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A Charlie Brown Christmas

A sequel to the last post:

In December 1965 came A Charlie Brown Christmas, the most successful special in television history. In a simple story from Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz where Charlie Brown looks for genuine meaning in Christmas while Snoopy and Lucy revel in its glitter, the show defied convention by using real kids’ voices, no laugh track, sophisticated original music and uncluttered graphics:

“No one was more ready than Charles Schulz to write a parable about commercialism when [his agent] Lee Mendelson telephoned one Wednesday in May 1965 to announce that he had just sold a Christmas show to Coca-Cola. … He brought in Bill Melendez, the Disney animator who had earned Schulz’s respect by not Disneyfying the Peanuts gang … [by] changing their essential qualities, either as “flat” characters or as his cartoon characters. …

“[Schulz left] Lee and Bill to audition some forty-five kids, ages six to nine, then train the cast of seven principles, some of them too young to read … [to deliver] their lines with startling clarity and feeling. …

“Schulz loathed the hyena hilarity of canned merriment and rightly judged that an audience would not have to be told when and where to laugh; Mendelson countered that all comedy shows used such tracks. ‘Well, this one won’t,’ said [Schulz] firmly. ‘Let the people at home enjoy the show at their own speed, in their own way.’ Then he rose and walked out, closing the door behind him. …

“On the subject of scoring and music, however, Schulz put aside his own tastes … [and his producer hired] Grammy Award-winning composer Vince Guaraldi. The catchy rhythm of ‘Linus and Lucy’ … became the centerpiece of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and eventually a pop music standard. But it was the slower, mixed-mood, improvisational pieces in Guaraldi’s jazz suite, especially ‘Christmas Time is Here,’ that elicited the unarticulated emotions lying below the holiday’s joyful surface. …

“Lee and his wife had read Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Fir Tree’ to their children the previous year, and when he suggested that the show somehow involve a comparable motif, [Schulz] seized upon the idea: ‘We need a Charlie-Brown-like tree.’ … [And Schulz] insisted that the season’s true meaning could be found in the Gospel according to St. Luke, and they agreed that the show would somehow work in the Nativity story. … When the script was finished in June 1965, Lee Mendelson made a stand against Linus’s recitation of the Nativity story, insisting that religion and entertainment did not mix on television. ‘[Schulz] just smiled,’ Mendelson later wrote, ‘patted me on the head, and left the room.’ …

“In a screening room at network headquarters in New York, two CBS vice presidents watched the show in silence. ‘Neither of them laughed once,’ Mendelson recalled. When the lights came on, the executives shook their heads and shrugged. ‘Well,’ said one, ‘you gave it a good try.’ ‘It seems a little flat,’ said the other. ‘Too slow,’ said the first, ‘and the script is too innocent.’ ‘The Bible thing scares us,’ said the other. The animation was crude–couldn’t it be jazzed up a bit? The voice talent was unprofessional–they should have used adults. The music didn’t fit–who ever heard of a jazz score on an animated special? And where were the laughs?”

David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by David Michaelis, pp. 346- 358.

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Cheers!

Vidya

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