Schulz and Peanuts
For ten years, Schulz and United Feature Syndicate had been turning away offers to put Peanuts into film and television animation. Children wrote constantly to ask when Snoopy would be on TV, and he gave each the same brisk reply: 'There are some greater things in the world than TV animated cartoons.' Then in late 1963 Lee Mendelson, a thirty-year-old independent producer in the San Francisco suburb of Burlingame, persuaded him to sit for interviews as part of a documentary about his life and work, A Boy Named Charlie Brown—a kind of ironic companion piece to Mendelson's first film, A Man Named Mays, about the San Francisco Giants' great centerfielder.
Mendelson had gotten his start in television in 1960 as a production assistant at KPIX-TV, the CBS station in San Francisco. His Willie Mays film had been broadcast to acclaim on NBC in October 1963, and he hoped to bring that production's level of originality and imagination to the Schulz documentary by including the Peanuts characters in a brief segment of animation, for which, at Sparky's insistence, he had brought in Bill Melendez, the Disney animator who had earned Schulz's respect by not Disneyfying the Peanuts gang when he made the Ford commercials. Melendez, an animator on numerous Mickey Mouse cartoons and films such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Dumbo, had established his own production company in Los Angeles by 1963. Schulz trusted him to place Charlie Brown and the others into animation without changing their essential qualities, either as 'flat' cartoon characters or as his cartoon characters.
Melendez had never before produced a half-hour program, but when he met with Mendelson and Schulz in Sebastopol over Memorial Day weekend to flesh out ideas for the script—to be written by Schulz, storyboarded by Melendez, and animated by Melendez's team of fifty artists—they had six months and a budget of $150,000 with which to create a running film from more than ten thousand hand-painted cells—a production that would usually be completed over the better part of a year.
Theirs was a highly productive collaboration, each bringing something characteristically valuable to the work. They made production decisions immediately: whether to hire adult actors to imitate children's voices, as was traditional in animated children's programs, or to find children with Screen Actors Guild cards and just enough experience to read the parts. 'This is where Schulz was smart,' Melendez later said, 'he let us do it'—leaving Lee and Bill to audition some forty-five kids, ages six to nine, and then train the cast of seven principals, some of them too young to read, yet who, under Melendez's close direction, delivered their lines with startling clarity and feeling. The children's voices paid off most strongly when addressing the show's more adult themes; children, after all, are consumers at heart—what child ever worried about the commercialism of Christmas? But the aloneness and isolation of being lost in melancholy thoughts at a compulsorily happy time would come through in A Charlie Brown Christmas with limpid authenticity, enunciating those heartaches that are peculiar to childhood.
The show's soundtrack was among its most original and powerful strengths, the children's voices projecting over a spare, uncluttered background that imposed no ambient undernoise and no uproarious prerecorded laughter—something Mendelson had suggested at the Memorial Day weekend meetings 'to help keep it moving along.' 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 Sparky 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.
Mendelson, shocked, turned to Melendez. 'What was that all about?'
'I guess,' replied Melendez, 'that means we're not having a laugh track!'