CLASSIC CHARLIE BROWN HOLIDAY SPECIALS AIRING ON PBS THIS YEAR
by Rob Lauer
The 1960s and early '70s represent a Golden Age of TV holiday programming. The era's cartoon musicals-focusing on Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, and others-have been annual favorites for over half a century. But one show stands out as distinct from the others: A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now a beloved classic, it is often forgotten how revolutionary and even un-Christmassy it seemed when it premiered on December 9, 1965-especially to the show's producers.
Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts comic strip was a worldwide phenomenon by the early-1960s. A Christmas special featuring Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and the gang seemed like a no-brainer. The Coca-Cola Company signed up to produce the show on a tiny budget. After all, this would be nothing more than a kid's Christmas cartoon. Mix the famous characters with Santa and holiday music, and the ratings would follow.
But Charles Schulz had something more in mind than cliche', run-of-the-mill holiday fare. The characters would be voiced by actual children-not adult actors, and the story would focus on Charlie Brown's inability to feel the Christmas spirit. A cartoon about a child suffering from seasonal depression was not what the producers had in mind.
Schulz assured them that the show would feature snow, Christmas trees, and talk of Santa, but these would be interspersed with something more important: the spiritual foundation and true meaning of Christmas. When Schulz revealed the show would include Linus reciting the Biblical Christmas story, the producers protested: such an overt reference to religion was too controversial and would alienate viewers. Though many now assume that Americans in the 50s and 60s were more religious, fewer than 9 percent of that period's Christmas programming contained any substantive reference to religion. Schulz stood his ground, making Linus's Biblical recitation the show's climax and thus impossible to edit out.
And then there was the show's score. Not resorting to jingling bells, holiday brass, and stereotypical musical merriment, Schulz wanted moody jazz piano arrangements of traditional carols, along with original compositions. When producers heard the score by legendary jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, they were convinced they had a major flop on their hands.
They were, of course, wrong. The success of A Charlie Brown Christmas led to other Peanuts specials, including 1973's A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Vince Guaraldi's score-so odd by 1965 Christmas music standards-revolutionized the genre: 56 years later, it's difficult to imagine the holiday season without it. More than any Christmas program of the period, A Charlie Brown Christmas stood the test of time, offering a more realistic, nuanced view of the holiday-one so unpretentiously candid and human that adults more than children are touched by it.
This Holiday season, PBS will broadcast "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
at 7:30 Sunday, December 19.
at 7:30 Sunday, December 19.
"We are delighted to bring the joy of these holiday classics to families across the country,"
PBS President Paula Kerger says.
"During these challenging times, public television continues to be a free and easily accessible source of comfort, inspiration, and education for millions of Americans."
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