Bless the Blockhead

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"Sparky thought about what was the opposite of the true meaning of Christmas, and that was commercialism," Mendelson says. "We were both living in California, but since he grew up in St. Paul, he said, 'We need some winter scenes.' I also mentioned I had read 'The Little Fir Tree' by Hans Christian Andersen, and we wanted to do something with a tree. Then he said, 'Maybe we can do a school play,' because he had been mortified in some school play when he was a kid, and I had been one of the wise men, if you can believe it, in the sixth grade, and when I went to make my speech, the star hanging over me fell and hit me on the head and ruined the play, so I knew what that was all about."

But when the show was completed, CBS-TV executives hated it. They thought it was too slow, they disliked Guaraldi's score, and they were uncomfortable with using the voice of children instead of adults. They also fretted about the scene in which Linus recites from the Bible; no way that would fly on network TV. For a moment, the network considered burying the special altogether; it would suffer the same fate as its documentary predecessor, from which Mendelson lifted much of the Christmas special's music (including Guaraldi's composition "Linus and Lucy," otherwise known as "Charlie Brown's Theme").

Mendelson--who had spent 15 minutes writing the lyrics to Guaraldi's show-opening song, "Christmas Time Is Here"--knew he was doomed when the network tried to keep Time TV critic Richard Burgheim from seeing an advance copy of the show. Mendelson convinced CBS it would be worse to hide it from the critic, so they screened it for Burgheim at CBS' headquarters. A week later, his review appeared in Time: "CBS will carry a special that really is special," he wrote. "A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children's special that bears repeating." TV Guide also gave the show a two-page spread, which Mendelson and CBS hadn't been expecting.

"But still we didn't know anyone was going to watch it," Mendelson says, insisting he and Melendez believed they had "killed" Charlie Brown with their meditative, crudely animated show. "The day after the show was on, I went to this little coffee shop where I always go. There's usually about 20 people in there, and everybody had seen the show. That was the first inkling I got it was something. But I felt, 'Well, they kinda know me and knew we were gonna do it...' and so forth. Until the ratings came out, we didn't know. Then the ratings came out, and it's No. 2, second only to Bonanza--more than 15 million homes had it turned on that night--and that's when we knew we had a hit. Then, one of the execs from CBS who didn't like it called, and he said, 'We're gonna order four more [Charlie Brown specials], but I want you to know my aunt in New Jersey didn't like it either.' I always remember that, because he was going to go down fighting. Then the reviews were glowing, and we were staggered by it. I don't think we've gotten over it yet, and it's been 35 years." (Ironically, when A Charlie Brown Christmas airs December 11 on CBS, it will be for the last time; next year, the Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween specials move to ABC.)

The three (wise?) men had crafted the most elegiac cartoon ever to air on television--a show that is part Bible lesson, part jazz solo, part therapy session. It's at once beautiful and crude, this short tale about frail little children "confronted with the illogical, blind, and mechanistic world," as jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the original liner notes to the soundtrack album. It has endured precisely because it is so slow and contemplative; in an age when most television screams at you to make its point, A Charlie Brown Christmas offers a meditative whisper about how fine the line between yuletide cheer and despair.

No amount of presents or tinsel could cheer up Charlie Brown; the commercialism of Christmas--a "racket...run by a big Eastern syndicate," Lucy explains--left him only confused and despondent. "I just don't understand Christmas," he says at the beginning of the show. "I always end up feeling depressed." By its end, Charlie Brown, with Linus' speech still ringing in his ears, sees his faith restored by the very people who have always dismissed him as a blockhead. They turn his twig into a glorious tree, and his frown is, for a moment, rendered the smile of the truly faithful. As a result, Charles Schulz--artist, gag writer, philosopher--created his own A Christmas Carol; the show will live forever.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky