50th anniversary airing is Monday.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beloved ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ special — a special that almost never came to be. This Monday, watch an anniversary celebration at 7 p.m. on ABC ahead of the 50th annual airing at 8 p.m.
The story of the special almost mirrors the life of Charlie Brown himself. It was always the underdog that had to be scrappy to make it through. Executive Producer of the special Lee Mendelson gives the details on how the program came to be (and almost didn’t):
- In April 1965 on a Wednesday, Coca-Cola’s ad agency called Mendelson asking if he had holiday special in the works. Mendelson lied and said “absolutely,” thinking he’d have several weeks to work out an idea. They needed the proposal the following Monday.
- Mendelson contacted Schultz immeditely and told him he sold “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” to CBS. Schulz replied, “What in the world is that?” “It’s something you’re going to write tomorrow.”
- Coca-Cola liked reviewed the concept and gave them six months to produce it. This was an unheard of deadline for creating animated shows at the time and Peanuts had never been produced for television. It was an incredible challenge to translate a world-famous comic strip into film.
- Mendelson’s music soundtrack would be “jazzy… adult like and kid like at the same time.” He contacted composer Vince Guaraldi who loved Peanuts. Guaraldi called Mendelson a few weeks later to listen to it. Mendelson wanted him to come over and play it, but Guaraldi said he’d forget it by them, and insisted on playing it on the phone. “It was so right and so perfect.” His piano tune “Linus and Lucy” continues to remain synonymous with Peanuts today.
- Mendelson and Schultz decided on non-professional children’s voices for most of the characters. This wasn’t done at the time. It required extra effort during the production and effort to sell the executives on the idea.
- Schultz’ decision to have Linus read from the Bible met with a lot of skepticism. How would this fit into a children’s animated program? Schultz was adament.
- Upon reviewing the final cut, they thought they had ruined Charlie Brown. It was too slow, it didn’t work. They were concerned the network wouldn’t like it. The children’s voices were amateurish—which they were–and it didn’t convey what at the time was considered a children’s Christmas special. In fact, the network didn’t like it at all. They felt it went against all the conventional wisdom of what a children’s special had to be. But it was in the TV guide logs and they had to air it.
- Despite reluctance to put it on the air, it ended up being a huge and enduring hit. A Charlie Brown Christmas earned an unheard of 49 audience share—almost half of America watching TV that night saw it. The special went on to win an Emmy.
“I had some questions to how it would translate to television, but what do I know. You know, compared to Charles Schultz,” quipped former CBS Programing Executive Fred Silverman.
If your family is looking for more ways to celebrate the Christmas classic, pick up the new Charlie Brown Christmas Forever Stamps at your post office.