CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lee Mendelson, producer of all the Charlie Brown TV specials, holds a collector's 20th-anniversary book that he wrote in 1970, "Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz." This year is the 40th anniversary of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," one of Mendelson's first collaborations with Schulz.
Producer Lee Mendelson helped Charles Shulz make TV history with the Charlie Brown gang
Baseball has been very, very good to Lee Mendelson. More than four decades ago, the Bay area film producer had just wrapped a television documentary on Willie Mays and was leafing through the newspaper when a comic strip about baseball caught his eye -- hapless Charlie Brown laid low by a fastball.
He laughed. Then he thought, "I've done the best baseball player in the world, why not do the worst?" So he called "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz, who, as it turned out, lived right down the peninsula.
Like an effortless triple play, things just fell into place. "Sparky" Schulz had seen the Willie Mays documentary and immediately agreed to work with Mendelson. The documentary, "Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz," introduced the shy artist to the public. While Mendelson was shopping it around, however, Coca-Cola's advertising agency asked about doing an animated Christmas show.
He responded, "Absolutely!" and called Schulz and told him they had three days to outline a Charlie Brown Christmas show. "Sparky wrote it up in just a few hours, and he knew animator Bill Melendez because they had just made some commercials for the new Ford Falcon. And composer Vince Guaraldi came to mind when I heard 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind' on the car radio."
Forty years ago this holiday season, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" debuted on network television. This spring, the 50th animated special will air, the last one actually worked on by Schulz. In the meantime, Mendelson took a quick vacation in Hawaii that allowed time for an interview.
It hasn't been all "Peanuts" for Mendelson, who has produced more than 300 TV shows ranging from John Steinbeck's "America and Americans" to several Bob Hope Christmas specials -- winning a dozen Emmy awards in the process. But "Peanuts" is why we're here.
Just don't say "Peanuts." Schulz disliked the strip handle so much that none of the animated specials uses it in the title.
Mendelson, a former Air Force navigator and Stanford creative-writing grad, got his first TV job at KPIX San Francisco in 1961, knocking out five-second public-service announcements. A chance discovery of original film from the 1915 World's Fair led to his first documentary. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" earned Mendelson his second Peabody and an Emmy Award.
Before he died, Schulz explained why the Mendelson-Melendez-Schulz home team meshed so well: It was "the perfect working relationship. We all contributed something, and we never trod on each other's territory. ... It was Lee's honesty, friendship and loyalty that kept us all together. He kept all of his promises, and so I trusted him. He's not a Hollywood-producer type."
They continued to meet a couple of times a month right up to Schulz's death. Although the spring show, "He's a Bully, Charlie Brown," marked the end of their personal collaboration, Mendelson Productions is signed to produce twice-yearly "Peanuts" specials through 2010.
And his values echoed those of Schulz. While there's a wholesome, God-loving patriotic streak in their work, it's never cloying or childish. What was "Peanuts" anyway, except Schulz's half-century meditation on the dignity of loneliness?
"Sparky wrote and drew more than 18,000 strips all by himself, with no help from anyone," marveled Mendelson. "Our job was to stay true to the characters."
This month, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was dubbed Best Christmas Special by TV Guide, ranking No. 1 across every age demographic. It was recently issued on DVD.
The other classic animated Christmas shows, beating "Charlie Brown" by a year, were "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Both had to be digitally restored recently. "Charlie Brown Christmas" hasn't aged, however, as Mendelson has consistently archived the originals onto high-definition stock.
What doesn't age well are the character's voices. Mendelson took some criticism at first for using the voices of real children on the soundtrack, and they kept growing up on him. "That first special -- the kids are all in their 50s now!" he laughs.
Next up -- get this! -- is the 40th anniversary of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," which first aired in October 1966.
Happiness is a warm VCR.