Monday, December 11, 2000

'A Charlie Brown Christmas' almost didn't get made


New book reveals inside dope about tonight's TV special

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        You blockhead! You've killed Charlie Brown! That was the thinking of Lee Mendelson 35 years ago, after two unenthusiastic CBS executives previewed A Charlie Brown Christmas.

        “We thought we had ruined Charlie Brown,” said Mr. Mendelson, producer for all 65 “Peanuts” TV shows.

ON THE AIR
  • What: A Charlie Brown Christmas
  • When: 8 p.m. today
  • Where: Channels 12, 7
        “CBS didn't like it. They were totally unimpressed. They said it was too slow. They didn't like the kids' voices. They said, "You've got the music mixed up. You've got jazz and Beethoven.'

        “We didn't think it would ever air again,” Mr. Mendelson says from his home near San Francisco.

        His new book, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition (HarperCollins; $29.95), with beautiful full-color pictures and the complete TV show script, chronicles all the factors that could have doomed the special.

        Charlie Brown had a better chance of kicking that football than getting on TV, considering:

        • Mr. Mendelson had been unable for two years to sell his 1963 documentary about illustrator Charles Schulz, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, to a TV network.

        • In 1965, a New York advertising executive who had seen the film asked Mr. Mendelson whether Mr. Schulz would make a “Peanuts” Christmas special for Coca-Cola. Mr. Mendelson instantly agreed.

        “I don't know what possessed me. I didn't ask the animator (Bill Melendez). I didn't ask Schulz,” says Mr. Mendelson, 67.

        He immediately called Mr. Schulz and told him: “I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas, and we're going to have to write it tomorrow.”

        • The next day in Mr. Schulz's office, the cartoonist suggested elements for the Christmas special — snow and 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.

        “All the thoughts we had, it never changed. That outline became our show,” he says.

        • Quoting scripture in a cartoon was revolutionary. Mr. Mendelson recalls: “I had two or three seconds of "Wait a minute!' And then I said, "Why not?'

        “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.' If we hadn't gone that way, we wouldn't have done the show.”

        • Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, who composed “Linus and Lucy” for the 1963 film, was asked to write and perform background music.

        “Next to Schulz's writing, I thought the music was the key to the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The jazz made it so contemporary. The music has really become as famous as the show,” he says.

        • A few weeks before the premiere, Mr. Mendelson was scrambling to find a lyricist for Mr. Guaraldi's opening instrumental track. He called several composers without any luck.

        “So I sat down and wrote a poem in about 15 minutes on the back of an envelope to the music,” Mr. Mendelson says. His “Christmas Time Is Near” has become one of the most recorded holiday songs.

        • After screening A Charlie Brown Christmas, CBS executives were almost as crabby as Lucy. They told Mr. Mendelson not to expect any more “Peanuts” TV specials. “Maybe it's better suited to the comics page,” they told him.

        Mr. Mendelson wasn't surprised.

        “Few comic strips have done well as TV shows. Most are one and out,” says Mr. Mendelson, who has produced 130 Garfield TV shows and three Cathy TV specials. “We were lucky. We could have been one-and-out, too.”

        • CBS executives were so indifferent after screening A Charlie Brown Christmas with Mr. Mendelson that they debated not showing it to Time magazine TV critic Richard Burgheim, who was waiting outside the door.

        Mr. Burgheim's glowing review — reprinted in Mr. Mendelson's book — became his security blanket. Time called it “a special that really is special.”

        • After CBS broadcast the show on Dec. 9, 1965, Mr. Mendelson knew he wasn't in the doghouse.

        “I had a pretty good idea that people watched it, but I never dreamed we'd be No. 2 to Bonanza in the ratings,” he said. It was watched by 45 percent of all possible viewers.

        CBS promptly ordered four more “Peanuts” specials. Within six months, A Charlie Brown Christmas won a prime-time Emmy (beating out a Disney show), and a prestigious Peabody Award.

        “We often mused about how special this one was,” Mr. Mendelson says. “It was just one of those things that was meant to be.”

        After the success of Mr. Schulz's 1999 book, Peanuts: A Golden Celebration (HarperCollins; $45), the publisher suggested one about the Christmas show. Mr. Mendelson's 200-page book includes background sketches, storyboards, musical scores and glossy color photos from the original 35mm film.

        Mr. Mendelson spoke often to Mr. Schulz about the book. Their last conversation was on Feb. 12, hours before the cartoonist died in his sleep. He was 77.

        They also had been talking about at least five new cartoons that will be animated by Mr. Melendez and produced by Mr. Mendelson, guaranteeing that “Peanuts” will continue well into the new millennium.

        “And all of this happened because of A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Mr. Mendelson says. “It's still a miracle to us.”

        A miracle about the miracle of Christmas. As Linus says in the show: “That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

       

        E-mail: Jkiesewetter@enquirer.com.
       

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