Talking with Lee Mendelson

Lee Mendelson

Lee Mendelson

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the first television broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  In honor of the occasion we sat down with the TV special’s visionary producer, Lee Mendelson, to see how he’s been celebrating the landmark occasion. The answer: he’s keeping as busy as always.

Best known as the producer of A Charlie Brown Christmas and more than 40 subsequent Charlie Brown specials, Mendelson has been one of Hollywood’s most productive artists since his career began in 1961.  Amazingly, his career launching work on A Charlie Brown Christmas came to him almost by accident.  It all began in 1963 when Mendelson made a documentary about Peanuts creator Charles Schultz, called Charlie Brown’s Charles Schulz.  “We couldn’t sell it to anybody!” Mendelson told us.  “But that film was what started it all because [Coca-Cola advertising agency] McCann-Erickson saw it and they loved the animation sequences and they told me they wanted to make an animated Christmas special starring the Peanuts characters.  The only catch was that they wanted the whole thing ready to air in 6 months!”

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The rest is, well, history. Mendelson called up Schulz, who in turn recommended animator/director Bill Melendez, and the three got to work. Schulz wrote the script while Melendez helmed the storyboard and animation.  Finally, Mendelson brought on the jazz composer Vince Guaraldi who created what would become some of pop culture’s most iconic tunes.  According to Mendelson, “[Guaraldi] put together this really great mix of music: from Traditional to Beethoven to Jazz, it had it all!  Jazz is uniquely American, like baseball and Thanksgiving, and Guaraldi made it a worldwide phenomenon with A Charlie Brown Christmas and the other Peanuts music he did later.”

Even with all that talent on board, Mendelson had his doubts that Coca-Cola and CBS would be open to such a novel form of television special.  “It was just so different than everything else on television at the time.  It was the first half-hour animated holiday special, which became pretty much the standard afterwards, and it was the first show to use child actors for the voices.  And of course almost nobody was using Jazz on TV back then, especially not in a kids program.  I was worried they were going to think we were crazy!”  

Luckily Mendelson’s fears turned out to be unfounded  on December 6, 1965, when the special debuted to almost universal acclaim, watched by more than 15 million families and lauded by major news publications. “There were only 3 networks when the show was first broadcast, and you could get a huge audience when something worked.  We had a 45% share that year! Since half the country watched it – and then it won an Emmy – that first generation of tens of millions became annual fans and they passed it on to their next two generations as well.”

“I think Charles Schulz summed it up when he said, ‘there will always be a market for innocence in this country.’  Just look at all the great success of the animated movies that have come out since. Using child actors for the first time – where adults always played kids in the past – gave it an authenticity. The show ran the full emotional gamut, from the usual bullying of Charlie Brown throughout the show but countered by a happy ending with the tree.”

And of course, the special’s legacy has expanded to the stage through the stage musical A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, which Tams-Witmark began licensing in 2013 and is now a staple among church, school, and community theaters.  “I am still a devotee of the theatre, having seen at least 75 musicals over the years – starting with FINIAN’S RAINBOW in New York when I was 14.  I absolutely love seeing the Peanuts characters on stage.  It has been such an honor to watch fans of all ages get to take a more active role in the story….Though I had nothing to do with the production of [the musical] YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, I still remember when [composer] Clark Gesner came out and played the songs for me on my piano. I was blown away and sent him up to meet Charles Schulz right away.”

cbxmas 50When we spoke to Mr. Mendelson he was hard at work preparing for his next big television special: It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, which broadcast on ABC on November 30th.  “The show is about how we created the [original] Christmas show as well as musical and animated highlights from our 50 network Peanuts specials. Kristen Bell will host, Sarah McLachlan will sing “Christmas Time Is Here” – which I wrote for the special with Guaraldi – Kristin Chenoweth will sing “Happiness” from the musical, and other stars will perform as well.”

If you missed the incredible special, it’s not too late to catch it right here.  If you still have a tree in your house, or haven’t taken your lights down, or even if you’re still on vacation, you can still enjoy a good Christmas special!