“A Charlie Brown Christmas” airs tonight, celebrating its 43rd anniversary. The timeless classic was the very first Charlie Brown special and Variety noted in its 1965 review that “author [Charles M.] Schulz is in such strong command of his charismatic characters that it would be successful in any medium.” Variety also noted that “Snoopy, the wildly hedonistic dog was particularly well-conceived and stole every scene that he was in.” The review spoke of the religious nature of the show: “…. Charlie Brown could not get into the spirit of Christmas, and his search for the meaning of the holiday only brought him into jarring contact with the crassness of his playmates. Just when it seemed as though the Scrooges of the world were right, little Linus took his thumb and blanket out of his mouth and briefly narrated the story of the birth of Jesus. The recital had a transforming effect on the tykes and they regrouped joined together by love.”
The Archive of American Television interviewed both the special’s producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez (1916-2008), as well as animator Phil Roman.
Bill Melendez on Linus’s speech:
“It’s one of the things that I get asked [about most] and we get more comment on, about that reading….Schulz said, you know, at one time Linus should come up and tell the real story of Christmas, the biblical story. And I said, no, Sparky, you can’t do that. That would be religious. And we can’t get religion into the shows. You’ll ruin it. Again, he looks up at me with those beady blue eyes of his and he said, ‘Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?’ I didn’t think that we had to do it anyhow. But I did it, I agreed with that philosophy that we could do it. And get away with it. Because the strip was gentle enough and it would not be taken, it would not be criticized. So, it was Schulz’s idea. And he was right… [it] just appeals to everybody. And no other show has ever done it.”
Lee Mendelson on the special’s use of music:
“Well, when we had the meeting about A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I say we only had a day for an outline, and [Charles] Schulz wanted to talk about what he felt was the true meaning of Christmas. He said I think we’ve lost that. So we kind of worked backwards from that. We wanted to do the true meaning of Christmas. I wanted to use different kinds of music. We knew we’d use traditional Christmas music, and we would use some Beethoven because Schroeder played Beethoven. But when we did [a previous] documentary we hired a fellow named Vince Guaraldi to do the music on the documentary, and I thought it might be fun to use some of that music on the Christmas show. And we called Vince, and he wrote an opening title song for the show. And I remember I thought maybe we should put some words on it, and I just wrote — scribbled some words down on an envelope, ‘Christmas time is here, happiness…’ and so forth, and never thought much about it. And I think the music was critical to it’s acceptance. And we thought of different elements about the Christmas tree and so forth, and put it all down in the outline, and the outline pretty much is the way the show eventually evolved. But I think that the Guaraldi music was crucial to it’s success because that was the first time a cartoon had used jazz, had used adult music. That raised it a certain level.”