Question: I've loved A Charlie Brown Christmas since I was a kid, but it wasn't until I grew up that I appreciated it for its quirkiness, especially given when it was made. How did Hollywood people ever come up with something that different on mainstream TV? Thanks for your thoughts, and I love the column.
Answer: The short answer: They didn't. But you know you'll never get away with that short an answer from me, and the people who write in to yell at me for being verbose wouldn't have anything to get worked up about if I ended it there, now would they?
Lee Mendelson, the young man (he was just 30) who convinced Charles Schulz to work with him after the "Peanuts" creator had turned down many an industry type, was from Burlingame, Calif., near San Francisco. So when Mendelson called Schulz on his Sebastopol ranch in 1963 to propose doing a documentary on Schulz and his work, Schulz invited him over and discovered that Mendelson was anything but Hollywood.
Having tired of working in his dad's wholesale produce business, Mendelson had moved into local TV before putting together a documentary about a day in the life of baseball great Willie Mays. While that had met with acclaim when it aired on NBC, it didn't draw any industry attention to Mendelson. However, Schulz, a baseball fanatic, liked it, and liked Mendelson, especially when Mendelson talked about giving creative control to the creator. So Schulz agreed to work with him, but insisted that the animated sequences be handled by Bill Melendez, who had done bang-up work on Charlie Brown commercials for Ford.
When they were finished, Mendelson headed for Hollywood to propose a series of animated Charlie Brown specials, figuring he couldn't miss. But he was met with nothing but yawns and derision. "I was sure I had the hottest property in America," he told TV Guide in 1968. "When it turned out I couldn't give it away, I thought I must be crazy."
James Aubrey, the president of CBS Television at the time, said he hated it. His counterpart at ABC was simply "not interested" and NBC's Ed Friendly, while taken with the idea, couldn't get his programming chief to go for it. Even worse, 18 of the top agencies in town blasted it. One called it "too fey" (Mendelson confessed to having to look that word up), while others said the characters couldn't be animated, the whole thing was "too fragile," and Schulz was too much of an unknown quantity because he'd never written for TV. Only CBS president Frank Stanton was encouraging, but even he wouldn't make his own program department play ball. "After a year of this, I began to feel like some kind of criminal or something," Mendelson said.
Schulz had his theories on why the network guys were so resistant. "They doubted we could transfer to film the quality of the strip," Schulz said. "A Charlie Brown film or strip has no 'story' no beginning, no middle, no end; it's the way I see things, the way things happen in life. That episodic quality bothered them. But mostly I think it was that TV people simply do not realize the impact of the comic strip generally. There are very few mediums as strong, that reach as many people, that have as loyal a following."
Mendelson and Schulz caught a break in the spring of 1965, when Time magazine ran a cover story on Charlie Brown. Coca-Cola's ad agency commissioned a Christmas special, but even then ran into naysayers at CBS, their chosen network. A group of network vice presidents watched it and "predicted disaster," Mendelson said.
Some disaster. Five Charlie Brown specials later, Mendelson and Schulz averaged an amazing 28.5 rating and 48.3 share per show. Repeats did as well or better than the original airings, and the shows racked up their share of Emmys and Peabodys. But of course, Hollywood still failed to embrace Mendelson. His next work was a documentary on John Steinbeck, which also won an Emmy, then several Charlie Brown features (including A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Snoopy Come Home) and a Babar special, among other things. Yet with all that, he got no respect. The man himself put it best: "After all this, I have yet to have any network or agency call me directly and say, 'Lee, baby, what you got in the works?'"
Good grief indeed.