Charlie Brown: A Lion at Heart?
Released in November, “The Peanuts Movie” came to the big screen exactly 50 years later than “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on the small one. The new film makes discussion of the classic animated TV special that features an imperfect, evocative yuletide tree feel fresh again and brings to the fore a little-known LMU connection.
Then and now, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” sets a distinct tone and carries a contemplative message underscoring the true meaning of Christmas — the miracle birth of the baby Jesus.
Centered around Charles M. Schulz’s indelible “Peanuts” comic strip characters and the travails of making a Christmas pageant, Schulz figured it was a gamble — with a solidly religious focus and an arty piano-trio jazz score that swirled like drifting snow. But the Charlie Brown tree, the Vince Guaraldi jazz score and Linus’ earnest Luke 2:8-14 recitation are now instantly recognizable touchstones.
For a show with such an enduring legacy, the special’s beginnings were far from auspicious, says Tom Klein, associate professor and chair of the Animation program in LMU’s School of Film and Television. As the story goes, Time magazine showcased the Peanuts characters as their cover feature in April 1965, which served as the impetus for a holiday television special that Coca-Cola might sponsor. Schulz was told midweek that the pitch would need to land in time for a Monday review. He hit the deadline, and the Coca-Cola reps bought in. With little-to-no lead time, the show went into production with animator Bill Melendez as director and Lee Mendelson as producer. “Basically,” Klein says, “that enduring classic would come together overnight.”
In the coming years, as the business of television changed, bits and pieces of the special were edited to make room for more commercials. First seconds, removed surgically, then minutes, as if cut by machete, until in later years, entire scenes and songs were missing. “It’s just ironic,” Klein says, “that the very message central to the story — the commercialization of Christmas — was the very thing eating away at the episode itself.”
By 2002, restoring the special became a bit of a balancing act, since television timeframes had become so different. With commercials, the episode ran closer to 45 minutes. Melendez, who approved scripts after Schultz’s death in 2000, worked on the 2002 version. He created the Peanuts show that includes the vignettes known as “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales.”
When digging into this story, Klein uncovered two serendipitous connections that now loop LMU into the Charlie Brown legacy and animation history. In “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales,” Charlie Brown is lying in bed and tacked on his wall is an LMU pennant. While there has been speculation about why, there’s no obvious explanation. Later, in 2005, Melendez approached the university to donate a piece of equipment. It was the very camera that shot the beloved Christmas special. Why the gift was made to LMU, to Klein’s knowledge, is also a mystery. (Melendez died in 2008.)
“In our school, we emphasize classical, traditional animation techniques in the first year,” Klein explains, “and it culminates with filming in the traditional manner on this camera, the same camera that not only shot the Christmas special but every special after it.”
With the ongoing controversy over Black Friday shopping spilling forward into Thanksgiving Day, the TV special’s simple message seems prescient. Klein agrees: “As more and more retailers made people work the holiday, I think the special — with its quiet stance, slow earnest pace — is a reminder. It’s still a potent comment against consumerism.”