History of the Animated Classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas

Charles Schulz’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Christmas holiday in itself go together like peanut butter and jelly. This iconic Christmas animated special is a piece of American tradition that we are all familiar with. It is a story about love, kindness, and the true meaning of Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ). With this iconic special holiday show one would wonder how it came to be.

 

Much of the success of the special can be attributed to all the characters of the animated TV special being based on Schulz's lovable comic strip- Peanuts that ran in the daily newspapers across America from 1950 until 2000. This was a comic that generated a huge phenomenon all over the world in the 1960’s. The timing for Charlie Brown and his popular crew to make their television debut could not have been better when the animated Christmas special premiered December 9, 1965 on CBS. Much of the credit for timing the decision to bring the show to life for a Prime Time audience has to go to Coca-Cola Company for commissioning the show to be made based on the popularity of Schultz's characters. 

In The Secret History of A Charlie Brown Christmas for the Coca-Cola website, author Ted Ryan tells more about the commissioning process of the special and the rejection of three networks before it found its success,

"Charles Schulz produced a pilot television program recounting the story of the world’s worst baseball player, Charlie Brown. Unfortunately for the pair (Lee Mendleson and Schulz), the pilot was rejected by thee all three of the major networks. The Coca-Cola Company did not want the baseball program, but we approached Mendleson to see if they could create a Peanuts Christmas special. While Mendleson and Schulz did not have anything prepared, they quickly crafted a simple, single page (triple spaced!) creative treatment to present to Coke. The next day Coke sent Schulz and Mendleson the following telegram: “CONFIRM SALE OF CHARLIE BROWN FOR CHRISTMAS TO COCA-COLA FOR DECEMBER BROADCAST AT YOUR TERMS WITH OPTION ON SECOND SHOW FOR NEXT SPRING. GOOD GRIEF!"

From there it took Schulz and Mendleson three months to put the special together and that was after negotiating the original one hour special to a thirty minute special. To capture the innocence of the story they were telling, the producers unconventionally selected child actors to voice the beloved Charlie Brown characters and to steer clear of being too secular they had a score for the special composed by jazz artist Vince Guaraldi. On a shoestring budget, Schultz, Mendelson and producer Bill Melendez created the entire special over a six month process. 

Their hard work and Coke's gamble paid off when the show debuted on Decembers 9, 1965! The Special was an immediate success as more than half of America tuned in to watch Schulz's adorable Peanuts on National TV. A Charlie Brown Christmas has appeared on television every holiday since and is soon to celebrate its 50th Anniversary.

The special's simple message about Christmas has continued its popularity and has made it a traditional family classic for all Americans and perhaps worldwide. Each year, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a gentle reminder about the true meaning of the holidays and not to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of shopping and commercialism.  The message is given to us in the soft and tender voices of the Peanuts gang as they remind each and every one of us that Christmas is about charity, family, and of course the birth of Jesus Christ. 

Come join us at the Chicago Street Theatre this holiday as we celebrate 60 years of providing great theatre to the community and  nostalgically visit A Charlie Brown Christmas.

-Tonia Hoyle

Tonia Hoyle is a brand new CST volunteer from the Arts and Entertainment Masters program at Valparaiso University. She is supervised by Professor Kari-Anne Innes and will be working with our Box Office and as a contributor to our website blog. Here she looks at the history of the 1965 Classic Holiday Special A Charlie Brown Christmas which provides the source material for the play that CST is presenting November 28 through December 21.

Cited Work

Ryan, Ted. Coca-Cola Company: The Secret History of Charlie Browns Christmas. Coca-Cola Company. 28, Nov. 2012. Web. 12, Nov. 2014.