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Fortune Grows From ‘Peanuts’ for Schulz, a Reluctant Tycoon

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

In 1965, a full 15 years after his “Peanuts” comic strip debuted and the very year Snoopy and the gang appeared on the cover of Time magazine, Charles Schulz’s high school graduating class listed him in the “whereabouts unknown” column at its 25th reunion.

Good grief! But while personal fame might have eluded the mild-mannered cartoonist for a while, fortune did not.

Even as the 1940 graduating class from Central High School in St. Paul, Minn., searched for him, Schulz was well on his way to becoming what he is today: the wealthiest, most successful cartoonist in history, a man whose estimated annual earnings of $15 million to $30 million are said to rival those of such entertainment figures as Bill Cosby, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Springsteen.

Led by Snoopy, the world’s most familiar dog, “Peanuts” characters appeared on nearly $1 billion worth of retail merchandise sold last year, second only to Mickey Mouse and other Disney creations. According to Forbes Magazine, which keeps track of such things, Schulz earned an estimated $25 million last year, and stands to make $30 million this year.

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Although Schulz claims that Forbes’ estimate was much too high, close associates say he acknowledged several years ago that he was earning $15 million annually.

The best guess among insiders is that he makes considerably more than that now because “Peanuts” merchandise sales, led by Hallmark cards, have increased about 40% in the last three years.

In addition, Schulz has signed other recent deals, notably a $1-million-plus annual promotion contract with Metropolitan Life Insurance.

Still, Schulz, who celebrated his 65th birthday three days ago, professes no interest in the business details that keep his characters in more than 2,150 papers and licensed to promote thousands of products ranging from pet supplies to chopsticks.

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What matters deeply to him--and what compels him to continue drawing every strip and personally approving every “Peanuts” product--is an intensely competitive spirit that will not settle for anything less than remaining No. 1.

“Who cares about being rich? The idea is to do something decent,” Schulz said in a recent interview at his studio near his Santa Rosa home. “I don’t know if I make $1 million a month or not. But it does make the other cartoonists jealous.”

Schulz’s success has done more than that. The popularity of “Peanuts” has set the stage for subsequent cartoon successes--some might say excesses--and opened a whole new financial dimension to cartooning, both for the artists and their newspaper and licensing syndicates.

“Snoopy paved the way for all of us,” says Jim Davis, creator of Garfield the cat, Snoopy’s closest competitor. “Schulz created the industry as far as cartooning and licensing go.”

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The “Peanuts” empire--and Schulz proudly acknowledges that he has created one--grew slowly.

The strip first appeared Oct. 2, 1950, in seven papers. Schulz, then 27, worked in a studio he set up in the basement of his step-mother’s home in Minneapolis. After completing a set of strips, he mailed them to his editors at United Feature Syndicate in New York in homemade envelopes fashioned from cut-up cardboard boxes and butcher paper.

His first monthly royalty check totaled $90.

“I was not thinking of building some great, tremendous business with movies, Broadway plays and stuffed animals,” he says. “I just wanted to draw a cartoon strip, and a good one.”

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Schulz, whose nickname “Sparky” comes from a character in the classic “Barney Google” comic strip, has been stuck on cartoon strips as long as he can remember.

His artistic talent was recognized early. According to Schulz, on the first day of kindergarten he drew a picture of a man shoveling snow that reportedly inspired his teacher to remark, “Someday, Charles, you’re going to be an artist.” His first published work, a drawing of his black-and-white pointer Spike--the inspiration for Snoopy--was printed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not in 1937, when the artist was 14 years old.

The “Peanuts” empire probably can be dated to 1952, the year Schulz authorized the reprinting of his strips in a special book. It was the first “extra,” as he refers to non-strip products.

By 1953, the extras were adding up. One of Schulz’ fondest memories is of buying a home in Minnesota for the then-princely sum of $35,000 and telling his loan officer that he was earning $30,000 a year as a cartoonist. “It really impressed him,” he says.

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And that was only the beginning. The first licensed product--a six-inch plastic Snoopy doll--was released in 1958, and the following year, Ford Motor Co. signed the “Peanuts” gang to a seven-year contract to promote its Falcon compact.

In 1960, Hallmark launched its “Peanuts” greeting cards, a series that remains the company’s most successful card line and the foundation of a product line that includes more than 100 “Peanuts” gift and party-goods items. Another big merchandising break came in 1962 with the publication of “Happiness Is a Warm Puppy,” a tiny illustrated storybook by Schulz that immediately became a best seller.

Licensing Success

But despite all that early success, Schulz says the big break didn’t come until early 1965, when Time magazine featured him and his creations in a cover story. Although the story was nice, Schulz says its real benefit was to inspire producer Lee Mendelson to create “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” an Emmy-winning animated television special that has aired every December since 1965. In the intervening years, Mendelson and Schulz have teamed with animator Bill Melendez for 28 more “Peanuts” TV specials.

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In every case, Schulz says, the big money-making product idea came from others. “I’ve never initiated anything. It was always someone else bringing an idea to us.”

And did the ideas come! By 1986, United Feature Syndicate had approved licensing agreements with 300 companies in 30 countries. Although no exact count is available, syndicate officials estimate that the number of “Peanuts” products easily exceeds 1,000.

Schulz admits that he has been criticized for over-commercializing “Peanuts,” but he shrugs it off.

“Should I say no to chopsticks? That’s ridiculous. What harm does it do?” he asks. “If they want to buy them, no one is forcing them. No one says you have to buy pillow cases, cups, etc. . . . If they like Snoopy chasing the Red Baron, why not give them a mug with that?

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“I don’t think we’re in danger of overdoing it. The danger would come if I abandoned drawing the strip and let six other artists draw it in my place, while I spent my time on business trips and making speeches.”

And that, he promises, will never happen. Schulz personally draws and letters each of the comic strips that have appeared 365 days a year for the last 37 years. In addition, he says that he tries to protect the franchise by personally screening every request for a licensing agreement and then inspecting a prototype of every item produced under the license.

For example, Schulz has rejected requests for Snoopy baby wipes for “aesthetic reasons” and has deemed ashtrays to be inappropriate. Children’s vitamins were turned down because of the continuing debate over whether they are necessary.

Although the gang promotes Dolly Madison cupcakes and sweet snack foods, Schulz adamantly refuses to license “Peanuts” characters for sugary breakfast cereals. And although he has permitted Snoopy to have his own “Joe Cool” brand of skateboards, he steadfastly rejects licensing of the characters for children’s ice skates or tennis rackets. Such apparent inconsistencies go unexplained.

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No Replacement Planned

“I have total control,” he says. “The contract I have says that the (United Feature) syndicate can’t put out any product that I don’t want and that I can do what I want.”

Furthermore, a 1978 amendment to his contract stipulates that when Schulz stops drawing the comic strip, he will not be replaced by another artist to keep the strip alive, a practice common in the business. However, United Feature President Robert Metz says “Peanuts” will go into reruns upon Schulz’s death or retirement.

But until then, it’s clear that Schulz intends to give licensees little room to exercise discretion with his creations.

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The rules are all laid out in the “Bible.” The five-pound, 12-inch-by-18-inch binder given every new licensee establishes accepted poses for each character and painstakingly details their personalities. Snoopy, for example, is said to be “an extrovert beagle with a Walter Mitty complex.” The guidelines cover even such matters as Snoopy’s grip on a tennis racquet.

Illustrators hired by licensees typically copy the approved poses designed by Schulz over the years, then place the characters in new situations. But Schulz has final approval of everything. Even today, some 27 years after the first Hallmark card was drawn, Schulz reviews every new card for what he calls “appropriateness of sentiment.”

“We do nothing vulgar, nothing that even comes close to vulgar,” he explains. “I don’t like ugly words. I’ve never sworn in my life. There’s really nothing in life that can’t be covered by ‘rats’ or ‘good grief.’ ”

Schulz presides over his empire from a unpretentious, seven-room office building on a quiet, tree-lined residential street near the outskirts of Santa Rosa, a suburban enclave about 60 miles north of San Francisco. The outer offices house his staff of five, including business manager Ronald Nelson, who has overseen all financial details of the operation for the last 15 years.

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“For all I know, my business manager could have tickets for South America tucked away somewhere,” Schulz jokes. “I haven’t seen a monthly (sales) report in years.”

Schulz spends most of his working hours in his studio, a sprawling, two-story area reminiscent of a rumpus room from the 1960s with its bright, sapphire-blue polyester carpeting, framed mementos and book-lined shelves.

Typically he arrives by 9:30 a.m. and stays until 4 p.m., unless he has a golf or tennis date. He generally has lunch across the street at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, which he and his first wife, Joyce, built in 1969.

The rink figures prominently in both Schulz’s daily activities and the comic strip, which frequently features Snoopy’s hockey games played on a frozen bird bath.

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Schulz, a 12-handicap golfer and avid tennis player, had been a member of a senior ice hockey league that plays twice a week. But in mid-September, he slipped and fell on the ice, tearing cartilage and a ligament in his right knee, and ending his hockey career. Two days later he had arthroscopic surgery, just as Snoopy is enduring in the current “Peanuts” story line.

Perhaps Snoopy will soon start physical therapy, just as Schulz has been enduring for the last two months to regain full use of his knee. His goal is to tee off at the AT&T; Golf Tournament on the Monterey Peninsula in February.

Besides athletics and reading, Schulz has few passions. Unlike other wealthy entertainers, he does not have extensive collections of art, jewelry or autos. According to Jill, the youngest of his five children, Schulz is such a simple fellow that vanilla is his favorite ice cream flavor.

“They live extremely normal lives,” she says of her father and step-mother, Jeannie, whom Schulz married 14 years ago after divorcing his first wife. “There are no servants. They even have a listed phone number.”

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Schulz recently indulged his artistic spirit by bankrolling a television feature film written by his son Monty, and starring Jill and Snoopy’s brother, Spike. Called “The Girl in the Red Truck,” the animated and live-action film, on which Schulz has spent more than $1 million, is expected to air in February.

“I did it because I wanted to do something new,” Schulz explains. “Everyone always wants me to do the same old ‘Peanuts’ thing all the time. But I say let’s try to do something different, something other cartoonists can’t follow up. Garfield has Hallmark cards and a Christmas special, but he can’t do this.”

What other cartoonists can and can’t do is of great importance to Schulz. Although he professes that he has no “real competition” as a cartoonist, he admits that as a business property, “Peanuts” must compete with Garfield, Mickey Mouse and the rest of the Disney characters.

Perhaps for that reason, there is no love lost at the Santa Rosa studio on Garfield and Mickey. Associates there privately dismiss Garfield as unfunny and poorly drawn. Schulz says Garfield is more of a “licensing figure” than a cartoon and claims to be unaffected by its immense popularity.

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As for Disney, Schulz detests any comparisons. He bristles at the suggestion of a “Peanuts” theme park. “No matter how good it was, it would always be a second-rate Disneyland. I’m not a producer, I’m a cartoonist,” he says. “People think they’re flattering me when they call me a second Walt Disney. I’m not. I’m a first Charles Schulz.”

And for that, Schulz is pleased.

“I guess I am the most successful cartoonist, and considering that I was such a nonentity in high school, one can’t help but be impressed,” he says. “Making the Forbes list (of richest entertainment figures) doesn’t embarrass me. I suppose it’s a way of tabulating success. When you’re a nothing when you’re growing up and people think you’re a nothing, it’s nice to know you’re not.”


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