|A Charlie Brown Christmas|
by Charles M. Schulz
|Written by||Charles M. Schulz|
|Directed by||Bill Melendez|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Running time||25 minutes|
|Original release||December 9, 1965|
|Preceded by||A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1963)|
|Followed by||Charlie Brown's All-Stars (1966)|
A Charlie Brown Christmas is a 1965 animated television special, and is the first TV 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 this special, Charlie Brown finds himself depressed despite the onset of the cheerful holiday season. Lucy suggests he direct a neighborhood Christmas play, but his best efforts are ignored and mocked by his peers. After Linus tells Charlie Brown about the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown cheers up, and the Peanuts gang unites to celebrate the Christmas season.
After the comic strip's debut in 1950, Peanuts had become a phenomenon worldwide by the mid-1960s. The special was commissioned and sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company, and was written over a period of several weeks, and produced on a shoestring budget in only six months. In casting the characters, the producers took an unconventional route, hiring child actors. The program's soundtrack was similarly unorthodox, featuring a jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi. Its lack of a laugh track (a staple in US television animation in this period), in addition to its tone, pacing, music, and animation, led both the producers and the network to predict the project would be a disaster. But contrary to their collective apprehension, A Charlie Brown Christmas received high ratings and acclaim from critics. It has since been honored with both an Emmy and a Peabody Award, and became an annual presentation in the United States, airing during the Christmas season every year since its debut. Its success paved the way for a series of Peanuts television specials and films. Its jazz soundtrack also achieved commercial success, selling four million copies 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.
On their way to join their friends all skating on a frozen pond, Charlie Brown confides in Linus that despite the onset of Christmas he is still depressed. After Linus' reproach, he visits Lucy's psychiatric booth, and she advises him to get involved in a real Christmas project, directing a nativity play; Lucy relates to Charlie Brown's holiday depression, complaining about always getting toys instead of what she wants: real estate.
En route to the auditorium, Charlie Brown is discouraged when he sees Snoopy decorating his doghouse for a neighborhood lights and display contest, and then even more so when Sally, dictating a letter, asks Santa Claus for either a long and specific list of gifts or just "tens and twenties." Charlie Brown arrives at the rehearsal only to find that the play is being modernized with dancing, lively music and a "Christmas Queen" (Lucy). Charlie Brown decides they need a Christmas tree for "the proper mood", and Lucy sends him and Linus to get a "great big, shiny aluminum tree... maybe painted pink".
At the tree lot, Charlie Brown finds a small sapling that, ironically, is the only real tree among the many fakes. Despite Linus' doubts, Charlie Brown is convinced that once decorated the little tree will be just right. When they return, Lucy and the others scorn Charlie Brown's choice and walk away laughing at him; in despair, he loudly asks if anyone knows what Christmas is all about. Linus says he knows and walks to center stage. Under a spotlight, Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14, in which angels from heaven tell a group of initially frightened shepherds of the birth of the baby Jesus, and then when finished quietly says, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
Realizing that he doesn't have to let commercialism ruin his own Christmas, Charlie Brown decides to take the tree home to decorate it and show the others it will work in the play. He stops at Snoopy's decorated doghouse, which won the contest, and takes a large red ornament from it to hang on his tree, but the heavy ornament bends the small branch to the ground. Believing he killed the tree, Charlie Brown walks away dejected.
The others, who also heard Linus' oratory, realized they were too tough on Charlie Brown and secretly followed him. Linus gently uprights the drooping branch, ornament and all, and wraps his blanket around the trunk's base. After the others grab more decorations off of the doghouse and add them to the tree, even Lucy concedes to Charlie Brown's choice. They then start humming the traditional Christmas hymn, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". When Charlie Brown returns and sees what they have done with the tree, all the kids shout, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!" Charlie Brown joins the others singing "Hark" as the end credits roll, and the snow again begins to fall.
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By the early 1960s, Charles M. Schulz's comic strip Peanuts had become a worldwide sensation. 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. Mendelson later stated that he was drawn to doing an animated Charlie Brown after working on A Man Named Mays, noting that Mays was arguably the best baseball player of all time, while Charlie Brown, in a running gag in the strips, was one of the worst, making him a natural follow-up subject to his previous work.
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." The outline did not change over the course of its production.
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 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' 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?". Schulz's estimation proved accurate, and in the 1960s, less than 9 percent of television Christmas episodes contained a substantive reference to religion, according to university researcher Stephen Lind. It could also be worth noting that Linus's recitation of Scripture was incorporated in such a way that it forms the climax of the film, thus making it impossible to successfully edit out.
Schulz's faith in the Bible stemmed from his Midwest background and religious and historical studies; as such, aspects of religion would be a topic of study throughout his life. According to a 2015 "spiritual biography", Schulz's religion was personal and complex, and would be integrated in a number of his programs.
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' 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 or in this special. Later specials would introduce an offscreen teacher; her lines are eschewed for the sound of a trombone as the team behind the specials 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 also the ability to appear nonchalant. The producers picked eight-year-old Peter Robbins, already known for his roles 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. Kathy 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. In actuality, animation was only completed in the final four months of production. CBS initially wanted an hour's worth of animation, but Melendez talked them down to a half-hour special, believing an hour of television animation was too much. Having never worked on a half-hour special before, Melendez phoned Bill Hanna of Hanna-Barbera for advice, but Hanna declined to give any. CBS gave a budget of $76,000 to produce the show and it went $20,000 over budget. 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.
Melendez had previously worked for Warner Bros. and Disney, and working on Peanuts-related material gave him a chance to animate a truly flat cartoon design. The movement of Schulz's characters, particularly the Peanuts gang, was very limited. The character of Snoopy, however, proved the exception to the rule. "He can do anything - move and dance - and he's very easy to animate," said Melendez.
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 Guaraldi's crossover hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" 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 and Lucy," to serve as the theme. When Coca-Cola commissioned A Charlie Brown Christmas in spring 1965, Guaraldi returned to write the music. The first instrumentals for the special were recorded by Guaraldi at Glendale, California's Whitney Studio with bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey. Recycling "Linus and Lucy" from the earlier special, Guaraldi completed two new originals for the special, "Skating", and "Christmas Time Is Here". In the weeks preceding the premiere, Mendelson encountered trouble finding a lyricist for Guaraldi's instrumental intro, and penned "Christmas Time is Here" in "about 15 minutes" on the backside of an envelope.
The special opens and closes with a choir of children, culled from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California, 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 he announced 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. The recording sessions were conducted in late autumn 1965, and were cut in three separate sessions over two weeks. They often ran late into the night, resulting in angry parents, some who forbade their children from returning; consequently, numerous new children were present at each session. The children were directed by Barry Mineah, who demanded perfection from the choir. Mendelson and Guaraldi disagreed, desiring the "kids to sound like kids"; they used a slightly off-key version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" in the final cut. Children were paid five dollars for their participation. In addition, the children recorded dialogue for the special's final scene, in which the crowd of kids shout "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!"
The soundtrack for the special was recorded during these sessions, with decisions regarding timing and phrasing determined quickly. Guaraldi brought in bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli to record the music, and spent time later re-recording earlier tracks, including covers of "The Christmas Song" and "Greensleeves." The eventual LP release credited Guaraldi solely, neglecting to mention the other musicians; Guaraldi was notorious for never keeping records of his session players. Nearly three decades later, in an effort to correct the matter, Fantasy surmised that the recordings with Budwig and Bailey were employed in the special, while Marshall and Granelli recorded the album. Despite this, other individuals have come forward claiming to have recorded the special's music: bassists Eugene Firth and Al Obidinski, and drummers Paul Distel and Benny Barth. Firth and Distil are noted as performers on a studio-session report Guaraldi filed for the American Federation of Musicians.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007, and added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry list of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important" American sound recordings in 2012.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed just ten days shy of its national broadcast premiere. All involved believed the special 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, Ed Levitt, was more positive regarding the special, telling him it was "the best special [he'll] ever make [...] This show is going to run for a hundred years." 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. Executives had invited television critic Richard Burgheim of Time to view the special, and debated as to whether showing it to him would be a good idea. His review, printed the following week, was positive, praising the special as unpretentious and writing that "A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children's special this season that bears repeating."
The program premiered on CBS on December 9, 1965, at 7:30 pm ET (pre-empting The Munsters), and was viewed by 45% 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. The special received unanimous critical acclaim: The Hollywood Reporter deemed the show "delightfully novel and amusing," while the Weekly Variety dubbed it "fascinating and haunting." Bob Williams of the New York Post praised the "very neat transition from comic page to screen," while Lawrence Laurent of The Washington Post declared that "natural-born loser Charlie Brown finally turned up a real winner last night."Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram hailed the scene in which Linus recites scripture, commenting, "Linus' reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season." Harry Harris of The Philadelphia Inquirer called the program "a yule classic [...] generated quiet warmth and amusement," and Terrence O'Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Charlie Brown was a gem of a television show." Ben Gross of the New York Daily News praised the special's "charm and good taste," while Rick DuBrow of United Press International predicted, "the Peanuts characters last night staked out a claim to a major television future."
The show's glowing reviews were highlighted with an ad in trade magazines; one thanked Coca-Cola, CBS, United Features Syndicate, and the show's viewers. Fantasy released the special's soundtrack the first week of December 1965, coinciding with the special's airdate. United Feature Syndicate pushed hard to promote the special, while Word Publishing issued a hardcover adaption of the special. CBS promptly ordered four additional Peanuts specials.A Charlie Brown Christmas was awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program in 1966. "Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you," Schulz joked.
Although originally broadcast on the CBS network from 1965 until December 25, 2000, in January 2000, the broadcast rights were acquired by ABC, which is where the special currently airs, usually twice, in December.
The original broadcasts included references to the sponsor, Coca-Cola. Because of subsequent FCC laws mandating the separation of commercial material from the actual program material, subsequent broadcasts and home media releases removed all references to Coca-Cola products. Broadcasts of the special in later years also had some scenes, animation, including sound effects being redone for correction. Snoopy's dog bowl was given a new color, Lucy now makes a whirling noise when scared out of her psychiatric booth, new animation was placed in scenes where the children dance on stage after the first time to avoid repetition, music was added in the background of the rehearsal scenes, and Snoopy no longer sings like a human in the final carol, amongst others.
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 has been released as a special feature on the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the special. In subsequent years, to allow the special in an hour timeslot to be broadcast uncut for time, the animated vignette collection, Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales, is broadcast in the remaining time for that hour.
The show's 40th anniversary broadcast on December 6, 2005, had the highest ratings in its time slot.
The 50th anniversary broadcast aired on November 30, 2015, and it featured a full two-hour time slot that was padded by a special, It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, which was hosted by Kristen Bell, and featured musical performances by Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Morrison, Sarah McLachlan, Boyz II Men, Pentatonix, David Benoit, and the All-American Boys Chorus. It also included documentary features.
In September 1994 the special was released by Paramount on VHS. A laserdisc 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".
On October 6, 2009, it was released in 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.
Since off-network rights to this special have been transferred to Warner Bros., it has become available as a download on the iTunes Store, PlayStation Network, Amazon Instant Video, and Google Play, and includes It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown and It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown.
In December 2014, a 50th anniversary 2-DVD set was released. It also features the special It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown, and the Making of... documentary from previous editions.
On October 31, 2017, it was released on 4K UHD Blu-ray disc containing It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown and the Making of... special.
A Charlie Brown Christmas became a Christmas staple in the United States for several decades afterward. Within the scope of future Peanuts specials, it established their style, combining thoughtful themes, jazzy scores, and simple animation. It also, according to author Charles Solomon, established the half-hour animated special as a television tradition, inspiring the creation of numerous others, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) and Frosty the Snowman (1969). (Earlier animated specials such as Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ran a full hour.) 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 special influenced dozens of young aspiring artists and animators, many of whom went on to work within both the comics and animation industries, among them Eric Goldberg (Pocahontas),Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up), Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E),Jef Mallett (Frazz), and Patrick McDonnell (Mutts). The show's score made an equally pervasive impact on viewers who would later perform jazz, among them David Benoit and George Winston. More directly, the special launched a series of Peanuts films, TV specials (many of them holiday-themed) and other works of entertainment.
In 2013 Tams-Witmark Music Library, Inc. began licensing an official stage version of the television special authorized by the Schulz family and Lee Mendelson. The stage version follows the television special but includes an optional sing-along section of Christmas songs at the end. It includes all of Vince Guaraldi's music from the television special and the television script is adapted for the stage by Eric Schaeffer. It has been performed at hundreds of schools, churches and community theatres.
The popularity of the special practically eliminated the popularity of the aluminum Christmas tree, which was a fad from 1958 to 1965, when the special portrayed it negatively. By 1967, just two years after the special first aired, they were no longer being regularly manufactured.
The "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" has been used to comedic effect with people familiar with the special and has become synonymous with poorly executed or minimalist Christmas decorating. A model of the tree is offered by various retailers.
Three lesser-known Christmas specials were produced decades after the 1965 original.