One of my favorite Christmas memories is gathering around the TV to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” I was able to watch the very first presentation on Thursday, December 9, 1965. 2014 was the 50th year of consecutive showings. It is the longest running cartoon special in history. It has won both an Emmy and a Peabody Award. I love it!
What most people don’t know is that the Christmas special almost didn’t happen. Charles Schulz was the creator of the very popular comic strip, Peanuts. Bill Melendez (the producer, director, and voice for Snoopy) received a phone call from Coca-Cola. They were interested in a series of cartoon specials including the Peanuts characters, beginning with Christmas.
Melendez contacted Schultz to write the script. It was written during a few weeks. On a very limited budget, the production was finished in 6 months, 10 days before the first airing on CBS.
Charles Schulz had some ideas for the Christmas special that didn’t make network executives very happy.
1. There was no laugh track, something many comedies of the day included. Schulz thought the audience shouldn’t be prodded to laugh. Though CBS recorded a version with a laugh track included, it was never used.
2. All the voiceovers were children. Most cartoon productions used adult voices, even for children.It is a matter of trivia that you will never hear the voice of an adult on the special. In addition, with the exception of Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy, none of the voiceover children had any experience in voice work.
3. The music used was jazz. Jazz was not a children’s music genre and many thought it would distract from the story line. Executives desired traditional children’s music. But Schultz prevailed.
4. Linus recited the story of the birth of Christ straight from the Gospel of Luke. Executives didn’t think an audience would sit through a reading of passages from the King James Version of the Bible. Schultz would not budge. He said, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?” The Scripture quotation remained.
When the CBS executives viewed the finished product they were worried. It was too religious. They thought they had a failure. Even Melendez thought it a disaster. CBS had earlier promised a desire to air several ‘Charlie Brown’ specials. However, the production team was told, “We will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.” The production team felt, “We’ve just ruined Charlie Brown.”
But the executives were wrong. During the now famous scene, Charlie Brown sinks into a state of despair and cries, ‘Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?’ Linus walks to the center of the stage and under a spotlight, quotes Luke 2:8-14.
The scene lasted 51 seconds. But Schultz was right. The Bible reading is essential.
The half-hour special aired and became an instant favorite. It was seen by 45% of people watching TV that night. One review said, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”
In some respects the executives were correct. The scenes are choppy, the voices sound mechanical, and it is not an overall good cartoon production. But the power of the special is not in the production. It is in the story itself. When Linus reads from scripture, a bright light is shined on our modern departure from the true meaning of Christmas – Jesus. I think without the reading, it wouldn’t have lasted one year. Without Jesus, Christmas is just another hectic holiday.
What are your memories of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”?