It just doesn't seem like Christmas without watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. The 1965 classic TV special has been seen by millions worldwide and is quite possibly the most famous holiday special of all time. Here's five random facts about everyone's favorite boy named Charlie Brown and his little tree that could.
It Was Done On The Cheap. By the time 1965 rolled around, the Peanuts comic strip had been around for fifteen years and was beloved by millions. It seemed a TV special was inevitable. The year before, a documentary about creator Charles Schulz was made, which featured tunes by jazz great Vince Guaraldi. Although unreleased, A Boy Named Charlie Brown paved the way for the Christmas special. Thanks to sponsor Coca-Cola, Schulz and director Bill Melendez did the show with a tiny budget and took it to CBS, who put very little money and effort into it, as well. For this reason, there are many glaring technical errors, awkward audio problems, and choppy animation, many of which are visible to this day. Melendez cringed over these issues for years, but Schulz refused to change them. He felt that the flaws gave the special its character. To this day, many people call these quirks just another reason to love it.
The Kids Sounded Like Kids... Because They Were Kids. In 1965, just as it is done today, children's voices in cartoons were typically made by adult voiceover actors. The decision to use children as the voices of the Peanuts gang was considered a somewhat crazy move at the time, and Melendez and Schulz caught heat for it. But the idea was that the voices would sound more genuine and less forced. In fact, only Linus and Lucy were voiced by professionals. The rest were untrained kids. The actors were so young and untrained, however, that many of them could barely read the script. To make up for this, their lines were read to them off-microphone, one sentence at a time, as they repeated them and were recorded. The result is kids' characters who actually sound like kids. Children are still commonly used in Peanuts specials (Fergie voiced Sally for a while), and Charlie Brown has often been voiced by a girl.
There Are Several Versions. Unless you were watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on December 9th, 1965, you probably have not seen the original version. It as been cut and re-cut and edited numerous times in the past 45 years. First of all, the sponsorship with Coke ended after 1967, so almost all references to the drink have been removed. In the '90s, CBS changed the running time, as more ads were put in and the special was cut to fit into a 30 minute slot. ABC changed it back when it required the rights in 2000 but, in 2009, did their own editing. Some famous scenes hit the cutting-room floor, including Schroeder playing "Jingle Bells" to Lucy. Also, in different edits of the special, references to commercialism are removed, which oddly defeats the purpose of the entire thing.
It Does What It Hates. A Charlie Brown Christmas is now known as probably the only cherished Christmas special that bemoans the commercialization of Christmas. Schulz caught heat for a scene of Linus reciting a passage from The Bible. Audiences, however, embraced this aspect of the special and its message against commercialism. This, of course, is in direct contrast to the fact that the show itself was a big commercial itself. The production was mostly funded by Coca-Cola, and there was product placement everywhere. The opening scene, which is now edited out, depicted Linus crashing into a sign advertising "COKE". And another scene (also now edited) had the kids throwing rocks at a Coke can on a ledge. The closing credits, with the gang singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" has abrupt editing to this day. That's because it originally ended with an announcer informing viewers that it came to TV thanks to "your local Coca-Cola bottler".
It Almost Never Aired. The special that everyone loves began life as the special that everyone hated. When Schulz and Melendez took the finished program to CBS executives, even they were unsure about it, due to technical issues and budget constraints. CBS hated the special when they saw it, for all the technical stuff and so much more. Complaints ranged from a lack of a laugh track (standard in those days, especially for family comedies), to the overtly religious message. The now-famous scene of Linus speaking of the birth of Christ was seen by TV execs as especially controversial. Most thought that kids would tune out when this part aired. On top of that, the execs weren't fans of the jazz score by Vince Guaraldi, the children's voices, and pretty much the rag-tag look of the whole thing. Producer Lee Mendelson remembers thinking that the special would be the beginning and end of Charlie Brown on TV. CBS said they would never order another Peanuts special after the airing of this one-off. Boy, were they wrong. The special was, of course, a huge hit. It won an Emmy and a Peabody Award, and it spawned dozens of Peanuts TV specials on the very network that originally scoffed at it. The public embraced everything the network hated, showing that TV execs often don't know what the Snoopy they're talking about.
It's another Christmas and time to sit by the TV and check out Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy. This year, share the special with someone who has never seen it before. Knowing the history behind the classic makes it that much more fun.
Ward Anderson is a comedian, author, and one half of the talk radio program "Ward and Al", which airs weekdays on SiriusXM satellite radio. His first novel, I'll Be Here All Week, will be released in May 2014.
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