Few holiday specials are as beloved, generation after generation, as "A Charlie Brown Christmas" ... and this year, it marks a big birthday.
The first animated "Peanuts" special originally brought Charles M. Schulz's comic strip to television in 1965, winning an Emmy and a Peabody Award for its story of Charlie Brown bemoaning the commercialization of the yuletide while struggling to direct a seasonal play. Underscored by Vince Guaraldi music -- including the instantly familiar opening tune, "Christmas Time Is Here" -- that saw it voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the classic show gets its 50th-anniversary telecast at 8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 30, on ABC.
"It's kind of overwhelming," says producer Lee Mendelson, who wrote the "Christmas Time Is Here" lyrics. "When we had finished the show, (director and fellow producer) Bill Melendez and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown. We thought it was too slow, and we took it to the network (CBS, initially) with much trepidation. Unfortunately, they also thought it was too slow. They said, 'Well, we'll run it, and that will be it.'
"Of course, back then, there were only three (commercial) networks," Mendelson adds, "and when it went on the air, it got a 50 (rating) share, if you can imagine that. Half of the country tuned into the show, which is unbelievable. The next Monday, the top guy at the network -- who had hated it -- called and said, 'We're going to order four more (specials). But my aunt in New Jersey didn't like it, either.'"
In addition to showing "A Charlie Brown Christmas," ABC also will give it an hourlong celebration at 7 p.m. the same night. The retrospective "It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown" is hosted by Kristen Bell and features performances by artists including Sarah McLachlan, Boyz II Men, Matthew Morrison ("Glee"), Pentatonix ... and Kristin Chenoweth, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Sally in the 1999 Broadway revival of the musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
It also includes a bounty of Guaraldi's melodies, and Melendez recalls finding the composer as "serendipity. I was doing a documentary on Schulz in 1963, and riding over the Golden Gate Bridge, I heard (the Guaraldi-composed) 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind.' It had just won a Grammy, and I thought, 'Gee, that's perfect music for us. It's adultlike and childlike.' And I found out that he, like me, was a native San Franciscan.
"We met and he said, 'I'll do the music for the documentary.' A week later, he called and said, 'I've got to play this song for you.' It was 'Linus and Lucy,' and it was so funny: Something in my head said, 'This song is going to become very important to all our lives.' I had no idea why -- the documentary never sold, by the way -- and two years later, it became the theme of the Christmas show."
CBS was the home network of Charlie Brown and company for more than 30 years, but in 2000, ABC acquired the rights to the specials. They came to encompass tributes to such other occasions as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, Election Day ... even Arbor Day and the Super Bowl. And not only has the "Peanuts" gang gotten to the stage, but also to bigger screens, as indicated in part by the recently opened "Peanuts Movie."
"It's very rewarding, because it's good family entertainment," Mendelson notes. "It's been fascinating. And significant. 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' and `Frosty the Snowman' and `A Charlie Brown Christmas' all happened around the same time, and they're all still going strong. We were very lucky."