cherished part of our popular culture for so long that many viewers cannot remember a time when it didn’t air in advance of the holiday.
But would you believe that Schulz, the cartoonist who created the Peanuts gang, and Lee Mendelson, the producer who helped bring the comic strip to television, met nothing but resistance when making the Christmas show five decades ago?
“I got involved with Charlie Brown when I made a documentary on Charles Schulz in 1963,” Mendelson says. “Then I started to explore the possibility of doing an animated Peanuts special. I must have been trying for two years before I got anybody to bite.”
Finally, in June 1965, Schulz and Mendelson were given the green light.
They came up with a story in which Charlie Brown, the lovable loser, fights the holiday blues. On the advice of Lucy, his 5-cent psychiatrist, he directs the school Christmas play. The boy’s efforts are disastrous, though, especially when he brings in the most pitifully bare Christmas tree imaginable.
Eventually, Charlie Brown is driven to complete despair by the crass commercialization of Christmas. That is when his buddy Linus steps in to remind everyone “what Christmas is all about.”
The network kept telling us, ‘You’ve got to be an hour, you can’t use children, you can’t use jazz, you can’t use religion.’ And Charles would say, ‘Why not?’ And they’d never really have a good answer.
Lee Mendelson, producer of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’
This is the simple story that launched a series of battles over format, style and content.
“First we were under pressure from the network [CBS] to do it as an hour show, a big extravaganza like Rudolph,” Mendelson says. “But we wanted to do a half-hour. It took us awhile to win that one.
“Next we got into it because we wanted to cast real children to do the voices. We met real resistance there, because it was standard practice then to use adult actors for that.
“Then we told them we wanted to use jazz [composed and performed by Vince Guaraldi], which was met with great resistance.
“And then we told them we wanted to read a short passage from the Bible [in which Linus recites the annunciation to the shepherds, from the Gospel of Luke]. A lot of eyebrows went up about that.
“The network kept telling us, ‘You’ve got to be an hour, you can’t use children, you can’t use jazz, you can’t use religion.’ And Charles would say, ‘Why not?’ And they’d never really have a good answer.
“One by one, we overcame all of the network’s objections.”
15 million The number of viewers who watched the TV debut.
But when Schulz and Mendelson brought the finished product to the network, the two executives who screened it hated it. “They thought it was dreadful,” Mendelson says. “They said, ‘We’ll run it this once because it’s already on the schedule, but that’s it.’ ”
The ratings, however, were phenomenal — more than 15 million viewers for the debut.
“The executive called me the day after it aired and said he wanted to buy four more specials,” Mendelson says. “But before he hung up, he told me, ‘My aunt in New Jersey saw it and she hated it, too!’ ”
Clearly she was in the minority.
The celebratory special, hosted by Kristen Bell, features performances by Sarah McLachlan (who sang the show’s Christmas Time Is Here song on her 2006 Wintersong album), Kristin Chenoweth (who won a Tony Award in 1999 for her performance as Sally in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown), Pentatonix, Matthew Morrison, David Benoit and Boyz II Men.
McLachlan, a three-time Grammy winner, says she didn’t hesitate when Mendelson contacted her about reprising Christmas Time Is Here, accompanied by the All-American Boys Chorus.
Arlington-based a cappella group Pentatonix will be a part of the anniversary show.
“Lee said that my version of the song [performed with Diana Krall] is his family’s favorite and he asked if I might want to be involved in this,” she says. “I was like, ‘Absolutely. Are you kidding me?’ I grew up watching Charlie Brown. We watched that Christmas special every year.
“I always wanted to be Snoopy. I loved him so much. I loved his joie de vivre, the way he danced, with his nose up in the air to jazz. He was delicious, the essence of freedom.”
While participating in the special, McLachlan also learned a thing or two about the song she already thought she knew so well.
“I always loved that song, such a beautiful melody,” she says. “Then Lee told me a funny story. They were going into the studio at the last minute and they had no lyrics. So Lee and Vince sat down at the kitchen table and wrote those lyrics on the fly, only to have it become a beloved standard.”
I always wanted to be Snoopy. I loved him so much. I loved his joie de vivre, the way he danced, with his nose up in the air to jazz. He was delicious, the essence of freedom.
Singer Sarah McLachlan
Now, thanks to her involvement in the special, McLachlan has passed her love of A Charlie Brown Christmas to a new generation.
“Now my daughters know who the Peanuts are,” she says with pride. “When I told them I was doing this, they were like, ‘Who?’ I said, ‘You know. Charlie Brown.’ ‘Who?’ ‘Snoopy.’ ‘Who?’ Well, they know now. I had to educate them about the world of Peanuts, but now they love it.”
It comes as no surprise to McLachlan that the original has stayed a viewer favorite all these years.
“Quality endures,” she says. “There’s a lot of nostalgia and a real sweetness to it. It’s very family-oriented and it’s about everybody coming together, putting aside their differences and just being peaceful.
“I think, particularly in these times, that’s a powerful message.”
It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown
- 7 p.m. Monday
- WFAA/Channel 8
A Charlie Brown Christmas
- 8 p.m. Monday
- WFAA/Channel 8