Good Grief! 14 Things You Didn't Know About 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' on Its 50th Anniversary

RealClear Staff


Hard to believe that it's been a half century since Peanuts characters first started to move, on a Christmas special that first aired on CBS on December 9, 1965. Let's go behind the scenes of one of America's beloved television specials, which will air again this Christmas season on ABC.

1. Peanuts Appear on April 1965 Time Magazine Cover

Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz began drawing the Peanuts comic strip in 1950. At its peak, Peanuts ran in over 2,600 newspapers, with a readership of 355 million in 75 countries, and was translated into 21 languages. Time magazine took notice, calling this cover story "The World According to Peanuts."

2. It Gave Coca-Cola a Great Idea

The soft drink company was looking for an animated family Christmas show. When the Time magazine cover came out, Coke representatives contacted producer Lee Mendelson, who visited Charles M. Schulz with the idea.

3. Producer Lee Mendelson and Schulz Wrote the Story in a Day

Because of a tight deadline to get the go-ahead to make the special, the duo prepared an outline for the Coca-Cola executives in less than one day, and Mendelson would later recall that the bulk of ideas came from Schulz, whose "ideas flowed nonstop."

4. Bill Melendez Was the Only Animator Charles M. Schulz Trusted

Using Schulz's drawings, Melendez animated and directed the episode. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Used more than 13,000 "cels" -- or individual drawings, and there were 12 cels per second to create the illusion of motion.

5. Schulz Was Adamant: No Laugh Track

Executives from Coca-Cola and CBS pushed Schulz for a laugh track -- then standard for half-hour comedies. Schulz said that was a dealbreaker, and thank goodness for that.

6. The Decision to Use Children as Voices Was Revolutionary

Previously, children in cartoons were voiced by adults -- voiceover professionals who could imitate children's voices. That's because children were notoriously difficult to work with, and could not work long hours. But director Bill Melendez (above right) and producer Lee Mendelson (second from right), as well as Schulz, decided to use actual children for the voices.  

7. Jefferson Airplane Asked for These Kids' Autograph!

The children's choir from San Rafael, California, recorded the songs for the special at Fantasy Records in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the recording studio next door, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane (below) were recording an album. When the band heard that the children were recording for a Peanuts special, they asked for the kids autographs!

8. Fergie Was a Voice of Both Sally and Lucy!

More than 150 kids have voiced Peanuts characters for animated specials over the years. The most famous? Stacy Ferguson a.k.a. Fergie of the Black-Eyed Peas, who was the voice of Charlie Brown's sister Sally, and later Lucy, for two years!

9. It Introduced Religion to Christmas Specials

Weird, huh? But when you think about it, most Christmas specials don't deal with the birth of Jesus Christ, the reason for the holiday. Instead, we get tales of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa, etc. CBS executives wanted Schulz to cut out Linus' speech on the meaning of Christmas, where he quotes fro the Bible. Nothing doing, was Schulz's response.

10. Vince Guaraldi Mixed Jazz and Traditional Christmas Music to Create a Distinct Sound

The album "A Charlie Brown Christmas" not only won an Grammy, but has been voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry list of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important" sound recordings.

11. The Special Killed the Aluminum Tree Business -- For Good

Lucy dispatches Charlie Brown to get a "big, shiny aluminum tree." With Linus in tow, Charlie Brown goes to the tree market, filled with aluminum, fake trees. Charlie Brown zeroes in on a small sapling which is the only real tree on the lot. Suddenly, the aluminum Christmas tree, which was a fad from 1958 to 1965, died a quick death. By 1967, just two years after the special first aired, they were no longer being regularly manufactured.

12. Executives Hated It -- and Almost Didn't Air It!

That's right -- the special was completed less than two weeks before air date and screened for executives from Coca-Cola, CBS, and others. The screening did not go well, and the executives thought they had wasted their $96,000 budget. Their complaints included the show's slow pace, the music not fitting, and the animation too simple. "I really believed, if it hadn't been scheduled for the following week, there's no way they were gonna broadcast that show," producer Lee Mendelson later said.

13. But Audiences Loved It!

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" premiered on CBS on December 9, 1965 at 7:30 pm ET (pre-empting "The Munsters"!). It was viewed by 45 percent of those watching television that evening, with the number of homes watching the special an estimated 15,490,000, and some 70 million viewers. Considering that the population of the United States in 1965 was some 190 million, not bad! It's been a holiday staple ever since.

14. It Won an Emmy

Pictured above is producer Lee Mendelson, creator Charles M. Schulz and animator/director Bill Melendez accepting an Emmy for "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Schulz joked, "Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you!"

The rest is history. Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!



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