A Charlie Brown Christmas: Why the TV special endures 50 years later

Not only was A Charlie Brown Christmas a ratings monstrosity when it first aired 50 years ago, but the show has also become an iconic Christmas television ritual that remains popular today.

Characters 'dealing with eternal truths' at heart of iconic show that remains huge holiday ratings hit

Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas, an animated film that has spoken to the child in all of us for five decades. (AP, ABC, 1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc./Canadian Press)

When Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, documentary producer Lee Mendelson and director/animator Bill Melendez got together 50 years ago to create an outline for A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special, only one, very minor disagreement emerged.

"I had said we have to have a laugh track," Mendelson recalled, arguing at the time that cartoons like The Flintstones all had laugh tracks. "And Mr. Schulz said: 'No we don't.'

"And that was the end of that argument. I was wrong and it took about 10 seconds to correct."

But most of the other iconic elements that would make it to the small screen on Dec. 9, 1965 — the Christmas play, the sad little tree, the Bible passage, the jazz music, the jab at consumerism — all those were agreed upon by the three wise television men over the course of just two days.

A Charlie Brown Christmas has also become a television holiday ritual, shared from one generation to the next. (Warner Bros. Home Video)

"One idea after another just came out," Mendelson said. 

Many of those ideas were certainly unconventional for an animated Christmas special coming together in the mid-1960s. Take the opening scene of a brooding Charlie Brown lamenting about his depressive state over the holidays — surely a heavy theme to confront a toddler just plopping down to watch a Christmas cartoon.

When screened before it aired, the show's sponsor Coca Cola, CBS, Mendelson and Melendez themselves were unhappy with the final product. They all figured the show would be a bust, that the airing on Dec. 9 would be its first and last and that the special would quickly become a distant Christmas memory.

"We didn't like it and the network didn't like it. They thought it was too slow," Mendelson said. "Bill Melendez and I thought that we had somehow failed Charlie Brown, that it wasn't working."

Holiday TV ritual

But as the story goes, there was one animator at the screening who stood up, dismissed the criticisms and boldly predicted the show would run for 100 years.

Well, so far, he's half right.

Not only was it a ratings monstrosity, capturing a 45 per cent share of the TV audience that evening, but it has also become a Christmas television ritual, shared from one generation to the next. It remains a powerful ratings performer to this day, with its airing last week on ABC getting seven million viewers in the U.S.

"Most people are raised on the special," said Schulz's son Craig Schulz, producer and writer of this year's The Peanuts Movie. "They buy into the story because it's such a heartfelt story."

"It all goes back to the Schulz characters, because he was dealing with eternal truths," Mendelson said. " Those truths are meaningful 50 years ago and they're meaningful today.

"Although it was simple animation, and very quiet animation compared to everything else, the story and the characters are more important than the technical aspect."

Mendelson, who had produced a documentary on Schulz, got involved when he was asked by Coca Cola executives if his production company had ever thought of doing a Christmas show.

Something with a little tree

"I lied. I said absolutely," he said. "I hung up the phone, I called Mr. Schulz and said I may have just sold a Charlie Brown Christmas special. And he said: 'What in the world is that?' And I said it's something you're going to write tomorrow.'

"There was a long pause and he said 'OK, we can do it.' "

Peanuts animator Bill Melendez gave life to the Peanuts characters in scores of TV specials and movies, including holiday classics such as A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Nick Ut/Associated Press)

Schulz, Melendez and Mendelson got together the next day to sketch out the outline. Schulz thought the main plot should be based on putting on a Christmas play, as he had done strips on the pressures placed on kids involved in those productions.

"I mentioned that I'd read Hans Christian Anderson's The Fir Tree and went over that story and Mr. Schulz said 'Well, maybe we can do something with a little tree that Charlie Brown can identify with.' "

But it was Schulz who insisted the animated special needed to address what Christmas is really all about and suggested Linus read a passage from the Bible. 

However, both Mendelson and Melendez expressed some initial apprehension, questioning whether that would work and noting that nobody had ever animated anything religious.

"And [Schulz] said: 'Well, if we don't do it, who will?' "

Of course, the special wouldn't be nearly as special without the iconic dance scene, inspired in part, said Craig Schulz, by his sister, who would prance around the living room, trying to mimic the popular dances of that time. 

Jazzing it up

Mendelson said each animator was given a character and told to draw it doing a famous or distinctive dance step.

"In that one scene you're seeing six iconic dances," Mendelson said.

As for the music, Mendelson went with a unique choice, eschewing the typical light cartoony music of the time and suggesting they bring in jazz musician Vince Guaraldi

"Without that music, that show may have never had the notoriety that it has," Mendelson said. "We thought the music was as important as the story, and the acting and everything else."

Charlie Brown's annual return at Christmas isn't restricted to TV screens - he and Snoopy appear in a holiday window display this year at Macy's in New York. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Also unique for the time was to hire children, and not adult actors, to provide the voices for the characters.

"I remember working with Bill and he actually talked a lot to us about our characters and that's really where I got my first inkling of how [Lucy] was," said Tracy Shaw, who at the age of eight provided the voice for the fussbudget. "She wasn't really a brat per se, she was rather, as Charles Schulz would say, persnickety."

"Ironically, when I was little I was pretty compliant. But the older I've gotten the more like her I am," said Shaw, who now works as a high school librarian in Washington State.

Shaw said that at the time, as a child actress, she didn't consider her role or the show to be a big deal. But as she is now forever part of a Christmas institution, she now realizes it's "pretty amazing."

"I recognize the fact that not very many people have had the opportunity to be a part of something that becomes incredibly iconic like that."


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