Wednesday, December 23, 2009 12/23/09 - a charlie brown christmas - of course!

In today's encore excerpt - 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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