A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965, becoming an instant cultural phenomenon. For many years this most endearing classic aired annually, but due to its phenomenal popularity, is now telecast at least twice each year during the Christmas season. It is the second longest-running TV Christmas cartoon special, after “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and not surprisingly, has been honored with both an Emmy and a Peabody Award.
The TV Production
A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first prime-time animated TV special based on the popular comic strip Peanuts, written and illustrated by Charles Schulz, produced and directed by former Warner Brothers animator Bill Melendez (who died in 2008 at age 91). For many years this most endearing classic aired annually, but due to its phenomenal popularity, is now telecast at least twice each year during the Christmas season. It is the second longest-running TV Christmas cartoon special in history, after Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and not surprisingly, has been honored with both an Emmy and a Peabody Award.
The making of a classic
As the TV industry annals attest, bringing the Peanuts characters to the little screen was far from an easy task. With limited funding from sponsor Coca-Cola, the limited budget resulted in what many consider a somewhat choppy animation style and, from a technical standpoint, had poorly mixed sound. And except for the actors who provided the voices for Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) and Lucy (Tracy Stratford), none of the children had any previous voiceover experience. This proved especially challenging for Kathy Steinberg, the voice of Sally, who was too young to read and needed to be fed her dialog line-by-line during the recording.
As the story goes, network executives from the start were not at all keen on several aspects of the show and threatened to pull the plug on production several times. For one, they didn’t like the idea of having Linus recite the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke, which they saw as potentially provocative, and something audiences would never want to sit through. Charles Schulz, however, was adamant about keeping this scene in, remarking, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”
Laughs and Soundtrack
Another complaint TV execs had was the absence of a laugh track, a common element of most children’s cartoons of the era. But Schulz maintained that the audience, who he would assume would be both parents and children, should be allowed to enjoy the show at their own pace, without being prompted when to laugh. (CBS did create a version of the show with the laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind.) A third complaint was the use of children to do the voiceovers instead of seasoned, adult actors. Schulz, however, insisted that actual kids recite the kids’ dialog. And finally, executives thought the adult-oriented jazz soundtrack provided by Vince Guaraldi was too sophisticated for a kid’s program. Thus, when executives previewed the final product, they predicted that the special would be a complete flop.
A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965, following the popular comedy, Gilligan’s Island, for which a reported 50% of America’s TVs were tuned in. And despite the industry’s misgivings and criticisms, this endearing special was an unqualified critical and commercial hit, with its so-called “technical problems” ultimately perceived as part of the show’s charm. It drew nearly a 45 percent viewership share, got rave reviews from Time and TV Guide, and as far as Linus’ feared recitation, Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram who wrote, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.” In short, this special became an instant cultural phenomenon.
In January 2000, one month before Schulz’s death, the broadcast rights to A Charlie Brown Christmas were acquired by ABC (as part of a deal between the network and Schulz), which is where the special currently airs and has aired since CBS’s final airing on December 25, 2000. On September 12, 2000, the special was released as a DVD (having previously been available on VHS format sold at Shell Oil gas stations). This year it aired on Dec. 7 and Dec. 16, at 8 PM ET, on ABC, marking its 45th broadcast, with this month’s airing having the highest ratings in its time slot. (If you missed it you can catch it on Hulu and Fancast.)
- Peter Robbins: Charlie Brown
- Chris Shea: Linus van Pelt
- Tracy Stratford: Lucille “Lucy” van Pelt
- Cathy Steinberg: Sally Brown
- Chris Doran: Schroeder and Shermy
- Geoffrey Ornstein: Pig-Pen
- Karen Mendelson: Patty
- Sally Dryer: Violet Gray
- Ann Altieri: Frieda
- Bill Melendez: Snoopy
Note: Some credit A Charlie Brown Christmas with the sharp decline in sales of aluminum Christmas trees that began soon after it aired though today the fake trees have become retro-chic, with replicas of Charlie Brown’s “not such a bad little tree” with its lone red ornament quite popular.
Almost as well-known as the TV special itself, the soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas, composed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, was released in 1965 to accompany the CBS Christmas television special. Guaraldi (who died in 1976 at the age of 47) best known for his 1963 jazz composition “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” which garnered him a Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition, was given a free hand in adapting the Peanuts comic strip to the animated special, which in addition to being a delightful part of the yearly-aired TV special, now stands among the most popular Christmas music albums of all time. (Of course, after hearing the final soundtrack, TV producers had serious reservations about its “kid” appropriateness.)
The Phenomenon Continues
In 1977, a book & record set featuring the music, dialogue, and stills from the Christmas special was released on an album by CBS Records. In 1986, Fantasy Records reissued the album on CD, with a track-listing and cover art identical to the original 1965 LP release, then issued a new CD version with updated cover art with the traditional holiday song “Greensleeves” being added as a bonus track, in 1988. This track, however, features Guaraldi performing with a different trio than heard on the original eleven songs. In 1997 Fantasy issued a Starbucks Exclusive edition of the album, sold only through Starbucks retail. This version omitted “Greensleeves” and had very different cover art and new liner notes. In 2006, a somewhat controversial remastered version of the original album was released by Concord Records, in conjunction with Fantasy, which includes four previously unreleased bonus tracks, all of which are alternate versions of songs in the original track listing, and features Digipak packaging, new liner notes by music critic and historian Joel Selvin, and the original cover art.
Cuts and Personel
- “O Tannenbaum” (5:08)
- “What Child Is This?” (2:25)
- “My Little Drum” (3:12)
- “Linus and Lucy” (3:06)
- “Christmas Time Is Here” (Instrumental) (6:05)
- “Christmas Time Is Here (Vocal Version)” (2:47)
- “Skating” (2:27)
- “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (1:55)
- “Christmas Is Coming” (3:25)
- “Für Elise” (1:06)
- “The Christmas Song” (3:17)
- “Greensleeves” (5:26)
The Vince Guaraldi Trio: Personnel
- Jerry Granelli: drums
- Vince Guaraldi: piano, Hammond organ, arrangement
- Fred Marshall: double bass