For many it’s required viewing because the holiday season doesn’t start until you watch the story of an awkward boy struggling to find the true meaning of Christmas. It may be even more poignant now since even the word “Christmas” is not always welcomed at the door. Still a Charlie Brown Christmas has set the mood for millions of families for a long time. The Soundtrack from Thanksgiving to New Years Eve.
As poignant as the Charles Schulz was with his Peanuts cartoons there’s no mistaking the impact of the soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Basic animation for kids was common in the 60’s but Charlie Brown and his pals were moving in slow-motion in comparison to Bugs Bunny or the Flintstones and young Mr. Brown was a deep thinker with, of all things, a palate for jazz.
Charlie Brown producer Lee Mendelson says bringing Schulz and Guaraldi together was a perfect storm of lucky bounces – a plethora of happenstance.
In 1963 Mendelson heard Guaraldi’s hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. He’d been working on a Schulz documentary but had no soundtrack until the drive across that iconic bridge when he heard Gauraldi for the first time on the radio. Mendelson heard, “That was the Vince Guaraldi trio with ‘Cast your Fate to the Wind.’” He had never heard of Gauraldi.
That little tune was all it took and by the way it also won the Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition in 1963.
Ultimately the documentary was not a success but after a viewing Coca-Cola asked Mendelson for a Charlie Brown Christmas special which got him on the phone with Schulz, “I said, ‘I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas.’ And Schulz said, ‘What in the world is that?’ and I said, ‘It’s something you’re going to write tomorrow.’ There was a long pause, and he said, ‘Alright. Come on up.'”
That bitter sweet theme that runs across a Charlie Brown Christmas is perhaps echoed in our adult holiday emotions more than when we were the size of Charlie Brown. My own parents watched it year-after-year with me and looking back I’m sure their take-away was much different than mine. I only know that now walking in their shoes. Even though Disney perfected the two-tier story line to satisfy both the kids and the one who drive them Schulz and Guaraldi were way ahead in that game. Kids wish for more as much as adults wish they had the means to give their munchkins everything while both know it wouldn’t help.
Guaraldi finished recording the music in three hours which was common for Jazz music back then. His trio added Jazz and Blues to the 1824 German carol “O Tannenbaum.” It plays while Linus tells Charlie by the tiny tree with Linus saying, “This doesn’t seem to fit the modern spirit,” Charlie picks up the tree and it falls apart.
The centerpiece was ‘Linus and Lucy” which was a tune from Schulz-documentary. “Christmas Time Is Here” was originally an all-instrumental piece but just before airtime Guaraldi thought it needed words.
In the show Charlie Brown says things like, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” I remember as a kid thinking my life must be OK compared to Charlie Brown. Hell, he pays Lucy, who bordering in sociopath, 5 cents for advice that wound;t help a goat.
Mixing themes of holiday commercialization, religious messages and peer pressure and friendships the show managed to juggle much and that mix could have easily failed.
Charles Monroe Schulz was born on November 26, 1922, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His dad Carl was a German immigrant and barber and mom Dena, a waitress turned homemaker. He was their only child and from an early age cartoon were his thing. His career however had to wait after he was drafted in 1942. His mom died of cervical cancer just after his basic training. He fought in World War II
The philosophical cast of Peanuts made their official debut in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950. Charlie Brown’s dog was base on Schulz old dog Spike. Even the pulling the football away before the kick stunt was based on his own childhood – that really happened to him. By 1960 the whole gang wee featured on Hallmark greeting cards and featured in ads for Ford. He earned a great living from Charlie Brown and the gang. Schulz died in his sleep on February 12, 2000, the night before his final Peanuts cartoon was published.
The lead voice of Charlie Brown was done by Peter Robbins who was 9 at the time. He did six Peanuts specials. He’s now 60 and in jail. He’s had many legal problems and has been charged with felony counts of making a threat to cause death or great bodily injury and one felony count of stalking.” He, himself has admitted to suffering from bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. At the time of this taping Robbin’s is 60.
Actor Chris Shea was 7 when he debuted as Linus – known as the good guy. His younger brothers Eric and Stephen were also actors. Chris had a part in the short-lived western TV series Shane and made guest appearances on loads of shows like Bonanza (1959), The Invaders (1967), Green Acres (1965) and The Odd Couple (1970). Like Robbins who voiced Charlie Chris was also in a bunch of Peanut specials. Shea was a Character actor for year and died at age 52 from natural causes.
Tracy Stratford voice Linus’ older sister Lucy. I think we all went to school with someone like her and being around them might have been challenging but it was never boring. She was 10 during a Charlie Brown Christmas. Stratford also appeared in The Miracle of the Hills (1959), The New Loretta Young Show (1962) and The Twilight Zone (1959). At the time of this taping she 61 and hasn’t acted since 1969.
Like Schulz Vince Guaraldi went to war – in his case it was the Korean War as a cook. That first Charlie Brown soundtrack was recorded with the two other member so his Trio, drummer Jerry Granelli, and bassist Fred Marshall. In all the pianist provided music for seventeen Peanuts television specials. He died young at only 47 on February 6, 1976. He has supper with Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson and he wasn’t feeling well. The next night between sets at a nightclub in California he collapsed in his hotel room. Cause of death heart attack or an aortic aneurysm.
Last year on December 9th was the 50th year anniversary of a Charlie Brown Christmas. It remains one of the most loved holiday institutions today even though CBS were not happy with the final product in 1965. They simply thought it was too slow moving, the jazz music wasn’t fitting and the animation too simple – all valid points.
On it’s first broadcast 45% the viewing audience watched the peanuts special an estimated 15,490,000, placing it at number two in the ratings, behind Bonanza on NBC. Critics loved it. Interestingly the New York World-Telegram loved the famous scene with Linus near the end, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”
The special won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1966. “Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you,” Schulz joked.
Let’s remember the Peanuts were already a big hit even before they got to TV but now they were huge.
“The whole thing from beginning to end has been surreal,” Mendelson says. “The fact that it’s become such a permanent part of the holiday season is surreal. And every time I hear it on the radio, or I hear it in a store, or someone says, ‘wah, wah, wah,’ I realize we’re very lucky to have been associated with Mr. Schulz and his characters. It all comes back to his characters, and his philosophy, and his humor.”
Saturday Night Live did hilarious, very adult parody of A Charlie Brown Christmas and even the Netflix hit Stranger Things got their own Holiday peanuts take.
“Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest,” Linus to Charlie Brown who could make us smile and wince at the same time. – by John Beaudin
John Beaudin has been in major market radio (Edmonton, Vancouver & Calgary) for 33 years and a music journalist since 1989. He graduated from Broadcasting school as a news man so he would have the skills to write about the artists that inspired him since he bought his first album, “Madman Across The Water” by Elton John as a teen. In the 80’s Beaudin was the host of the syndicated radio show “The Cross Canada Report” which had two version (Rock and A/C). Beaudin was also asked to be a judge at the Juno Awards (Canada’s answer to the Grammys) Twice. He has anchored every position in radio including morning and afternoon drive and was a Program and Music Director for The Breeze and California 103 in Calgary. He currently hosts the popular Lovesongs at QM-FM in Vancouver.
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