December 12, 2005

Positivity: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ First Aired 40 Years Ago

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 6:11 am

“There will always be an audience for innocence in this country.”
— Charles Schulz

Back in 1965, almost everyone but Schulz hated the idea of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”:

The first of nearly 50 Peanuts television movies, A Charlie Brown Christmas is the longest-running cartoon special in history, airing every year since its debut in 1965. Whimsical, melancholy, and ultimately full of wonder, it is a holiday favorite for countless families. But this cartoon classic almost didn’t make it on the air.

A Movie No One Wanted

In 1963 producer Lee Mendelson made a short documentary about Charles Schulz called A Boy Named Charlie Brown. It included a few minutes of animated Peanuts scenes by Bill Melendez, who had animated the kids for a series of Ford Motor commercials, and music by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Sadly, no television network wanted to air it.

But in 1965, after the Peanuts made the cover of TIME magazine, an advertising agent for the Coca-Cola company who had seen the Schulz documentary called Melendez. The agent asked if Melendez had thought about creating a Peanuts Christmas special. Mendelson fibbed that he had; the following day, he and Schulz came up with the story.

The Wise Men Meet

The basics of the cartoon were laid out within a few hours. It would include ice-skating; a pageant (Mendelson and Schulz had both flubbed parts in school shows); a mix of Christmas carols and Guaraldi’s contemporary jazz; and the message that Christmas is really about the joyful miracle of Jesus’s birth.

Schulz wanted A Charlie Brown Christmas to have the religious meaning that was central to his own experience of Christmas. And though the special was made in California, Schulz wanted it to include snowy scenes that recalled his native Midwest.

Christmas Critics

Even Schulz admitted that he was probably the only person who could have gotten A Charlie Brown Christmas made. Television executives hated it from the start.

It was criticized as being too religious—Linus quotes straight from the King James Bible (Luke 2:8-14). It was criticized for featuring contemporary jazz, an offbeat choice for a cartoon. It was criticized for not having a laugh track. It was criticized for using the voices of real children (except for Snoopy, who was voiced by animator Melendez).

O Happy Night

But it was an instant hit with viewers and reviewers alike.

On Thursday, December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas was seen in more than 15 million homes, capturing nearly half of the possible audience. That week it was number two in the ratings, after Bonanza. It won critical acclaim as well as an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program and a Peabody Award for excellence in programming.


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