I have had such an amazing time being an Ambassador this holiday season for the 50th anniversary of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang. It has been extraordinary to speak with such greats as Jazz Musician David Benoit, Voice Actor Sally Dryer who was the voice of Lucy and the genius behind the technicolor process of the shows, Ron Smith. Being such a huge fan of Charles Schultz and all of the beloved characters he created, it was a natural progression to end our series of interviews with a truly special man. Lee Mendelson, the legendary producer of the Charlie Brown Christmas TV Special.
How did the special come about?: To my amazement, When I called Sebastopol, California Charles Schulz’s name was in the phone book; and I called him and told him I was a documentary filmmaker and wanted to do [a film] on Charlie Brown.
And [Schulz] said: “Thanks for the call, but I’m not interested in animation.”
[Before I hung up] I asked him, “…did you happen to see the Willie Mays documentary last month on NBC?” [When he answered in the affirmative] I said, “We did that show…” There was a long pause, I’ll remember that pause for my whole life, then he said, “Well if Willie Mays can trust you with his life I guess I can trust you with mine.” And that’s how we got together. So Willie Mays is responsible for A Charlie Brown Christmas.
So we did the documentary… and we needed some music.
[Vince Guaraldi] was a Charlie Brown fan. He had no money, I had no money. We agreed to a speculation to have him do the music for the documentary [and] about two days later he called… that’s the first time I ever heard Linus and Lucy, which became our theme.”
How was Coca-Cola involved? I got a call from a representative of Coca Cola. “Have you and Mr. Schulz ever thought about doing a Christmas show?” I lied and said, “Oh, all the time.” And they said, “Well it’s Wednesday so if you could shoot us an outline by Monday we might be interested at looking for a Christmas show.”
So Bill Melendez [and Schulz] flew up and we sat down, and in about four hours we came up with the outline for what would become A Charlie Brown Christmas, sent it to Coca Cola, they bought it, and we went ahead and produced the show for the next six months.
How did you and Bill Melendez (the animator) collaborate with Sparky on the script? What were some of your ideas that made it into the storyline (ie, the pathetic Christmas tree)?
The three of us got together. [Schulz] had a done few strips about the school play at Christmas time, so that was going to be the basis of it and he wanted to talk about the commerciality of Christmas and he also said, “We really should tell what Christmas is all about… I think we should have Linus read from the Bible.” At which point, both Bill and I didn’t know quite what to say except to say, “That’s never happened to our knowledge. We don’t think they’ve ever animated stuff from the Bible and Schulz said, “If we don’t do it who will?”
I had read something about Hans Christian Andersen’s little fir tree and said, “Maybe we could do something about a tree that he picks out.”
Bill said, “We should have a dance sequence with all the famous dances from 60s,” which is that famous dance sequence where each animator had his character doing a different dance from the 60s.
Ditto for the music. We understand you wrote “Christmastime is Here.” How did that come about? [The show] was too slow and I couldn’t put my finger on it and I said to Bill, “You know that opening melody when they’re skating is beautiful maybe we could get some songwriters to quickly put some words together and record it… everybody was busy. I don’t know what possessed me, but I took out an envelope.. and I literally wrote the words on that envelope in about ten minutes. It never changed, it was like writing a poem. We got some kids together and they sang it.
Last week we heard that that album passed 50 million in sales in 50 years.
Why did you go with children for voice actors? Afterall, this was rather unheard of at the time, wasn’t it? That was going to be a big gamble because up to that time adults had done kids voices.
Why do you suppose it was such a huge ratings success when it debuted in 1965? I swear I don’t have any idea. There were [three] things that helped us: Time magazine reached a huge audience; there were only Three [TV] networks, you only had 3 choices; and TV Guide was kind enough to run a two page or four page spread for us. TV Guide back then had a tremendous impact.
And why do you suppose, 50 years later, that it’s still such a hit? It’s become a generational thing. I think, first of all, it has all the great philosophy of Charles Schulz. The truths, the philosophy, and the Midwest background he had has been so enduring, and continues on to this day.
Certain writers are timeless, he’s timeless.
[Second], there’s an innocence in A Charlie Brown Christmas. There are truths in [it] that are as good today as they were then.
What was your favorite scene? Obviously, Linus reading from the Bible is something that will endure for years and years. The dance scene was fantastic because it captured all the spirit of the 60s and all the dance moves of the 60s.
To celebrate the reason for this series of interviews and my ambassadorship, the Charlie Brown Christmas TV Special, I have a giveaway for you! To me, the image that sticks in my mind when I think of the TV show is Charlie Brown and his tree. What better gift to offer this season than the Find The Christmas Spirit-Charlie Brown With Tree Figurine from Jim Shore, which retails for $40 on the Jim Shore website.