The story of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is the story of a whole bunch of improbables coming together to create an incredible.
It all began with a connection between the world's greatest baseball player (or at least one of them) — Willie Mays — and the world's worst baseball player (or at least the unluckiest) — Charlie Brown.
Lee Mendelson had produced a documentary on Mays and was reading the comics and saw a strip about Charlie Brown's baseball team. "The idea of following my special on the best with a program about the worst popped into my head," Mendelson said during a telephone interview from this California home.
He contacted Charles Schulz, who had seen the Mays special and was amenable to the idea of a documentary on Charlie Brown's world, and they set to work. They wanted to include a brief bit of animation in the documentary, so Schulz recommended animator Bill Melendez, who created two minutes of animation — "all I could afford," said Mendelson.
For music, Mendelson remembered a song by jazz composer Vince Guaraldi that he liked, so he contacted the composer. The result was a jazz composition titled "Linus and Lucy." "It was perfect for the Peanuts characters."
The Charlie Brown documentary was finished, and Mendelson began shopping it around to networks and advertisers. "In true Charlie Brown fashion, no one was interested."
A year and a half later, Mendelson got a call from an advertising agency asking if he and Schulz had ever considered doing an animated Christmas special. Of course, said Mendelson, who would have said pretty much anything at that point. Coca-Cola wanted to sponsor a Christmas special. It was Wednesday; they needed the outline by Monday. Could they do it? Of course, said Mendelson.
He hung up and called Sparky — as Schulz was known to his friends. Could they do it? "Without missing a beat, Sparky told me to come on up. Ideas flowed, and by the end of the day we had an outline." It remained essentially unchanged.
They turned it in, waited three weeks for an answer, and learned that Coca-Cola not only liked it but wanted it for early December — giving them just six months to complete the work. "Of course," said Mendelson, with no clue if that was even possible.
They contacted Melendez; they decided to use actual kids as the voices (up until then, all animation voices were performed by adults), so they auditioned dozens of kids. They contacted Guaraldi, who agreed to do the music, incorporating his earlier "Lucy and Linus." And the race was on.
The production was finished a week before the viewing date. Just prior to that, they had watched it and decided the opening song needed words, so Mendelson sat down and wrote some lyrics on the back on an envelope. In about 15 minutes, "Christmas Time Is Here" was born.
Then came the preview for CBS executives. "They didn't like it," said Mendelson. They thought it was "flat" and "a little slow," that it lacked oomph. They would air it, they said reluctantly. But they wouldn't be ordering any more shows on the Peanuts gang.
The ratings, critical acclaim and an Emmy changed all that, of course.
That was back in 1965. But, if the fact that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was made at all is proof of the vagaries of luck and timing, the fact that 40 years later it is considered one of the all-time Christmas classics is a testament to the power of sincerity and heart.
"I think the show reflects Sparky's basic beliefs, his fundamental Midwestern values," said Mendelson. From the very beginning, Schulz wanted to include the religious angle, include the Bible story. "That had not been done before in an animated work," said Mendelson. "The show's ending, where they all gather around the tree — that's very powerful."
Mendelson also credits the success of the story to the fact that "Charlie Brown finally won something." This little boy who appeals to the loser in us all discovers the true meaning of the holiday and helps us all to share in that discovery, he said.
"And I think the fact that we used the characters just as they appear in the strip, making them move but without embellishments, was important," he added. The music, too, turned out to be just right. "It was just one of those things that all came together in a propitious way."
Mendelson, Melendez and Schulz went on to do more than 40 Charlie Brown specials. Work is just now being finished on the last one, started by Schulz prior to his death in 2000. Release on "He's a Bully, Charlie Brown" is scheduled for next spring. "It will be bittersweet to see it all come to an end," said Mendelson. "I was very lucky to become personal friends with Sparky. We worked together for 38 years, and we never had a disagreement. He was fun to work with. He had a great sense of humor. And he really cared about the characters."
Mendelson didn't realize at the time that making animated specials would turn out to be pretty much his life work. He got his start at a local CBS office in San Francisco making five- and 10-second spots. "You couldn't start any smaller than I did." In addition to Charlie Brown, he produced shows on Garfield and Cathy, also based on comic strips, and others — about 275 shows in all — and in the process collected 12 Emmys.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," holiday gift items and memorabilia include a DVD, a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, a CD featuring a newly recorded soundtrack — as well as new versions performed by Vanessa Williams, David Benoit, Brian McKnight, Dave Koz and others — a paperback version of the book "A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition" (originally released in 2000), "A Charlie Brown Christmas" 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition jigsaw puzzle featuring the gang gathered around the Christmas tree, a special Charlie Brown Christmas ornament from Hallmark and a Snoopy edition of Monopoly.
"Who would have dreamed this would all happen," said Mendelson. "Back when we first finished the special, we were all feeling tired and rushed, and we figured we'd probably ruined Charlie Brown forever." Thankfully, not so, because, he said, the ultimate and endearing message of Charlie Brown is "you just keep trying no matter what. It's a good reminder for us all."
If you watch
What: "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
When: Tuesday, Dec. 6, 7 p.m.
Channel: ABC-Ch. 4