A Charlie Brown Christmas
Olden Times and Ancient Rhymes
by Aramide Olorunyomi
With the holidays coming up, it is safe to say that many of us will be going into our usual holiday traditions. Traditions can mean different things, from cutting down Christmas trees, singing carols, making homemade eggnog for Santa should you bump into him, or keeping spare mistletoe around in case that one person you've been eyeing finds themselves around you. I doubt I'll be sharing any of these traditions, though one tradition that I'm fairly confident that I'll be partaking with many folks, is that I will find myself watching the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas.
It can be said that A Charlie Brown Christmas special is so revered that I doubt that you will need me to explain why it's such a special work of art, but I will anyway. What makes the special so interesting is that on one level, it is perhaps the best adaptation of any of Charles Schulz's work. As a fan of the Peanuts strip, I am still somewhat amazed by how director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson were able to capture the world that Schulz created to near perfection. The characters are well represented down to a T. From Charlie Brown's nervousness and feelings of inadequacy, to Lucy's outright brashness and forceful personality, the same folks who you once saw in the comic section of the newspaper are rendered vividly in animation. While the animation may be considered crude by today's standards (if not the standards of 1965), it is also remarkably organic and charming. It should also be added that the director and producers decision to cast actual children's voice as opposed to adults mimicking children helped in adding realism to the characters. But, it would be near criminal to not speak about the score composed by legendary jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.
One action by Mendelson that positively impacted the special was the decision for it to be given a jazz soundtrack. While Mendelson was originally considering getting Dave Brubeck as the composer, it was upon listening to his radio one day that he came upon a song composed by Vince Guaraldi, a popular West Coast pianist who had a reputation for his versatile and breezy piano techniques which made quite popular in the jazz scene. A well-loved composer, Guaraldi had won a Grammy in 1963 for a composition by the name of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." A very soothing and melodic tune off his Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus album, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" would become an immensely popular request for many of Guaraldi's shows, much to his annoyance. Upon meeting Mendelson for the first time Guaraldi, a fan of Peanuts, was struck by the idea of doing the score for the comic strip he read daily. But Guaraldi became so struck that during a telephone conversation, he urged Mendelson to listen to a new composition that he had just come up with. Guaraldi doubted that he would be able to remember the tune should they meet again, so upon further convincing, Mendelson relented and agreed to hear the song. We have this moment to thank for the existence of the famous tune known as "Linus and Lucy."
Perhaps the biggest irony of Guaraldi's involvement with the special is that Schulz would later admit that he never was a fan of jazz. His feelings towards the genre were best exemplified in a December 9th, 1952 comic strip where Schroeder looks in disgust when Charlie Brown suggests that he play some jazz tunes. Mendelson would later admit that had it been up to Schulz, the entire special would most likely have been scored with Beethoven melodies. Yet with that in mind, evidence that Guaraldi was the perfect person for the job can be seen in the first five minutes of the special when you see the children ice-skating while "Christmas Time is Here" is playing, perfectly complements the joyful yet melancholic atmosphere that was present in that scene. It may not be Beethoven; but I think we can say he did a good job in making those first five minutes captivating.
The enchanting moments do not stop there. How can we talk about the special without talking about the moment when all the kids are dancing instead of the rehearsing for the Christmas play, while the endless dance loop of the characters in could be seen as hokey. But "Linus and Lucy" is playing in the background, all is forgiven and any weakness in the animation is turned into a strength. Notice should also be given to Guaraldi's reinterpretation of "O Tannenbaum"- the song provides another example of his adept yet playful piano mannerism while showing his respect towards the carol. This composition provides an interesting context to the scene where Charlie Brown and Linus search for a Christmas tree. It plays comfortably as Charlie Brown chooses to ignore the modern trend of aluminum trees and instead go for a traditional wooden tree. The song also provides a comfortable atmosphere as the other children later attempt to fix the tree, realizing how great it was all along.
Upon, showing the final cut of the special to CBS, Melendez and Mendelson were convinced the special would actually be a failure. The mere six months they had been given to produce the special had worn on them and the reception from the executives at CBS didn't make the situation any better. Complaints regarding the special ranged from the animation being flat, to the voice acting sounding too amateurish. Complaints were also levied towards Guaraldi's score (which a few of the execs felt didn't fit the special) as well as the special's lack of canned laughter. When early production began, Schulz let it be known that he would not allow any laugh tracks to be used, as he hated the idea of instructing an audience on when to laugh. Perhaps the most vocal of complaints was in regards to the scene where Linus recites Verse 8- 14 from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Many of the executives seemed to be in agreement that an outright Biblical reference would not bode well for an audience who simply wanted to watch a seemingly secular Christmas special (it should be known that both Melendez and Mendelson had previously attempted to get Schulz to remove the biblical reference, but Schulz resisted, stating "If we don't tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?").
With nearly everyone attached to the project convinced it was a failure, CBS still agreed to show the special with the expectation that it would be only Peanuts related project they would ever broadcast. I believe we all know how the story ends. On December 9, 1965, the special aired and became a resounding success, reaching up to 15 million homes. Hoping to capitalize on the special's success, CBS would not only commission more Peanuts TV programs, but also show the Christmas special every December for many years to come (a practice that continues to this day on the ABC network). Along with the popularity the special received, Guaraldi's score would become as popular. To this day, Guaraldi's Christmas score continues to uphold a strong popularity five decades later, with it selling up to 3 million physical copies as well as being included in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007 and the Library of Congress in 2012.
But overall, what make the special immensely memorable aren't just the charming characters, or the wonderful score, or how well it adapts Charles' comic strips. It's in how it succeeds in holding itself to a more grounded sentiment. Christmas specials are indeed a dime a dozen, with quite a few feeling more as cash ins on the holiday's sentimentality as opposed to a legitimate celebration of goodwill towards others. The decades may come and go, but A Charlie Brown Christmas will always remind people of the vulnerability that can come with such a holiday, and how much of a struggle it can be to make such times truly meaningful. In the long run, showcasing that has meant the world to millions of people who still watch the special today.
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