Christmas time is here...and so is the 45th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Filled with humor, heart and a universal message of goodwill toward men, the tale of Chuck's search for the meaning of Christmas, Snoopy's prize-winning decorations and the saddest little tree ever never fails to make the season bright. So we rang up executive producer Lee Mendelson to talk about the special's lasting legacy, how it came to be, and Mariah Carey's take on its iconic theme as performed on her "Merry Christmas to You" special Monday night (9/8c, ABC).
TV Guide Magazine: So congratulations and thank you for what is easily one of TV's greatest holiday specials.
Mendelson: Well, thank you! TV Guide Magazine was the most instrumental thing in the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas, did you know that? The week before it aired, they did a 2-page color spread. They recreated a Charlie Brown comic strip, but put in it the plot of the special. It was maybe the last week in November or the first week of December in 1965. And of course, we've been on your cover several times. TV Guide Magazine has been very good to us.
TV Guide Magazine: And your relationship with Charles M. Schulz all started from a love of baseball?
Mendelson: Right. I had done a Willie Mays special that had aired on NBC and was reading a Charlie Brown strip where he had lost 800 games in a row. The idea popped into my head that I had done the best ballplayer ever, why not do the world's worst? So I called Schulz — he was listed in the phone book his whole life — and he said come on up, let's talk. He had seen the Willie Mays show and idolized him. That's how the whole thing began.
TV Guide Magazine: Where did you guys come up with the plot?
Mendelson: He had done comic strips at Christmastime, of course, and would show the strain little kids come under doing Christmas pageants. So maybe 10 lines came out of the comics, the rest was original.
TV Guide Magazine: And now, Mariah Carey is covering "Christmas Time is Here" on her special.
Mendelson: In a very breath manner! [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: Can you believe that the song has become so iconic?
Mendelson: We had finished the show and there was just this instrumental...we had a few weeks before it aired and I said if we could get someone to write some words, we could have someone sing the song and have a bigger opening moment to the special. I called around town to different lyricists and so forth, but everyone was busy. I don't know what possessed me, but there was an envelope on my kitchen table and I put dots and dashes down for the long notes and short notes. It was like playing Hangman. I wish I had that envelope still! I wrote the song in 10 minutes or so. It was like a poem, it just came to me. And I gave it to [composer] Vince Guaraldi, who got a bunch of kids from a church choir to record it. And now it's been covered by, oh I don't know, maybe 100 different artists. Tony Bennett. Johnny Mathis sang it on Oprah. It's like a surreal dream that goes on and on.
TV Guide Magazine: What do you think of Mariah's version?
Mendelson: We're thrilled. She is one of my all-time favorite singers. And I think, though it's been covered so many times before, that this is the first time it will be sung on a primetime special.
TV Guide Magazine: Very cool. Now, is it true that Schulz didn't actually like A Charlie Brown Christmas?
Mendelson: Oh no! He did like it. When we finished it, [fellow exec producer] Bill Melendez and I thought it might be too slow. That is one of the reasons I wanted the song to give it a little oomph at the top. But no, Bill and I didn't think it worked, CBS didn't think it worked, but he liked it and was confident from day one.
TV Guide Magazine: ABC is re-airing the special on Thursday the 16th. Do you have a tradition for watching it?
Mendelson: Oh sure, the whole family gets together. Of course, back then, it was four of us. Now there's 12 of us. [Laughs] We all watch it together. Also, when it first aired, there were only three networks. We got a 49-share! Think about that. Half the country tuned in. Today, if we get a 10-share, we're thrilled.
TV Guide Magazine: Is there anything you would want to change about the special today?
Mendelson: Goodness, no. This was a very surreal once-in-a-lifetime thing where everything came together. The music, the acting, the theme...I can't think of a thing we'd change.
A Charlie Brown Christmas airs Thursday, Dec. 16, 8/7c on ABC.