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Retro : Seize the Spirit : CHARLES SCHULZ’S ‘CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS’ IS A GIFT THAT PUTS HOLIDAY CYNICISM IN FOCUS

Stephen Cox is a free-lance writer and author of nine books on film and television

“Let’s face it ... we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big Eastern syndicate you know.” --Lucy

It was Christmastime, 1965. Amid an exploding phenomenon known as color TV, a wintry tale about a comic-strip character premiered on CBS one evening. Without warning, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” captivated children and adults alike and broke the ice for an avalanche of animated yuletide specials.

God bless ‘em, every one.

Although the video age has rendered the “Charlie Brown” classic instantly accessible, it has not dimmed the anticipation of its prime-time arrival each holiday season.

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This half-hour special was a first. It could’ve been about anything--a Santa tale or a talking snowman. But “Peanuts” comic-strip creator Charles Schulz chose this forum to remind blockheads everywhere of an important, muddled message.

The cartoon introduces TV viewers to that hapless Charlie Brown, who is visibly depressed and confused about Christmas. He seeks a nickel’s worth of psychiatric advice from his boisterous pal Lucy, who pushes the financial gain of the season. In order to seize some spirit, Charlie Brown gets involved by directing the church play and ends up ruining the decor with his poor excuse for a Christmas tree. Disgusted, he wonders aloud if anyone really knows what Christmas is all about.

Linus grabs his security blanket, takes center stage in a single spotlight and, in true thespian form, delivers a timeless Bible passage about the birth of Jesus.

Schulz, who wrote the special, recently agreed that it may have been construed by some as a step toward political incorrectness. More so today.

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For the famed artist, however, there was no detour. “I am not personally bothered by what we continually refer to as the commercialization of Christmas,” Schulz says. “And frankly, I doubt if the early church ever celebrated Christmas. I think it’s something which came along much later. But there was no way in the world I could get around putting the passage from St. Luke in there. This is the basis for the whole Christmas story.”

Schulz adds that the story of the TV special is somewhat of a miracle in itself. Until then, Snoopy and the gang had come to life only in Ford Falcon car commercials. The crunch of a network deadline and a measly budget nearly erased everything.

Under the direction of veteran animator Bill Melendez, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was hurriedly produced in four months. Coca-Cola sponsored the special and it became the first of more than 40 subsequent “Peanuts” TV specials--all with Melendez at the helm.

It was his onus to imitate and animate another artist’s creation. “That was one of the hardest things,” Melendez says. He took Schulz’s flat comic-strip characters, gave them dimension and put them in motion. Melendez, who also has supplied the sounds of Snoopy for all these years, agrees the animation in the Christmas special was “technically crude,” and riddled with errors. In fact, an embarrassed Melendez assumed it was an inked disaster.

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“I thought we’d killed it,” he admits. “I was shocked at the reception it got. And now I’m double surprised at its longevity.”

And why should it have succeeded? After all, this was not a sugary-sweet, sleigh ride-sappy, silver bell-jingling tale. It delved into the depressive nature of the holiday with melancholy undertones and absolutely no laugh track--an insistence of Schulz. Good grief!

Out of left field for this TV format was a smooth jazz score by Vince Guaraldi, a San Francisco-based pianist who stepped out of the beatnik movement. Guaraldi had never scored a TV show, but his trio (including Monty Budwig on bass and Colin Bailey on drums, recognized for their bohemian style of music) caught on big.

The CD soundtrack of the Christmas special, which includes the familiar “Linus and Lucy” theme, has become a must for jazz aficionados.

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It’s apparent that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was blessed. In ratings lingo, when it premiered exactly 30 years ago, it captured a 47 audience share--nearly half of all the sets turned on in 1965. Schulz took home a Peabody Award and an Emmy. And, in time, this quaint little story about Charlie Brown’s spiritual illumination gathered unexpectedly loyal audiences. It’s become a holiday perennial.

And you thought Charlie Brown never got any respect.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on CBS. “Charles Schulz: A Charlie Brown Life” airs Dec. 25 at 5 and 9 p.m. on A&E.;


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