By the time A Charlie Brown Christmas aired for the first time in December 1965, the Peanuts characters had already been a part of American culture for 15 years, the comic strip having debuted in October 1950. Perhaps not widely known is the fact that the TV special was nearly never made at all. And once made, the finished product was disliked by the executives who commissioned it, and only aired because it had been committed to air and was completed too late to change it or substitute anything in it’s place.
And so befitting a franchise in which, according to creator Charles Schulz,
“All the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.”
It became an instant hit and endures as a Christmas classic even today, fifty years later.
If not for a convergence of events none of this would have happened. In the early 1960’s Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola were engaged in what are known today as “the advertising wars”, and in the summer of 1965 Coca Cola was looking for a vehicle with which they could gain an advertising advantage over their rival Pepsi. About a year earlier producer Lee Mendelson had pitched a different Charlie Brown special about “the world’s worst baseball player” which was rejected by the three major television networks, but was remembered by an executive at the advertising firm representing Coca Cola. Mendelson, when asked by the ad exec representing Coca Cola if he could produce a Peanuts Christmas special, said yes without hesitation and without consulting his partner Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Further, Mendelson agreed to meet with the ad agency on the following Monday to go over the proposal. The hitch was that no such project was in development and no proposal existed. Mendelson recalls that he made a telephone call to Charles Schulz:
Mendelson: “I think I just sold ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ ”
Schulz: “What’s ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’?”
Mendelson: “It’s what you’re going to write this weekend”
Schulz and Mendelson did indeed get a story and a proposal together, thin as it was, though apparently good enough for the Coke ad execs to respond by telegram the next day:
“CONFIRM SALE OF CHARLIE BROWN FOR CHRISTMAS TO COCA-COLA FOR DECEMBER BROADCAST AT YOUR TERMS WITH OPTION ON SECOND SHOW FOR NEXT SPRING. GOOD GRIEF!”
Now producer Mendelson, creator Schulz and animator Bill Melendez had only 3 months to complete the project. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it left no time for revisions to the completed product which featured some unorthodox elements. Actual children had been used to voice the characters, something that creator Charles Schulz had insisted upon. The sound track was composed by San Francisco jazz musician Vince Guaraldi (more on that in a future post). These unorthodoxies were considered flaws by the exectives once they saw the special for the first time – only a week before it aired! The sponsors found the children’s dialogue stilted and felt that the jazz themes didn’t fit the scenes. The tempo felt slow. Certainly had there been more time, these “flaws” would have been edited or rewritten or cut altogether and we would have none the charm that makes the program so different and special. And this is due to the creative vision of Charles Schulz.
There was one other unorthodox ingredient in the program.
Charles Schulz has been described as “fiercely protective” of his creation and so was able to wield nearly absolute editorial discretion. The following element was included at Schulz’ insistence. It was considered unusual content in a prime time television entertainment show and some of the parties involved balked at including it. It is, in my opinion, one of the most endearing elements of the program and never fails to bring a tear to my eye. I believe that it is an act of providence that these words are spoken to a great many millions of people by a young boy every year due to what are essentially fortunate outcomes in a chain of random events.
On December 9th, 1965 the special aired. Nearly half of the television viewing audience that night tuned in. It was a huge hit. The audience response was enormous, and it was a great victory for Coca Cola in the advertising wars. But much more than that, due to fortunate turns in a series of events, it is now a part of our culture.
Happy 50th Birthday!
A Merry and Blessed Christmas to all!