‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ Executive Producer Lee Mendelson

Patrick Phillips: A Charlie Brown Christmas has become a tradition each year, as millions of families flick on their television sets to watch it throughout the busy holiday season. For some, it brings back childhood memories. For others, it’s a way of introducing the animated feature to a whole new generation. Tonight, my very special guest is Lee Mendelson. He’s the producer of A Charlie Brown Christmas. We’ll take a look at how the special got made, the cast, its success, and we’ll find out how Lee celebrates Christmas. Joining me by telephone is Lee Mendelson. Hi, Lee. Welcome into the program.

Lee Mendelson: Hi! Merry Christmas to you. Thank you.

PP: You’re very welcome. Thanks so much for being here. In 1963, Lee, you did a documentary on Willie Mays, the world’s best baseball player, and then you did one on Charlie Brown, the world’s worst! How did that lead to A Charlie Brown Christmas?

LM: The funny thing is after we did the Willie Mays show and thought about doing Charlie Brown, we called Charles Schulz on the phone. He lived about an hour away, and he said, “I’m really not interested in doing animation. I want to focus on the comic strip. I’ve heard from Hollywood and New York, but I don’t think it’s my cup of tea right now,” and I was about to say “thank you” and hang up, but then I said, “Oh, by the way, did you see the Willie Mays show that was on NBC two weeks ago?” He said, “Yes, as a matter of fact I did, and I really loved it. Why do you ask? Willie’s a hero of mine.” I said, “We did that show.” It was kind of a long pause, and he said, “Well, if Willie Mays can trust you with his life, I guess I can trust Charlie Brown with you, too.” That’s how we got together, and we made a documentary after that in 1963. Ironically, never sold a documentary, but two years later, Coca-Cola called us and said they were looking for a Christmas show. They had seen the documentary and remembered it. They said, “Have you and Mr. Schulz and Mr. Melendez thought of doing one?” and I said, “Yes” very quickly. It was a Wednesday and they said, “Can you send us an outline by the following Monday?” and I said, “Absolutely.” I hung up the phone, I called Mr. Schulz, and I said, “I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas.” He said, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s something that we’re going to have to write tomorrow.” There was a long pause again, and this time, he said, “Okay. Come on up. We can do it.” Bill Melendez flew up from Los Angeles and we sat down and put the outline together of the show that eventually appeared six months later on CBS. 

PP: A lot of people don’t realize that the voice of Snoopy is in fact Bill. Is that right?

LM: What Bill did was make a bunch of snarly sounds and then speed it up ten times. So, he’s been the voice of Snoopy all these years.

PP: That’s great. What was it like, Lee, to work alongside Charles Schulz? What did you admire most about him?

LM: I was so fortunate that he and I and Bill were partners for 38 years and we did 70 television shows together and four movies. It was really like three friends getting together once/twice a month for almost four decades. It was a total joy. We were left alone by the networks and by the sponsors, which is quite unique in our business, so that whatever shows we came up with, we usually get them on the air. They were mostly entertainment, but we even did one about little kids getting cancer. We did one about World War I and II. We did a whole mini-series on the history of America. It was just a wonderful opportunity that we had for almost 40 years. Working with Charles Schulz was just fantastic—great person to work with—and Bill Melendez was this tremendous animator. Everything went very well. The funny thing is when we finished A Charlie Brown Christmas and we all looked at it for the first time about a month before it was going to go on the air, Bill and I thought it didn’t work. Somehow, we were very disappointed in it. One of the animators in the back stood up and said, “You guys are crazy. It’s going to run for a hundred years.” We thought he was out of his mind, of course, but we’re coming up pretty soon to 50 years, so he’s been half right so far. That screening, there were no words on the opening song and we felt the show got off to kind of a slow start that way. I like the melody. I said, “Maybe we can get somebody to write the lyrics to that opening instrumental.” I call all the people I knew in Hollywood and couldn’t get anybody. They were all busy. So, I just sat down and wrote a poem on an envelope, I remember, about ten minutes, using dots and dashes for the long notes and short notes, and that’s how “Christmas Time is Here” came into being. Now, it’s been covered by over 100 artists, including Tony Bennett and Mariah Carey and Barry Manilow. The whole thing is kind of surreal because everywhere we go at Christmas Time, in all the stores at Christmas, we hear our music. I haven’t even gotten used to it yet. It’s still surreal.

PP: These are iconic characters at this point. Everybody knows and identifies with one of the characters. I’ve often wondered who you identify with most out of the Peanuts gang.

LM: It’s funny. Charles Schulz said, if the kids ever were to grow up, he thought that Linus would be the most stable, so I said, “Well, good. Then I’m going to pick Linus.” That’s going to be my model if that’s how it’s all going to turn out.

PP: The Simpsons lead a hugely successful television series. It’s lasted 20+ years itself. And they cast adults to play the roles of the kids. What made you decide to cast children back then?

LM: Way back in 1961, before I even met Mr. Melendez and Mr. Schulz, they had done a couple of commercials for Ford with the animated characters. They’d used their own kids. It seemed to work very well, so when we did the documentary in 1963, we used those same kids. With a couple of minutes, we did it there, and when we did A Charlie Brown Christmas, we used the same kids again. Then, every two or three years after that, we would get a new cast and we would always match them to that Christmas ensemble. Again, we were the first to use kids. Way back then, they only used adults for kids, and we were the first ones to do that. It worked really well. Mostly, of 150 kids, only two became famous. One was a little girl who played Sally when she was 10 and could sing like you couldn’t believe. It was Stacy Ferguson, who went on to be Fergie. And then, we did the He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown, and the bully was a little older than most of our kids. He was about 13. He went on to become Taylor Lautner in Twilight. Those are our two most famous protégées out of the 150 kids we’ve used.

PP: That’s incredible. I had no idea that Taylor Lautner was in Peanuts. That’s really cool.

LM: The weirdest thing happened last night. I was talking up at a grammar school nearby about Charlie Brown, and you know the most famous thing I guess in the show is this “wah wah wah” sound that the teachers… It’s become part of the American vernacular now, I think–the whole people using “wah wah wah.”

PP: Sure, every time they talk to an adult.

LM: This young lady comes up to me and she says, “My uncle was so-and-so. My great uncle.” I said, “Oh my goodness. He was our trombone player way, way back 45 years ago when I asked all the musicians, ‘Can anybody play an instrument and sound like an adult?'” I said, “Your great uncle is the man who stepped forward and did the ‘wah wah wah’ sound.” She said to me, “Guess what? I have that trombone!” I said, “No kidding!” I put her in touch with the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, and they’re going to make a big display of the trombone that did the “wah wah” 45 years ago. It’s a small world.

PP: What a great story, Lee. That’s one of those things that’s iconic and you wouldn’t think about it until you know the story behind it. That’s so great.

LM: I couldn’t believe it. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime moment meeting.

PP: A lot of Christians look at A Charlie Brown Christmas as being educational about the reason for the season. Was that intentional when you guys were putting it together or writing it? Or was it a product of the time? 

LM: That was all Charles Schulz. When we were putting the show together, I remember that meeting, that one day meeting, on Thursday, he said, “If it’s going to have any meaning to it, we really ought to talk about the true meaning of Christmas,” at least as he looked at it. Of course Bill and I looked at each other and we said, “We don’t know if we can animate anything from the Bible. It’s never been done before.” Then, I remember he looked at us both and said, “If we don’t do it, who will?” Of course, Linus ends up reading from the Bible in that famous scene at the end of the show.

PP: What are your feelings about Rankin/Bass? Do you enjoy the specials?

LM: We all started about the same time, and I don’t know… Firstly, Frosty and Rudolph were both based on songs, which is different from our shows. But I think they all have a place, obviously, at Christmas Time. I enjoy them as much as our own.

PP: Do you have a personal favorite, Lee, that you’ve worked on, specifically?

LM: For me, I was a documentary filmmaker, like with Willie Mays and all, before we got into animation. When we were able to do the eight-part mini-series, This is America, Charlie Brown, and literally do an animated documentary on the birth of the Constitution and the Mayflower voyage and the Wright Brothers and all, that was my biggest thrill, to be able to combine entertainment with—and the NASA Space Station—that was the biggest thrill for me of the 70 shows we did.

PP: Among all of the fans, young and old, they watch this, they’ve grown up with it nearly all of their life. Is there something that you would say to these fans specifically if you could reach out and kind of touch several at the same time? Is there something that you would say to the fans of Charlie Brown?

LM: There’s been tremendous loyalty. This goes back. When we did the show in 1965, there were only three networks. A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Great Pumpkin got a staggering 50% of the share. That meant half the United States that had a television on were watching our shows. Now, it’s 50 years later and there’s hundreds and hundreds of stations as we know and networks, and yet the loyalty of the fans, the loyalty of the generations is such that we’re still in the top three or four every time the show goes on out of those hundreds of stations. We have a tremendous appreciation of the loyalty handed down from generation to generation. A great big thank you would be what I would say to that loyal…and they obviously seek out shows because whenever it’s on, we get a much higher rating in that time period than ABC normally would get. So, obviously at holiday times, they’re looking for the shows and they tune in. Again, we thank everybody in all 50 states for being so loyal.

PP: Do you watch the specials when they air every year?

LM: Oh, yes. Sometimes. Not every one, every time, but I usually, now that we have children and grandchildren, we all get together. I think the family favorite is the pumpkin show. That’s the most colorful show and the most unique show. We had Snoopy flying after the Red Baron and everything. That may be our favorite show as a single show.

PP: They had such a unique cadence to the way that they spoke.

LM: Particularly Linus with that little lisp he had. They just happen to be great actors. Charlie Brown’s a hard part to play because you have to be blah. It’s hard to be blah and still be acting. We were just very lucky with those two. And the Peppermint Patty voice proved to be, and Marcie really successful, so we were lucky that we used real kids all those years. It really, I think, helped the show. Of course, for me, the single most important ingredient apart from the show’s scripts and philosophy and humor was the music of Vince Guaraldi. We were lucky that he lived in San Francisco like I did, and of course, he did the first 18 shows. But I think without that music, without Linus and Lucy and all that, we would have had one show and that would have been it. I think that caught on with both adults and kids. It was the first time jazz had been used in cartoons, so we’re very proud of that. We heard the other day that by next spring, the original Charlie Brown Christmas album will have passed 4 million in sales.

PP: Lee, I know that you said thank you to your fans, and I want to thank you for all of the memories that you continue to bring each and every family every year around the holidays. Lee, thank you so much for your contributions.

LM: I appreciate that and thank you and thanks to all your listeners and all your viewers. Happy New Year!

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