50 years later, the gospel truth behind why tonight’s ‘A Charlie Brown …

30 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ At 50.

Tonight (Monday), ABC will air a special at 7 p.m. called It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, to mark the half-century since A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965.

Although CBS actually first aired the show on Dec. 9, 1965, a TV special tonight on ABC, hosted by Kristen Bell, commemorates the holiday standard a little early.This special celebrates 50 years of the Emmy-winning, animated holiday special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It features musical performances from Kristen Chenoweth, Matthew Morrison, Sarah McLachlan, Boyz II Men, Pentatonix, David Benoit and The All-American Boys Chorus.

So to continue a holiday tradition, Comic Riffs is “rebroadcasting” this “Charlie Brown Christmas” tale upon the Emmy-winning program’s golden anniversary. Monday, Nov. 30, on ABC. “Supergirl,” 8 p.m. (CBS): Kara goes too far during a training exercise against a military cyborg commissioned by Lucy Lane’s father; Cat’s judgmental mother visits; Alex asks Winn to investigate her father’s death. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” 8 p.m. (The CW): The illusion Rebecca has built up about her life for her visiting mother comes crashing down at a holiday event; Christmas Eve with his mother makes Greg realize he might be the problem relative. “Cake Wars,” 9 p.m. (Food): The four remaining teams are challenged to take Christmas intergalactic and create displays of Santa in space; the teams must bring world-famous Christmas songs to life in a huge edible creation; actor Devin Ratray helps to judge the results. “Minority Report,” 9:01 p.m. (Fox): Vega and the precogs must thwart a chemical attack by Memento Mori; Blomfeld wants the precogs back in the milk bath. “Superstore,” 10 p.m. (NBC): During his first day on the job at a big-box store, Jonah makes a rough impression on floor manager Amy, and draws the romantic interest of assistant manager Dina. That’s a half-century of exploring the true meaning of Christmas; five decades of wonderment at the synchronous dancing twins; generations of chills as the Peanuts come together to turn a sad little tree into the best tannenbaum ever.

A special that, if not for children, is certainly intended to accessible by children would never use that “guzzling Irish coffee in a bar on a snow-blanketed night in New York when you just got stood up but you feel weirdly okay about it” Vince Guaraldi music. Yet, surprisingly, the Charles Schulz creation, which airs again on November 30 at 8 PM ET on ABC (after a one hour special), still holds a few surprises. As Comic Riffs salutes the current “Peanuts” feature film, there is something reassuring in the fact that — as in childhood — a good old-fashioned broadcast network still chooses to air creator Charles Schulz’s vintage holiday specials, and often to very strong ratings still.

BEFORE THE STEADY STREAM of Emmy Awards and Grammy nominations and Oscar consideration came The Idea — the one that producer-director Lee Mendelson, a half-century later, calls with a certain zest “the best idea I’ve had in my entire life.” “I’d just made a documentary about the best baseball player in the world,” Mendelson tells Comic Riffs, referring to his award-winning NBC work about Willie Mays. “So I decided to make a documentary about the worst baseball player in the world.” That, naturally, would be Charlie Brown. Mendelson called fellow Northern California resident Charles Schulz — “his phone number was listed right in the book,” the producer recalls — and proposed the documentary. Fortunately, Mendelson says, Schulz had seen “A Man Named Mays” and liked it. “Sure, come on up,” Schulz replied, so Mendelson motored up from San Francisco to Sebastopol and right there in the heart of wine country, the inspired ideas began to ferment and a 38-year friendship and creative partnership took root.

When Linus — who is, in many ways, the nice one — tells him, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie-Browniest,” it feels like the kind of improvisational brutality in which kids really do specialize. As the special celebrates its 49th anniversary this week — and the strip enjoys its 64th year — ABC airs the “Peanuts” special tonight (the first time of the season for the full, not-edited-for-commercial-constraints version). That’s unvarnished, and while the special will end with everyone telling him “Merry Christmas,” you will not really see much evidence in the next 20-plus minutes that they do, in fact, like him.

Or it might have been adults in their 40s or 50s who were delighted to see a meaningful, adult-themed show that brushed aside the platitudes that surround public dialogue and then passed this on to their children and grandchildren. Sadly, most of the original artwork, scripts, notes and behind-scenes materials have been lost to time. (A significant portion of them was discarded in the late 1960s and early 1970s.) However, some bits and pieces, like the draft script page above and a few other tidbits, did survive. The humor, the heart, the laughter and the tears.” “I’ve never actually looked up the word in the dictionary,” Mendelson, 81, says with a laugh, “but yes, I believe in serendipity. But of course, it’s also unlikely that a special would end with a character reading Scripture with the earnestness of Linus. (It might be unlikely for a character to exist with the earnestness of Linus in the first place.) But as common as it is for viewers to remark on the religious content of the special, that content doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

It’s a background layout for “Scene 94A,” better known as the moment when Snoopy’s over-decorated doghouse wins first place in the neighborhood’s contest — much to the dismay of the already disillusioned Charlie Brown. In animation, moving characters are added as another layer on top of the static backgrounds, which is why Snoopy and Charlie Brown are not in the picture. It’s happened too often not to believe in it.” (Mendelson and I first met in October of 2010 when he came to the National Portrait Gallery for a “Peanuts” 60th-anniversary celebration and Charles Schulz portrait unveiling. It was in 1963 that the producer was in a car heading across the Golden Gate Bridge when he heard Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” Mendelson was struck by the jazz track and contacted Guaraldi, who happened to be a fellow San Franciscan.

It doesn’t only suggest Christmas is really about the Bible story; it suggests Christmas is also really about friends, dogs, cooperating, the beauty of humble things, singing out loud, and hope. The producer hired Guaraldi for the planned documentary, and soon after got a call from the composer. “He said, “I’ve got to play this thing for you,’ “ Mendelson recounts. “I said, ‘I hate to hear it over the phone,’ but he insisted. It’s just not about writing your Christmas list and asking for, as Sally does, “tens and twenties.” The only thing you really can’t recapture from 1965 is scarcity.

In the end, the special did work, entertaining millions of people across the country — some of whom sent their thanks directly to show-sponsor Coca-Cola. He had worked at the Bay Area station KPIX-TV after graduating from Stanford in 1954, and had rapidly become a veteran of documentary filmmaking: His film on the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, “The Innocent Fair,” had led to a “San Francisco Pageant” series that won a Peabody Award. Executive John Allen — whom Mendelson calls “the hero who had kept the flame burning” — remembered the “Peanuts” pitch of two years prior.

Translation: In an era when Western Union was their fastest form of written communication, Mendelson and Schulz had only a few days to cobble together an outline. They immediately brought aboard Melendez, who several years earlier worked with Schulz on a Ford account featuring “Peanuts.” Melendez — who had never headed the animation of a full-length cartoon — flew up from Southern California. On the clock, the collaboration moved swiftly. “Schulz’s first thought was to have this revolve around a Christmas play,” Mendelson says. “He also said we should have some winter scenes, outdoor scenes. Otherwise, Schulz said, “Why bother doing it?” Mendelson and Melendez asked Schulz whether he was sure he wanted to include Biblical text in the special.

The cartoonist’s response, Mendelson recalls: “If we don’t do it, who will?” To Coca-Cola’s credit, Mendelson says, the corporate sponsor never balked at the idea of including New Testament passages. All the songwriters they turned to were currently busy, so in desperation, Mendelson says, so he sat at the kitchen table and wrote a poem in 10 minutes. “The words just came to me,” Mendelson says.

In short order, a Bay Area children’s choir was hired to sing the enduring tune that has been covered by a range of artists, including Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Barry Manilowand Sarah McLachlan. But we’ve got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it.’ “ “The next morning, I walked into my neighborhood coffee shop,” says Mendelson, referring to Towle’s Cafe in Burlingame, Calif., “and everyone was congratulating me.

The irony, Mendelson notes, is that Schulz always wrote “Peanuts” with an adult audience in mind — but with enough warmth and distilled emotion and universality that the feature appealed to kids.

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