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How "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Almost Didn't Happen

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 22, 2023 3:01 am

How "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Almost Didn't Happen

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 22, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, dealing with a small budget and with a short deadline, A Charlie Brown Christmas was released to critical acclaim on December 9th, 1965. While audiences loved it, there were many doubters behind the scenes at CBS. Our host, Lee Habeeb, tells the story.

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That's invite code GETDROP777. And we continue with our American stories and more Christmas season stories. This one, our Charlie Brown Christmas came to be and almost didn't. Americans fell in love with the show when it first aired on television back in 1965. It's been a part of our lives ever since. But the story of how Charles Schulz's A Charlie Brown Christmas came to be is itself an American classic.

So too is the story of how it almost didn't come to be. But first things first, the 30-minute Christmas special wasn't birthed by the creative urge. It was commissioned by a commercial sponsor looking to turn the nation's most beloved newspaper cartoon strip into an animated TV special.

Here's Lee Mendelson, who produced the special, telling the story of how this special came to be. Would your creative group be interested in doing a Christmas special for Coca-Cola? Have you thought about doing one? I said, oh, absolutely.

We think about it all the time. And he said, well, we need an outline down in Atlanta on Monday. It was Wednesday.

So send us what you have and we'll see what happens. So I called Mr. Schulz on the phone. I called Mr. Melendez because we'd worked together on the documentary two years before. And I said, I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas.

And they said, what's that? And I said, Mr. Schulz, that's something you're going to write tomorrow. So Bill flew up from Hollywood and I drove up from San Francisco and he did write it on a Thursday. Those days we sent it by Western Union on a Friday. And Monday they call up and said, OK, let's do A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The team worked fast. They had only three months to create a script, record it, record it, make a soundtrack, and create 30,000 animation cells from scratch. And this was all before the days of computer animated design. When the special was finished, it wasn't a hit with network executives. The first problem was the laugh track, or the lack thereof. It was unimaginable to produce TV comedy without it back in the 1960s. Schulz thought more highly of the viewers.

He didn't believe they needed to be cued to laugh at predetermined moments. Another disagreement involved the voice work. CBS executives wanted to use adult actors who pretended to be kids. Schulz believed that using children gave the characters more authenticity. The CBS executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. The music was too sophisticated for a children's program, they worried.

They wanted something younger. The CBS executives also thought the show was too slow. They didn't think there was enough action in a show dedicated to children with limited attention spans. Last, the CBS executives worried about the scene where Linus recites the story of the birth of Jesus Christ from the Gospel of Luke. It was too long, they believed, and too literal. The CBS executives assumed that Americans, especially American kids, wouldn't want to sit through a spoken passage from the King James Bible. They were freaking out about something so overtly religious in a Christmas special, explained Bill Melendez.

They basically wrote it off. Schulz didn't just get pushback from CBS executives. Members of his own team were skeptical too. Melendez himself was hesitant, quote, I was leery of the religion that came into it.

I was right away opposed to it, he told reporters. Luckily for Schulz, he was the beneficiary of a tight production schedule. Moreover, the network, the advertising agency, and the show's sponsor, Coca-Cola, had already promoted the show in TV Guide. Schulz had leverage, and he wasn't about to capitulate on key creative elements, and they aired the special as Schulz had intended. And that's why Charles Schulz was Charles Schulz. He intuitively knew the things Americans cared about, the things that gave their lives meaning. The longtime Sunday school teacher also knew the reading from the Gospel of Luke was the centerpiece of the show and a centerpiece of American life.

It's a scene we'll always remember as Charlie Brown sinks into despair while trying to find the true meaning of Christmas. Linus walks on stage, stage center, and under a narrow spotlight, quotes that scripture from the Gospel of Luke. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them. And the glory of the Lord shall round about them. And they were sore afraid, and the angel said unto them, Fear not. For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you.

You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And after Linus finishes, he walks across the stage and says, quote, and that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. CBS executives were certain the show would be a ratings disaster. Programmers, well, they were equally grim, informing the production team, quote, we will of course air it next week, but I'm afraid we won't be ordering anymore. On Thursday, December 8th, 1965, the half hour special aired preempting the Munsters and following Gilligan's Island. 50% of American television tuned in. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit, winning an Emmy and a Peabody award.

Linus's recitation was hailed by critic Harriet Van Horn of the World Telegram, who wrote, quote, Linus's reading of the story of the nativity was quite simply the dramatic highlight of the television season. Coca-Cola, well, it was inundated with letters from fans of the special. Here's one. Gentlemen, I am writing the first fan letter in my 52 years of a rather full life to compliment you on sponsoring the A Charlie Brown Christmas television program. I don't know when any program has delighted as many adults as well as children, and I am writing to express the hope that you might be able to sponsor additional Charlie Brown programs.

Grand Rapids, Michigan. And here's another. To the makers of Coca-Cola, we wish to compliment you on the peanut show you sponsored on TV. Your production stands out as refreshing as your product. Our thanks to you and Mr. Schultz for bringing to the fore in his wholesome philosophy, the real spirit of Christmas, which is so often obliterated by a false one. It is our hope that peanuts may find a permanent place in the TV realm. May the makers of Coca-Cola be greatly blessed for their part in this worthwhile endeavor.

Find the sisters of St. Francis in Bell Vernon, Pennsylvania. A Charlie Brown's Christmas found that permanent place in the TV realm, that's for sure. And in America's hearts. It's equaled only by the 1966 program, how the Grinch stole Christmas in its popularity among young and old alike. Thank God the Grinch like executives at CBS chose to air the special back in 1965. If it had been left to their instincts, we'd have one less national treasure to cherish come Christmas time. The story of a Charlie Brown's Christmas, the story of Charles Schulz in a way, and his intuitive understanding of what works in programming. The idea of having a jazz soundtrack, one of the most beloved of all time, was something all of the suits thought was a bad idea, but not Schulz. The kid actors, not the adult actors. The laugh track and the absence thereof, and most importantly, that Bible scene. All of these great artistic decisions make Charlie Brown's Christmas what it is.

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