It’s that time of year again. The holiday cheer accompanied by the jovial scent of somber piano notes wafting in the air. This year should be of particular interest to anyone that was raised on the tradition of the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” special. It just turned 50 and it’s looking pretty good for its age.
“Peanuts” had become a worldwide phenomenon by the mid-1960s, and after reviewing an unscreened documentary about Charles M. Shulz by Lee Mendelson, The Coca-Cola Company commissioned and offered to sponsor a Christmas special set in the peanuts universe.
“The bad news is that today is Wednesday and they’ll need an outline in Atlanta by Monday,” John Allen, of the New York-based McCann Erickson Agency, remarked to Mendelson. He quickly contacted Schulz, and the two got to work with plans for a Peanuts Christmas special.
They prepared an outline for the Coca-Cola executives in less than one day, and Mendelson would later recall the bulk of the ideas came from Schulz, whose “ideas flowed nonstop.”
According to Mendelson, their pitch to Coca-Cola consisted of “winter scenes, a school play, a scene to be read from the Bible and a sound track combining jazz and traditional music.” The outline did not change over the course of its production, as if there would have been time.
Ultimately, the final version of the special was written over a period of several weeks, and animated on a shoestring budget in only six months. The special broke many of the rules of the norm at the time: the producers hired child actors, the program’s soundtrack featured a jazz score by pianist Vince Guaraldi that had been presented without a laugh track (a staple in television animation in this period), in addition to its tone, pacing and animation. This led both the producers and network to wrongly predict the project would be a disaster.
Boy were they wrong.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” received high ratings and acclaim from critics and has since been honored with both an Emmy and Peabody Award. It has become an annual broadcast in the United States, being aired during the Christmas season traditionally every year since its premiere.
Its jazz soundtrack also achieved commercial success, going triple platinum in the US.
In the end, when exploring the special’s impact and longevity, its message still holds strong. The true meaning of Christmas, which is different for every person that watches it, the union of friendship to overcome the winter blues.
Here’s to another 50 years!