A Charlie Brown Christmas
|A Charlie Brown Christmas|
|Genre||Animated TV Special|
|Created by||Charles M. Schulz|
|Written by||Charles M. Schulz|
|Directed by||Bill Melendez|
|Voices of||Peter Robbins
|Theme music composer||Vince Guaraldi|
|Country of origin||USA|
|Executive producer(s)||Lee Mendelson|
|Running time||25 minutes|
|Distributor||United Feature Syndicate (original)
Paramount Television (currently for Peanuts Worldwide)
|Original channel||CBS (1965–2000)
|Original airing||December 9, 1965|
|Preceded by||A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1963)|
|Followed by||Charlie Brown's All-Stars (1966)|
A Charlie Brown Christmas is an animated television special based on the comic strip Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz. Produced by Lee Mendelson and directed by Bill Melendez, the program made its debut on CBS on December 9, 1965. In the special, lead character Charlie Brown finds himself depressed despite the onset of the cheerful holiday season. Lucy suggests he direct a school Christmas play, but he is both ignored and mocked by his peers. The story touches on the over-commercialization and secularism of Christmas, and serves to remind viewers of the true meaning of Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ).
Peanuts had become a phenomenon worldwide by the mid-1960s, and the special was commissioned and sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company. It was written over the period of several weeks, and animated on a shoestring budget in only six months. In casting the comic's characters, the producers went an unconventional route, hiring child actors. The program's soundtrack was similarly unorthodox: it features a jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi. Its absence of a laugh track (a staple in television animation in this period), in addition to its tone, pacing, music, and animation, led both the producers and network to view the project as a disaster preceding its broadcast.
Despite this, A Charlie Brown Christmas received high ratings and acclaim from critics. It has since been honored with both an Emmy and Peabody Award. It became an annual broadcast in the United States, and has been aired during the Christmas season traditionally every year since its premiere. Its jazz soundtrack also achieved commercial success, going triple platinum in the US. Live theatrical versions of A Charlie Brown Christmas have been staged. ABC currently holds the rights to the special, and broadcasts it at least twice during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Voice cast
- 3 Production
- 4 Music
- 5 Broadcast and reception
- 6 Legacy
- 7 Broadcast rights and home media release
- 8 Other Christmas specials
- 9 References
- 10 External links
On their way to join the rest of the Peanuts gang all skating on a frozen pond, Charlie Brown confides in Linus that even though Christmas is approaching he still feels depressed, despite all the presents, cards and tree decorating, due to the over-commercialization of Christmas. His depression and aggravation only get exacerbated by the goings-on in the neighborhood. Though his mailbox is empty, he tries sarcastically to thank Violet for the card she "sent" him, though Violet takes his sarcasm literally.
Eventually, Charlie Brown visits Lucy in her psychiatric booth. Deciding that he needs more involvement, she asks him to direct a Christmas play. On the way to the auditorium, Charlie Brown stops by Snoopy's doghouse, only to find him busy decorating it. Snoopy hands him a flyer about a neighborhood lights and display contest, which upsets Charlie Brown because even his own dog has gone commercial. En route to the rehearsals, he runs into his sister Sally, who asks him to write her letter to Santa Claus. When she tells him to put in a request for money ("tens and twenties"), Charlie Brown becomes even more dismayed.
Charlie Brown arrives at the rehearsals, but he is unable to control the situation as the uncooperative kids are more interested in dancing and lively music. Thinking the play requires "the proper mood," Charlie Brown decides they need a Christmas tree. So Lucy takes over the crowd and dispatches Charlie Brown to get a "big, shiny aluminum tree." With Linus in tow, Charlie Brown sets off on his quest. But when they get to the tree market, Charlie Brown zeroes in on a small sapling which is the only real tree on the lot.
Linus is reluctant about Charlie Brown's choice, but Charlie Brown is convinced that after decorating it, it will be just right for the play. They return to the auditorium with the tree and everybody laughs at Charlie Brown. In desperation, Charlie Brown begins to wonder if he really knows what Christmas is all about. Linus states he can tell him, and recites from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 8 through 14 from the Authorized King James Version:
"'8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.'"
"...That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
Charlie Brown quietly picks up the little tree and walks out of the auditorium, intending to take the tree home to decorate and show the others it will work in the play.
On the way, he stops at Snoopy's decorated doghouse, which now sports a first prize blue ribbon for winning the display contest. He puts an ornamental ball on the top of his tree; the branch, with the ball still on it, promptly flops over to one side instead of remaining upright, prompting him to declare "I've killed it" and run off in disgust at his perpetual failure.
The rest of the gang have quietly followed him from the auditorium. Linus goes up to the tree and gently props the drooping branch back to its upright position, wrapping his security blanket around the tree. After they add the remaining decorations from Snoopy's doghouse to the tree, the kids then start humming "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". When Charlie Brown sees what they have done with the tree, he is surprised and the kids give him a Christmas greeting before singing the song, as Charlie Brown joins in.
- Peter Robbins: Charlie Brown
- Chris Shea: Linus van Pelt
- Tracy Stratford: Lucille "Lucy" van Pelt
- Kathy Steinberg: Sally Brown
- Bill Melendez: Snoopy
- Chris Doran: Schroeder and Shermy
- Karen Mendelson (as Karen Muller): Patty
- Geoffrey Orstein: Pig-Pen
- Sally Dryer: Violet Gray
- Anne Altieri: Frieda
- Children's vocals for the songs "Christmas Time is Here", "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and when the kids all shout "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown" were performed by members of the choir of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. Several months before the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas this choir was featured on the Vince Guaraldi recording "Vince Guaraldi at Grace Cathedral."
- 5, 3 and 4 have cameo appearances but are silent.
By 1965, Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts had become a sensation worldwide. Television producer Lee Mendelson acknowledged the strip's cultural impression and had an idea for a documentary on its success, phoning Schulz to propose the idea. Schulz, an avid baseball fan, recognized Mendelson from his documentary on ballplayer Willie Mays, A Man Named Mays, and invited him to his home in Sebastopol, California to discuss the project. Their meeting was cordial, with the plan to produce a half-hour documentary set. Mendelson wanted to feature roughly "one or two" minutes of animation, and Schulz suggested animator Bill Melendez, with whom he collaborated some years before on a spot for the Ford Motor Company.
Despite the popularity of the strip and acclaim from advertisers, networks were not interested in the special. By April 1965, Time featured the Peanuts gang on its magazine cover, perhaps prompting a call from John Allen of the New York-based McCann Erickson Agency. Mendelson imagined he would sell his documentary, and blindly agreed to Allen's proposal: an animated half-hour Peanuts Christmas special. The Coca-Cola Company was looking for a special for advertising during the holiday season. "The bad news is that today is Wednesday and they'll need an outline in Atlanta by Monday," Allen remarked to Mendelson. He quickly contacted Schulz, and the duo got to work with plans for a Peanuts Christmas special. The duo prepared an outline for the Coca-Cola executives in less than one day, and Mendelson would later recall that the bulk of ideas came from Schulz, whose "ideas flowed nonstop." According to Mendelson, their pitch to Coca-Cola consisted of "winter scenes, a school play, a scene to be read from the Bible, and a sound track combining jazz and traditional music."
As Allen was in Europe, the duo received no feedback on their pitch for several days. When Allen got in touch with them, he informed them that Coca-Cola wanted to buy the special, but also wanted it for an early December broadcast, giving the duo just six months to scramble together a team to produce the special. Mendelson assured him — without complete confidence in his statements — that this would be no problem. Following this, A Charlie Brown Christmas entered production.
Schulz's main goal for a Peanuts-based Christmas special was to focus on what he deemed "the true meaning of Christmas." He desired to juxtapose this theme with interspersed shots of snow and ice-skating, perhaps inspired by his own childhood growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also created the idea for the school play, and mixing jazz with traditional Christmas carols. Schulz was adamant about Linus's reading of the Bible, despite Mendelson and Melendez's concerns that religion was a controversial topic, especially on television. Melendez recalled Schulz turned to him and remarked "If we don't do it, who will?" The program's script has been described as "barebones," and was completed in only a few weeks.
In the days following the special's sell to Coca-Cola, Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez met with Schulz in his home to expand upon the ideas promised in the pitch. Mendelson noted that on the previous Christmas Day he and his spouse had read Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir Tree" to their children. Schulz countered with the idea that there be a tree with the spirit of lead character Charlie Brown. Mendelson suggested they employ a laugh track, a staple of television animation, but Schulz rejected this idea immediately. He felt strongly that the audience should not be informed on when to laugh. They spoke at length about creating an official theme that was neither jazz nor traditional to open the program. Schulz wanted a part of the special to feature the character of Schroeder performing Beethoven, and Mendelson combined this with the inclusion of Guaraldi's "Linus & Lucy" number. Schulz penned the script for A Charlie Brown Christmas, with Melendez plotting out the animation via a storyboard. His storyboard contained six panels for each shot, spanning a combined eighty or-so pages.
In casting the silent comic strip characters of Peanuts, the trio pulled from their personalities. Lead character Charlie Brown's voice was decided to be downbeat and nondescript ("blah," as Mendelson noted), while Lucy be bold and forthright. Linus's voice, it was decided, would combine both sophistication with childlike innocence. Mendelson recognized that the character of Snoopy was the strip's most popular character who seemed to seize "the best jokes," but realized they could not cast a voice for the cartoon dog. "In the process, we gained a veritable 'canine Harpo Marx,'" Mendelson later wrote. Melendez suggested he provide gibberish for Snoopy's mutterings, and simply speed up the tape to prevent viewers from knowing. There are no adult characters in the strip, but the special features an offscreen teacher. Her lines are eschewed for the sound of a trombone, as the team behind the special found it humorous.
With this in mind, the trio set out to cast the characters, which proved to be a daunting process. Casting for Charlie Brown proved most difficult, as it required both good acting skills but enough to appear nonchalant. The producers picked eight-year old Peter Robbins, known for his roles already spanning television, film, and advertisements. His godmother, famous Hollywood agent Hazel McMillen, discovered Christopher Shea, who would become Linus in the special. His slight lisp, according to Mendelson, gave him a "youthful sweetness," while his emotional script reading "gave him power and authority as well." Tracy Stratford played the role of Lucy, with the creators being impressed by her attitude and professionalism. Cathy Steinberg was the youngest of the performers, just six years old at the time of recording. Too young to read, the producers had to give her one line at a time to recite. Robbins remembered Melendez did this for him as well, joking that he also mistakenly copied his Latino accent. Mendelson desired to have non-actors (not "Hollywood kids") perform on the special, and he sent tape recorders home with his employees for their children to audition.
Much of the background cast came from Mendelson's home neighborhood in northern California. According to Robbins, the children viewed the script's sophisticated dialogue as "edgy," finding several words and phrases, among them "eastern syndicate", difficult to pronounce. He recalled the recording sessions as chaotic, with excited children running rampant. Nevertheless, the recording of A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed in one day. Jefferson Airplane was recording next door and came over to get the children's autographs. Following the special's broadcast, the children became wildly popular in their respective elementary schools; Robbins recalled groups approaching him asking him to recite lines of dialogue.
Animation for A Charlie Brown Christmas was created by Bill Melendez Productions. Mendelson had no idea whether or not completing a half-hour's worth of animation would be possible given the production's six-month schedule, but Melendez confirmed its feasibility. The first step in creating the animation was to make a pencil drawing, afterwards inking and painting the drawing onto a cel. The cel was then placed onto a painted background. There are 13,000 drawings in the special, with 12 frames per second to create the illusion of movement.
The soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas is an unorthodox mix of traditional Christmas music and jazz. The jazz portions were created by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Producer Lee Mendelson, a fan of jazz, heard a song by Vince Guaraldi on the radio not long after completion of his documentary Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz, and contacted the musician to produce music for the special. Guaraldi composed the music for the project, creating an entire piece, "Linus & Lucy," to serve as the theme. When Coca-Cola commissioned A Charlie Brown Christmas in spring 1965, Guaraldi returned to write the music.
The special opens and closes with a choir of children, culled from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, performing "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". One of the singers, Candace Hackett Shively, went on to become an elementary school teacher, and sent a letter of gratitude to Schulz after announcing his retirement in 2000. In the letter, she recalls recording the choir at Fantasy Studios and going out for ice cream afterwards, while also noting that she tells the story to her grade-schoolers each holiday season.
Broadcast and reception
A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed just ten days shy of its national broadcast premiere. All involved the special believed it would be an unmitigated disaster. Melendez first saw the completed animation at a showing in a theater in the days before its premiere, turning to his crew of animators and remarking, "My golly, we've killed it." Melendez was embarrassed, but one of the animators was more positive regarding the special, telling him it was "the best special [he'll] ever make." Mendelson was similar in his assumptions of the show's quality, and when he showed the film to network executives in New York, their opinions were also negative. Their complaints included the show's slow pace, the music not fitting, and the animation too simple. "I really believed, if it hadn't been scheduled for the following week, there's no way they were gonna broadcast that show," Mendelson later said.
The program premiered on CBS on December 9, 1965, preempting The Munsters and following the Gilligan's Island episode "Don't Bug the Mosquitoes". It was viewed by 50% of those watching television that evening, with the number of homes watching the special an estimated 15,490,000, placing it at number two in the ratings, behind Bonanza on NBC. To the surprise of the executives, it was both a critical and commercial hit. None of the special's technical problems detracted from the show's appeal; to the contrary, it is thought that these so-called quirks, along with several other choices, are what lent the show such an innovative, authentic and sincere feeling. For instance, Linus's recitation was hailed by critics such as Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram who said, "Linus' reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season."
USA Today summarized the program's appeal upon its 40th anniversary in 2005: "Scholars of pop culture say that shining through the program's skeletal plot is the quirky and sophisticated genius that fueled the phenomenal popularity of Schulz's work." Beyond its references to religion, unheard of on television at the time, the special also marked the first time children voiced animated characters.
The musical soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, by jazz composer Vince Guaraldi, has become as well known as the story itself. In particular, the instrumental "Linus and Lucy" has come to be regarded as the signature musical theme of the Peanuts specials. Additionally "Christmas Time is Here" has become a popular Christmas tune. A soundtrack album for the special was released by Fantasy Records and remains a perennial best-seller. (While the soundtrack contains some music that does not appear in the TV special, it also fails to include two musical themes which appear in the special. It also includes the full version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" without the audio fade-out where the Coca-Cola voice-over originally was. Both of those missing themes are, however, available on another album by the Vince Guaraldi Trio entitled Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits.)
The popularity of the special is said to have practically eliminated the popularity of the aluminum Christmas tree, which was a popular fad between 1958 and 1965, but because of the negative publicity the trees received in A Charlie Brown Christmas, quickly fell out of favor. By 1967, just two years after the special first aired, they were no longer being regularly manufactured.
Live theatrical versions of A Charlie Brown Christmas have been staged, notably by church groups who appreciate the biblical references. Actual children are used most often to play the parts and recite the lines, especially Linus' recitation of the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke.
Broadcast rights and home media release
In January 2000, one month before Schulz's death, the broadcast rights were acquired by ABC (as part of a deal between the network and Schulz), which is where the special currently airs (and has aired there since CBS's final airing of the special on December 25, 2000). On September 12, 2000, the special was released to DVD [it had previously been released on VHS through Shell Oil for sale at their gas stations]. The show's 40th anniversary broadcast on Tuesday, December 6, 2005, had the highest ratings in its time slot.
On December 6, 2001, a half-hour documentary on the special titled The Making of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (hosted by Whoopi Goldberg) aired on ABC. This documentary was released on VHS and DVD (along with the special Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales) as a bonus feature with the special I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown on October 26, 2004.
In 1992, the special was released for a limited time on VHS through Shell Oil for sale at their gas stations. In September 1994 the special was released by Paramount on VHS. Hi-Tops Video, maker of the Baby Songs videos, has also released A Charlie Brown Christmas on VHS. A laser disc was released by Paramount (distributed by Pioneer) in 1996; Side 2 contained the 1979 special You're the Greatest, Charlie Brown.
In September 2000 it was released on DVD. Bonus features included the 1992 special It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown. On September 23, 2008, Warner Home Video (to which the rights to the Peanuts specials reverted earlier in the year, due to Melendez's connections to WB) released a "remastered" DVD. Bonus features include a restored version of Christmastime Again and a new documentary titled "A Christmas Miracle: The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas". It is also available in a 4-disc box set with It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, also including an audio CD of Charlie Brown holiday music. It was yet again released by Warner Home Video on July 7, 2009 in a 2-disc box set called Peanuts 1960's Collection which featured all the Peanuts TV specials of the 1960s.
In the UK it was released along with "I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown"
Since off-network rights to this special have been transferred to Warner Bros. (via their respective home video and television divisions, and managed by its animation unit), this has become available as a download on the iTunes Store and the PlayStation Network's video store, and includes It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown and It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown. It is also available on high definition Blu-ray Disc from Warner in remastered Dolby 5.1 surround sound. This disc also contains It's Christmastime Again, A Christmas Miracle, a DVD of the special, and a Digital Copy.
Removal of sponsor references and additional cuts
The original broadcasts included references to the sponsor, Coca-Cola. Subsequent broadcasts and video releases mostly excised such references. CBS made additional cuts to the special over the course of the 1990s (including, briefly, standardizing the closing credits and removing the final hymn) to make more room for commercials; the removed content was restored by the time ABC took over the broadcast rights in 2000.
ABC currently airs two versions of the special each year. The first, which typically airs in conjunction with the network's in-house Prep & Landing franchise, eliminates approximately two minutes of the special. The second airing is shown uncut (except for the Coca-Cola references) in a longer time slot.
Other Christmas specials
Three lesser-known Christmas specials were produced decades after the 1965 original.
- It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992). This special was 30 minutes in length with commercials and aired on CBS. It was abandoned by CBS shortly thereafter; it was released on DVD as a bonus feature with A Charlie Brown Christmas.
- Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales (2002). This special is a slightly shorter 20 minutes with commercials and debuted on ABC. It has been released on DVD along with I Want a Dog for Christmas...
- I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown (2003) This special is a full hour long with commercials and debuted on ABC. It is available on DVD.
- Whoopi Goldberg, Lee Mendelson, et al. (2004). The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas (DVD). Paramount Home Entertainment.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 11.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 12.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 14.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 15.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 17.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 19.
- Nichols, Bill (5 December 2005). "The Christmas Classic That Almost Wasn't". USA Today. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 20.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 21.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 24.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 22.
- Mendelson 2013, p. 23.
- Andrews, Candice Gaukel. Great Wisconsin Winter Weekends, (Google Books), Big Earth Publishing, 2006, p. 178, (ISBN 1-931599-71-8)
- Lukas, Paul. "Trees Made of Tinsel", Money Magazine, via CNNMoney.com December 1, 2004, accessed December 13, 2008.
- "A dark family secret: the artificial Christmas tree", Oakland Tribune, December 24, 2006, via findarticles.com, accessed December 13, 2008.
- Pinto, Barbara. "Town Leads Aluminum Christmas Tree Revival", ABC News, December 18, 2005, accessed December 13, 2008.
- WHV Press Release: Seasonal Family Classics Combo Packs (Blu-ray)
- "YouTube: Original main title sequence to A Charlie Brown Christmas with sponsor tag". 26 June 2013.
- "YouTube: Original end title sequence to A Charlie Brown Christmas with sponsor tag". 26 June 2013.
- "Editorial: Meaning of Christmas is always there".
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- A Charlie Brown Christmas at the Internet Movie Database
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- "The Real Story Behind A Charlie Brown Christmas" at Mental Floss