Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Fifty Years of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

Fifty years ago this evening CBS aired A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time and ever since it has been a staple television offering during the holiday season.  And to think it came close to never airing at all.  In 1965, producer Lee Mendelson teamed up “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz and animator Bill Melendez to put together a half-hour animated special featuring Charlie Brown and all of the familiar “Peanuts” characters of that era . . . all on a budget of less than $100,000 through the sponsorship of the Coca-Cola Company.

Upon viewing the finished project, some CBS executives were uncomfortable with its underlying religious message . . . something that would never fly today when most networks fear even mentioning the word “Christmas” less they offend some person or group.   Yet the show was aired and has survived intact all these years.  Perhaps they were also uncomfortable with its condemnation of the crass commercialization of Christmas.  “Look, Charlie Brown,” Lucy confesses.  “We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.”  Maybe it hit just a little too close to home.  Schultz and Mendelson also bucked conventional wisdom, using children for the voice overs and jettisoning the laugh track which was a standard of that time.

The special aired on Thursday evening, December 9, 1965 . . . preceded and followed by episodes of The Munsters and My Three Sons, and going up against The Donna Reed Show and Daniel Boone on ABC and NBC.  The corporate and network powers did not expect the show to be a success, yet this melancholy tale garnered almost half the viewing public that evening; over 15 million households tuned in.  It all seemed genuine and sincere.  It has been a staple of holiday viewing ever since despite many dated cultural references.  It reminds us of what now seems like a time of innocence when the world was less complicated.  CBS continued the annual broadcast through 2000 after which the rights were sold to the Disney-owned ABC network which aired it for the first time in 2001, a year after Charles Schulz died. 

I watch almost no network television; there is very little that appeals to me as programming becomes increasingly trivial and tiresome.  This year, however, we thought we would tune in for the 50th anniversary broadcast aired on ABC last week.  It would be fun to think back over the years; to briefly retreat from the over commercialization of the holiday season and to remind ourselves of what Christmas is all about.  No such luck. I could barely make it half way through the two-hour program before I had to turn it off.  Instead of a fond remembrances of things past we were treated to a display of the same commercialization of Christmas Charlie Brown and his friend Linus tried to transcend while all around them had forgotten its true meaning.  Charlie Brown’s sister Sally dictates a long list of presents she wants. “All I want is what is coming to me.  All I want is my fair share.”  Lucy prefers real estate and wants to be Christmas Queen.  Snoopy eats and is only interested in winning the Christmas lights contest.  When Lucy threatens to slug her little brother Linus come to the realization that “Christmas is not only getting too commercial, it's getting too dangerous." Charlie Brown cries out, “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?”  It is only thoughtful Linus who can answer as he recites Chapter 2, verses 6-14 from the Gospel According to Luke.  The message is simple.  One should not be afraid, for there was “tidings of great joy which will be to all people” . . . something that would change the world forever.  “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

 ABC seemed to forget this when it aired its anniversary special last week.  It was not so much a celebration of the original show, but rather a two-hour extravaganza featuring current A-list celebrities such as Kristin Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison reading what someone else had written and singing songs that had absolutely nothing to do with Schultz’s and Mendelson’s original creation.  I turned it off once it became clear to me what ABC had in mind . . . just one more wave in the endless tide of holiday commercialization that has now eclipsed even Thanksgiving. 

I have watched the special almost every year since it first aired.  Oh, I missed a year here and there when I was in college and studying for end of the semester exams, or when I was a student in Europe and did not have a television.  With the advent of the VHS version, followed by a digitally re-mastered DVD, I am no longer forced to watch it whenever ABC chooses to fit it into its December line-up.  I can watch it any time I want and without commercials.  I now look forward to each Christmas Eve when my family and I sit together and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas.  We “never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”  I think this is why we really watch it.  In an ever more dangerous and complicated world, all we are really looking for is a little love.  Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! 

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