The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which opens Saturday as the first museum in America devoted to the work of an individual cartoonist, is a handsome but unassuming building that fits quietly into its residential neighborhood here.
That modesty seems appropriate. Although he created a worldwide popular culture and marketing phenomenon, Schulz remained a modest man who once said, “Cartooning is a fairly sort of a proposition. You have to be fairly intelligent--if you were really intelligent you’d be doing something else. You have to draw fairly well--if you drew really well you’d be a painter. You have to write fairly well--if you wrote really well you’d be writing books. It’s great for a fairly person like me.”
He may have seen himself as a “fairly person,” but Schulz drew the most popular strip in the history of newspaper comics. By 1999, “Peanuts” was syndicated in more than 2,600 newspapers worldwide, with an estimated readership of more than 350 million. More than 300 million “Peanuts” books have been sold, and license products account for an estimated $1 billion per year.
Two years after his death, reprints of old strips continue to appear in many newspapers, including The Times.
The new museum stands a few blocks from Schulz’s studio and the Redwood Empire Ice Rink he built and maintained for local kids. Designed by architect C. David Robinson, the 27,000-square-foot stone, wood and glass museum is intended to reflect the cartoonist’s understated personality.
Robinson, who worked with the cartoonist on the plans, says, “Every design decision has been based on a single question: Would Sparky [Schulz’s lifelong nickname] be comfortable here? We have done our best to suggest the playful whimsy of his cartoon world.”
The idea for the museum slowly grew out of a gallery in the gift shop that was built next to the ice rink in 1983 to display “Peanuts” strips, awards, artwork about Schulz’s characters from other cartoonists and so on.
Jeannie Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, recalls, “We talked a little bit about a museum, but Sparky didn’t jump on the idea, partially out of modesty and partially because when you’re living and working, you don’t think of yourself as a subject for a museum. When we began systematically archiving our original strips in the mid-'90s, we realized we had a collection of nearly 7,000 strips and that people would like to see Sparky’s artwork, as it’s so different from what you see in the newspaper.”
Construction of the $8-million structure was financed by the Schulz family through a nonprofit organization that will operate the facility. The family expects the museum to be self-sufficient through income from admissions, donations and merchandise sales.
In addition to permanent and temporary galleries for original artwork, the facility includes a 100-seat auditorium, a research center, museum store, classroom space and several large-scale art installations.
The most striking of these installations is a two-story mosaic mural by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani. It’s composed of 3,588 “Peanuts” strips (the equivalent of more than 10 years’ worth of dailies) reproduced on 2-inch by 8-inch ceramic tiles.
Otani arranged the tiles so the black areas in the strips form the lines of a huge image of Charlie Brown running to kick the football as Lucy holds it. The lines are remarkably true to the curves Schulz drew; they’re not just angular approximations.
The same tiles are set into the walls of the bathrooms, around the urinals, toilet stalls and sinks, low enough for children to read.
The mural Schulz painted for his daughter Meredith’s nursery in his 1951 Colorado home has been preserved and installed in the museum.
A carved wooden mural, also by Otani, traces the development of Snoopy from his initial design as a square-headed dog who walked on four feet to his final incarnation as an upright, walking character with a large oval head.
Outside, a big sycamore has been transformed into a kite-eating tree by Michael Hayden’s neon kite sculpture.
“The purpose of the museum is to present Sparky’s artwork and to interpret it in as many ways as possible,” says Jeannie Schulz. “We determined before Sparky died that it should feel alive, but it wasn’t going to be a play place or a mini-Disneyland. Whether it’s an appreciation of how hard he worked, a better understanding of why something seems funny, or whatever, I just hope people go away with a little more understanding of Sparky’s art than they had when they came in.”
In addition to 100 or so original “Peanuts” strips, the storyboards from the TV program “What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown” (1983) will be on display. Schulz took particular pride in this Peabody Award-winning special, in which his characters revisited the site of the D-day landings.
There are also special galleries for tribute strips from scores of cartoonists, including Jim Borgman, Cathy Guisewite, Mell Lazarus, Dan Piraro, Jules Feiffer, Mike Peters and Art Spiegelman.
Schulz quietly transformed the comic strip. He introduced a simpler, more caricatured style of drawing and shifted the humor from brash gags to subtler situations that grew out of the characters’ personalities. He used captionless drawings and the spaces between the panels with exceptional skill to suggest the rhythms of speech. Virtually every comic strip from the last 50 years has been influenced by his work.
“For Better or For Worse” creator Lynn Johnston summed up the opinion within the comic strip community: “Charles ‘Sparky’ Schulz had the courage to talk about loneliness and loss, about disappointment and anger, and he did it in a way that worked. In doing so, he profoundly influenced a new generation of comic artists and readers as well. It was rebellion in reverse; impact with understatement and honesty that healed even when it hurt.... His is the example that set the bar for all of us.”
Although the Schulz Museum is a first in the United States, numerous museums have held “Peanuts” exhibits, including the Smithsonian Institute and the Louvre.
Schulz had ambivalent feelings about the relationship between comic strips and the traditional fine arts, which he discussed in a 1987 interview: “I think this comic strip is better than a lot of things around that they call art, but I don’t think it’s as good as anything Picasso ever did,” he said.
“I also don’t think Picasso could have drawn a comic strip. This is a very demanding profession, but I’m not sure it is art, and I’m not sure it really even matters. The same way as is tap-dancing as good as ballet dancing--who cares? Those discussions baffle me.”
Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa, Calif., will be open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 17 through 19; after that, weekdays, noon-5:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; closed Tuesdays. Admission: museum members, children 3 and under, free; children 4-18, college students with valid I.D. and seniors $5; adults, $8. Further information: www.SchulzMuseum.org or (707) 579-4452.