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Good Grief! Charles Schulz Calls It Quits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seems Charlie Brown will never outwit Snoopy, never get the little redheaded girl and never kick that football. He won’t get the chance.

Because of a continuing battle with colon cancer, “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz announced Tuesday that he will retire shortly after New Year’s. One of the world’s most widely read comics will have its last original daily strip appear Jan. 3 and its final Sunday release Feb. 13. Then United Feature Syndicate, which has distributed “Peanuts” for almost five decades, will reissue old strips at least through the end of 2000.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 16, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 16, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
‘Peanuts'--In a story Wednesday, The Times incorrectly reported the year this newspaper began running Charles Schulz’s comic strip “Peanuts.” The Sunday “Peanuts” began running in March 1955 and the daily version began in January 1962.

“I have always wanted to be a cartoonist and I feel very blessed to have been able to do what I love for almost 50 years,” Schulz, 77, said in a retirement letter to readers, colleagues and friends. “Although I feel better following my surgery, I want to focus on my health and my family without the worry of a daily deadline.”

Schulz’s retirement ends a lifetime of cartooning that reached into virtually every facet of popular culture. In addition to daily appearances in 2,600 newspapers around the world, his cast of affable characters--Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and others--are everywhere: bedsheets, lunch boxes, greeting cards, amusement parks, management seminars, TV specials, musicals, movies and even an exhibit at the Louvre. Estimates are that the cartoon’s franchise generates $1 billion in revenue each year.

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“Peanuts,” with its simple drawing style, gentle humor and universal themes, debuted in seven newspapers on Oct. 2, 1950. (The Times added the cartoon in 1965.) Since then, Charlie Brown and friends have helped children learn how to read and parents how to laugh, mostly at themselves.

“He’s in the rich tradition of the little man. His characters survive because they refuse to give up, no matter how many insults and pressures,” said M. Thomas Inge, a humanities professor at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College who is editing a book on Schulz that is due out in October. “He’s Charlie Brown and he believes no matter how many times that football gets pulled away, that this time he’s going to kick it.”

Schulz’s decision was met with understandable disappointment by his loyal readers, estimated at 355 million worldwide, who read the strip in 21 languages.

“It will be lonely,” said Andrea Podley of Bellingham, Wash., founder of the Peanuts Collectors Club. “But I try not to look at this as a loss. I’ve gained so much in my life because a man named Charles M. Schulz was born. We owe him a huge debt of thanks.”

A man of modest origins, Schulz would have seemed unlikely to achieve international acclaim. He was born in St. Paul, Minn., on Nov. 26, 1922, the son of a barber and a homemaker. Nicknamed “Sparky,” the young Schulz showed an early enthusiasm for comic strips and vowed that he would create one some day.

In 1947, by then a World War II veteran, he got his first break when he sold a cartoon feature called “Li’l Folks” to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In 1950, he moved to New York City with a new comic strip that featured characters named Charlie Brown and Linus--who were art teachers Schulz knew in his St. Paul days.

United Feature Syndicate bought the strip and named it “Peanuts"--against the wishes of Schulz, who felt the title trivialized the strip. He urged the syndicate to at least include the name of his hero, Charlie Brown, but “What could a young unknown from St. Paul say?” Schulz later commented.

The strip went on to become one of the most successful comics in history, spawning 1,400 books, 50 animated television specials, four feature films and a Broadway musical.

It also brought Schulz a host of honors, including two Reuben awards from the National Cartoonists Society, five Emmy and two Peabody awards, and the rank of Commander of Arts and Letters from the French government for excellence in the arts.

Pop culture observers say the “Peanuts” appeal is rooted in its simple, funny and often profound messages. The characters’ foibles--from Linus’ security blanket to Lucy’s impatience--are instantly recognizable, they say.

But perhaps the most endearing of all is the strip’s main character, Charlie Brown, the perpetual loser in the zigzag sweater.

“As a youngster, I didn’t realize how many Charlie Browns there were in the world,” Schulz said. “I thought I was the only one. Now I realize that Charlie Brown’s goofs are familiar to everybody, adults and children alike.”

In spite of his fame, Schulz maintained a natural humility and fierce independence, according to friends and colleagues. A stickler for deadlines, he always worked six weeks ahead of schedule and 20 years ago drew three months’ worth of cartoons in advance before he underwent heart bypass surgery. His syndicate contract includes a stipulation that no one else will ever draw “Peanuts.”

In his spare time, Schulz liked to play tennis, golf and ice hockey, which he played until fairly recently at the rink he had built near his studio and home in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Early last month, Schulz was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for a blocked artery. During that operation, doctors found that he had colon cancer.

“He called me and said, ‘This is it,’ ” said Lynn Johnston, a longtime friend and the cartoonist of “For Better or for Worse.” “He was really shaken by the [cancer]. He said, ‘I haven’t smoked, I led a pretty healthy life, I led an active life and I don’t understand it.’ ”

Those who have visited with Schulz since his surgery and cancer treatments say he seems to be doing well, recuperating with the help of his wife, Jeannie, and his five children.

“He’s up and walking around,” said Amy Lago, executive editor of comic art for the United Feature Syndicate. “I saw him and he looked just fine to me.”

Such reports bolster the spirits of fans and friends who are holding out hope that Schulz will recover and revive the beloved strip. Fellow cartoonist Mell Lazarus endured a similar health crisis 14 months ago when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, but continued his comic “Momma.”

“I know what he’s facing, and it’s terrifying,” said Lazarus, past president of the National Cartoonists Society and a Schulz friend for 42 years. “But with medicine today, you can survive it.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he decided to come back in a few months,” added the Woodland Hills resident. “But until then there’s going to be a big empty space to fill.”


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