“A Charlie Brown Christmas” remains the best holiday TV special for all the reasons that CBS executives didn’t like 50 years ago.
The simplicity of the story. The absence of adult voices. Its anti-commercialism message. The terrific jazz sound track by Vince Guaraldi. Linus quoting the Bible.
Here are 10 things you didn’t know about the iconic Christmas cartoon, which airs for the 50th year tonight (9 p.m., Channel 9) following ABC’s musical salute called “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown (8 p.m.). I’ll be talking about Christmas TV specials on “Cincinnati Edition” at 1 p.m. today on 91.7 WVXU-FM.
1. Things go better with Coke: Starting in 1963, Lee Mendelson spent two years trying to sell a TV show about Charles M. Schulz and his “Peanuts” strip to a network. Finally in 1965, an advertising agency called to say Coca-Cola wanted to sponsor a “Peanuts” Christmas special. He began working with Schulz that spring on “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the very first "Peanuts" TV show, Medelson wrote in his book, “A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making Of A Tradition” (HarperCollins, 2000)..
2. Getting jazzed: Driving home from Schulz’s house in 1963, Mendelson heard Vince Guaraldi’s Grammy-winning “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” on his car radio. He called Guaraldi and asked him to do music for the Schulz documentary. A few weeks later, Guaraldi called back and insisted he listen over the phone to a song he just wrote for the film. Guaraldi called it “Linus and Lucy.” It would be another two years before America heard it on “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and became a jazz classic.
3. In the beginning: In their first discussion about a Christmas TV special, Schulz suggested the core elements of the show which never changed: Snow, skating, a school play, a mix of traditional music and jazz, with a message about “the true meaning of Christmas,” the birth of Jesus Christ," Mendelson told me in 2000 for an Enquirer story.
Quoting scripture was rare, if not unprecedented, for a cartoon on commercial television. But "the first thing Schulz had said was, ‘If we can talk about what I feel is the true meaning of Christmas, based on my Midwest background’ -- he was a real student of the Bible – ‘it would really be worth doing’… All the thoughts we had, it never changed. That outline became our show,” Mendelson told me.
When former Disney animator Bill Melendez complained the story was “too religious,” Schulz told him: “Bill, if we don’t do it, who else can? We’re the only ones who can do it,” Mendelson said in his book.
4. Happiness is a half-hour: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” airs with other cartoons as a one-hour ABC special because the original cartoon runs 25 minutes -- too long for a half-hour slot with today’s longer commercial breaks. Sometimes in the past, networks have trimmed the show to air it in 30 minutes.
In his book, Mendelson revealed that CBS originally wanted a one-hour show in 1965. But the producers said they could only make a half-hour show in the six months left in the year.
5. Like Abe Lincoln, on the back of an envelope: When Guaraldi “brought in a beautiful opening song,” all the producers felt it needed lyrics. So Mendelson jotted some words on the back of an envelope in about 15 minutes, he told me. That song, “Christmas Time Is Here,” become a holiday standard recorded by dozens of artists.
6. CBS executives were very unimpressed: After screening the show, CBS executives told Mendelson the cartoon was “a little flat, a little slow.” One CBS executive said: “Well, you gave it a good shot… We will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more. We’re sorry; and believe me, we’re big ‘Peanuts’ fans. But maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” Mendelson wrote.
7. Time on their side: The game-changer was Time magazine’s review of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on Dec. 10. 1965. Richard Burgheim called it “a special that really is special. ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ is one children’s special that bears repeating.”
8. America loved it: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered at No. 2 in the weekly Nielsen ratings , behind “Bonanza,” NBC’s hit Western. The Peanuts cartoon knocked comedian Red Skelton’s weekly show to No. 3. The Advertising Age headline read:”Move over, Red!”
9. CBS opened its Eye: After the Nielsen ratings came out, CBS called and ordered four more “Peanuts” specials. “We suddenly had one of the biggest hits on television,” Mendelson wrote. Nearly 50 “Peanuts” TV specials or movies have been produced in 50 years.
10. Lucy Van Pelt once lived in Greater Cincinnati: The namesake for Peanuts’ character Lucy Van Pelt was former Mariemont resident Louann Van Pelt, according to a 2007 PBS’ “American Masters: Good Ol’ Charles Schulz” profile.
The Van Pelts moved from the Cincinnati suburb in 1947 to Colorado Springs, where Schulz lived after marrying his first wife, Joyce Halverson. During that time he created a character called “Lucy,” because “he didn’t think my nickname of Lou was suitable,” Van Pelt told me for a 2007 Enquirer story.
After Schulz moved back to Minnesota, he gave Lucy a last name. “It was sort of a way to say ‘Hi!’ to us who always read the strip,” Van Pelt told me. “I always hasten to tell people I’m actually much kinder than her, and would never snatch that football away (when Charlie Brown tried to kick it).”