Did you catch the It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown special (plus the actual A Charlie Brown Christmas) on ABC last night? I loved it! The special was hosted by Kristen Bell, and featured appearances and performances by several celeb Peanuts fans, including Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew Morrison, Sarah McLachlan, Pentatonix, Boyz II Men, and Fergie (I had no idea she voiced Sally at one point)!
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the most beloved Christmas special in TV history: A Charlie Brown Christmas. The half-hour special premiered on December 9, 1965 on CBS, whose executives were skeptical about airing. But the show pulled through (as we all know) and attracted 45% of the TV audience that evening. Has that ever happened with anything else?!
Lee Mendelson, who co-created the original A Charlie Brown Christmas, played the same role in the newest Peanuts special. In a recent interview, he shared insights about the making of both specials.
What were the goals of the new special—to talk about the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas, to have celebrities express their love for the show, to feature performances of the music? All of the above?
The main intentions were to create a retrospective of how we made A Charlie Brown Christmas, to feature all the music from Peanuts over the years—from TV, stage, and movies—and to present highlights of 50 years of Peanuts television animation. I don’t know if there’s ever been a show like this. We have approximately 20 minutes of stars and music, and 20 minutes of classic Peanuts animation.
Were the celebrities eager to be a part of it?
Everybody who’s grown up either saw the original 50 years ago, or they watch it with their kids or grandkids. I rarely run into anybody who hasn’t seen the show many times. And celebrities are just the same: Kristen Bell has two children, one of whom sleeps with a Snoopy doll. Sarah McLachlan grew up in Canada watching the show. Kristin Chenoweth won a Tony for her role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Matthew Morrison played Snoopy in his high school production of the musical. They were all thrilled to be part of it. They really care about Peanuts, and they love the special.
What kind of music is in the special?
Sarah McLachlan performs Christmastime Is Here, which is a song I wrote the lyrics for when we made A Charlie Brown Christmas. [The show] was too slow and I couldn’t put my finger on why. I said to Bill Melendez, “You know that opening melody when they’reskating? The melody is beautiful—maybe we could get some songwriters to quickly put some words together and record it. But everybody was busy. I don’t know what possessed me, but I took out an envelope and I literally wrote the words on that envelope in about ten minutes. It never changed, it was like writing a poem. We got some kids together and they sang it. Now that song has been covered more than 100 times by people like Tony Bennett, Mariah Carey, Diana Krall. But my favorite cover was by Sarah McLachlan, and I’m so thrilled she’s performing it for the special.We have Boyz II Men giving us rhythm and blues for Joe Cool and little birdies. Kristin Chenoweth has been part of the Peanuts family since she was in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown on stage, so she’s the perfect person to sing Happiness Is. Pentatonix performs Hark the Herald Angels Sing. And one of my favorite performers, Matthew Morrison, is currently on Broadway in Neverland. So we went to New York and created a Christmas tree lot, and he sang a new song I wrote, Just like Me, which is Charlie Brown singing to his little Christmas tree.
How did that new song come about?
David Benoit has been our music director since Vince Guaraldi died, and about four years ago, I was listening to one of his new albums at the same time that I was looking at a book about the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas. There was a frame there of Charlie Brown staring at his little tree. And it struck me that they were just the same —both ridiculed, both not wanted. And I was listening to this beautiful song Benoit had done, and I sat down and wrote lyrics about what Charlie Brown was thinking when he was looking at that tree. Even at that time four years ago, I knew there would be an anniversary special. So that’s why we have Matthew Morrison in a Christmas tree lot, singing to a Christmas tree.So you made important contributions to the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas!A critic in Philadelphia said, “Mendelson wrote the opening and closing songs.” I called him up and said, “Well, I wrote Christmastime Is Here, but I sure as heck didn’t write Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. He said no, but Felix Mendelssohn did!
Who else will we see in the special?
You’ll get to see and hear Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez, Vince Guaraldi, the original Lucy from Christmas show.
Does the special touch on CBS’ reaction to the CBC when you first showed it to them?
Yes. When we finished the special, we took it to CBS and they didn’t like it. The executives thought it was too slow, they didn’t like the kid’s voices, they said, “What is jazz doing on a Christmas show?” They said, “It’s scheduled, but [we’re] afraid this’ll be one and out.” Then it got 45 percent of the audience. They ordered more specials, but the CBS executive said, “My aunt in New Jersey hated it.”
How did you feel about it at the time?
We previewed it two weeks before it aired. It looked very slow to Bill and me, and when it was over, Bill and I looked at each other and one of us said to the other, “ Oh God, I think we’ve ruined Charlie Brown.” And one of the animators in the back row, Ed Levitt a famous animator, stood up and said, “You guys are crazy, this is going to run for a hundred years.” And we said to him, “What are you smoking?”
How did Sparky feel about it after it aired?
When the show came on he was thrilled. He was thrilled with the ratings, he was thrilled with the response. He said, “Let’s do some more.” For 38 more years, we did 52 more shows and 4 movies.And you feature clips from many of those other specials in It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown.Yes. It was a very difficult complex show to put together, with all the animation and the live songs. Fortunately, we had a marvelous director, Paul Miller, who did my favorite show, In Living Color. He does the Country Music Awards, the big July 4th celebrations, he worked on Saturday Night Live for three years. He brought all the live things alive.The animation of course includes baseball sequences, the football sequence. Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey from the San Francisco Giants offer to coach the gang in baseball, and soccer player Carli Lloyd tells Charlie Brown she’ll teach him how to kick a football.
And do you appear in the new special?
Against my better judgment, yes I do, for about 24 seconds.
If you missed last night’s special, don’t worry! The back-to-back specials (It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas) will air again on Christmas Eve!