Sunday, 13 December 2020

A Charlie Brown Christmas - The Making Of A Tradition

Cell By Date

A Charlie Brown Christmas -
The Making Of A Tradition

by Lee Mendelson with reminiscences by Bill Melendez
ITBooks ISBN: 9780062272140

A Charlie Brown Christmas - The Making Of A Tradition
does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak. First published in 2000, the book is a behind the scenes treasure trove of information, photographs, animation cells and more, telling the story of how the very first Charlie Brown animated TV special came into being. But not, as I learned within its handsome dust covers, the first Charlie Brown animation... I’ll get to that in a minute.

The names Bill Mendelson and Bill Melendez will probably be familiar with anyone who’s seen a Charlie Brown cartoon in the last 55 years. They worked on them all with Mendelson producing and with, as the credits always used to put it, ‘graphic blandishments’ by Melendez. This tells the story of how the two became involved with Charlie Schulz, the man behind the Peanuts newspaper strip (you can read my review of his entire run here).

The first thing I have to say about this book is that it’s really well designed. Lots of blocks of type with very loose leading and the underlying grid of the page layout showing through (beautiful typography), with headlines big, bold and eschewing capital letters. Honestly, this book is almost like something I would design myself if I had projects as cool as this to work on (my day job is as a graphic designer) and, as an added extra touch, there is a little reproduction of running animation cells on the bottom right corner of all the pages, so you can ruffle them like an old school flicker book and see the characters come to life before your eyes.

Mendelson seems to have written the majority of the book but both he an Melendez have a lot to say. The introduction is just heartbreaking, with Mendelson telling how he was on the phone with Sparky one night (everybody close to Schulz knew him as Sparky) and he was due to meet up with him again the next day but, within hours of the phone call, Charles M. Schulz had passed away. I know too well what it’s like to be left without a sense of closure when someone close dies and this really pulled at the tear ducts, to be honest.

He then goes on to explain how ex-Disney animator Melendez, who he didn’t know at the time, had done a few minutes of Peanuts animation for Ford, in a series of quick adverts a couple of years before the TV special. When, for his newly established film production company, Mendelson set out to do a half hour documentary on Schulz (which didn’t initially sell to any network at the time, on completion) they decided they wanted a couple of minutes of animation in it and Sparky put him in touch with Melendez for the job. The rest is history, even more so when Mendelson got the idea of asking hot jazz composer Vince Guaraldi to come up with music for the documentary. The world famous Peanuts inspired jazz standard Linus & Lucy (which you could probably hum, even if you didn’t know you knew it), was written for this documentary.

So, the documentary was rejected but somebody at Coca Cola saw it and responded to the animation. So Coca Cola hired Mendelson to do a half hour slot Christmas special for TV, to an extremely short deadline which, with the help of Melendez and his crew, not to mention the best selling score provided by Guaraldi, he managed to pull off. However, the people at the TV company saw it and pretty much hated it. They agreed to still screen it because, obviously, they didn’t want to waste the money, but they said they wouldn’t repeat the experience. By chance, they showed it to a Time magazine critic a few days before it screened and, of course, he absolutely loved it and gave it a very positive write up. Not as positive as the huge audience figures and huge outpouring of love it drew when it was aired though... not to mention procuring an Emmy. The TV company realised their error and immediately ordered five more specials. Like I said... the rest is, a very long, history.

The book is set out into different sections so this is followed by a miniature biography of Schulz himself and then a Q & A session with Mendelson and Melendez. Things I’d never thought of before came to light and this was certainly an education. For instance, I didn’t realise it but it seems obvious now, that one of the unique things about this special and the subsequent TV specials was that these were pretty much the first time that kids in a cartoon were voiced by actual children. This is followed by a section on Melendez and another thing I’d not thought of is that the Schulz’ drawings of the characters, which they took straight to screen unchanged, were not great for certain aspects of animation. There are no way Charlie Brown’s arms are going to reach up to his head to scratch it for example... so Melendez said he had to cut around things so whenever Charlie Brown scratches his head, it’s done in profile with his arm coming up from behind him etc. I’d never thought about that before but it’s one of the many interesting little facts scattered around the pages here.

Another of the many mini sections of the book is a brief biography of composer Vince Guaraldi and it even reprints some of his sheet music for the show (he would go on to score the first 13 specials before dying unexpectedly at the age of 45... his musical direction would inform all the other productions, of course). And added to all this are loads of photos and reproductions of things which are probably published here for the first time. There’s a look at some of the flat shots from the 1960s Ford Falcon commercials, storyboards, background design sketches, production sheets (which I didn’t totally understand, I have to confess) and even two black and white sequential photographs of Charlie Schulz and Bill Melendez reenacting the long running Lucy/Charlie Brown football gag.

Finally, the last section of the book is the full, illustrated screenplay of A Charlie Brown Christmas and I have to say, although I wasn’t particularly expecting much from this part of the book, the script is a joy to read (especially with the animated cells next to them to remind you of the flavour of each scene) and, dare I say it, ultimately quite moving (perhaps more so than actually watching the original animation). And that’s all I’ve got on this one... A Charlie Brown Christmas - The Making Of A Tradition is a fairly quick read but it’s handsomely illustrated, nicely designed and an absolutely wonderful, very informative book on the creative process, production and reception of this great TV classic. I’d recommend this to anyone who loves the world created by Schulz and those wonderful cartoons based on them.

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