Sunday, October 18, 2015

"A Charlie Brown Christmas"

I can’t believe it’s been almost 50 years since “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered on CBS on Thursday, December 9, 1965. I know a lot of you younger folks just look at it as 30 minutes of crappy animation, but let me try to explain why it was such a big deal at the time.
The “Peanuts” comic strip (which we all, adults and kids, read every day in the newspaper) was a gigantic cultural phenomenon in the 1960s, far and away the one pop culture thing that knitted all ages together. We only had 5 TV channels, no internet, no instant access to news or info, and pop music was age-sensitive. What we *all* did was read “Peanuts.” It was cool, because while Charlie and the gang were undeniably kids, they thought and talked about grown-up stuff, to an extent that I didn’t realize until I grew up myself. Charlie Brown was the poster child for angst, self-doubt and bad karma, surrounded by the laid-back Linus, Linus’ bitch sister Lucy, Charlie’s Mitty-esque dog Snoopy and the rest of the gang. No identifiable locale, no adults, they existed in a timeless void never intruded upon by real events. So all they did was talk about their dreams, their inner turmoil, their inability to figure out why we were here and what it all meant. All the kids I knew talked in Peanuts quotes, much like my kids and I talk in Simpsons quotes today.
When we found out that there was going to be a Peanuts special on TV that Christmas, we were all excited. I was a little more apprehensive, because the fall of 1965 was full of TV disappointments for me. I was a gigantic nut about the space program and the race to the moon, and I’d looked forward to the premiere that fall of two space-themed TV shows – “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Lost in Space.” Jesus, what crap. Within weeks, I was yelling at the TV like any self-righteous 9-year-old who had had his dreams shattered: “Astronauts don’t wear their uniforms to work! Why does Roger Healey have an Army Corps of Engineers badge? And they don’t live in Cocoa Beach! Why are you showing an Atlas launch but saying it’s a Titan? Who brings their kids into space with them? Doesn’t June Lockhart ever take off that stupid silver suit? Why hasn’t someone pushed Dr. Smith out of the airlock? Arrrgggghhh!” I was so aggrieved by how wrong TV got those two shows that I didn’t watch the first season of “Star Trek” the next year, opting instead for “The Tammy Grimes Show” (something my parents still bug me about, since, based on the ratings, I was the only one watching it) and “That Girl.” Good thing I don’t bet on the horses.
But I digress. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” premiered during the flight of Gemini 7, and just three days before the planned launch of Gemini 6. (There is a reason those numbers of out of order, but that’s for another post.) I had never felt as excited to be living in the present as I did that week. Americans are orbiting the earth, Charlie Brown is going to be on TV, and Christmas is only 16 days away. Hot damn.
The gold standard of animation was, for me, the lavishly-done Looney Toons that Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng did for Warner Brothers – Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote and the gang. The Peanuts special didn’t look like that. It was a spare, jerky, cheaply-done animation, but it somehow, given the times, looked modernistic, avant-garde and hip – the same way that “South Park” looked edgy and cool when it premiered. But the hippest thing about it was Vince Guaraldi’s score. He had previously hit the charts in 1962 with the wonderful “Cast Your Fate to the Winds,” which I read somewhere was Jack Kennedy’s favorite song. We had never heard that kind of hip, trendy jazz score applied to a cartoon before. (Even today, I always hit the “replay” button when “Linus and Lucy” comes up on my playlist.) And for the voices, the producers, working on a tight timeline and a shoestring budget, went with real kids, not the kind of Walter Tetley/June Foray adults-pretending-to-be-kids we always heard in cartoons. Even the fact that the kid playing Sally screwed up her lines, and they didn’t bother to fix it, was electric.
The combination of the animation, the score, the voices, and the adult theme – seriously, a bunch of kids worrying about the commercialization of Christmas by “a big Eastern syndicate?” – all blended together into the coolest damn thing we’d ever seen. The ratings were huge and the reviews were glowing, despite the fact that the producers and Coca-Cola, the sponsor, were convinced that it was going to be a major disaster and almost pulled it at the last minute. Because what we really needed was another episode of “The Munsters,” right?
It was all we talked about at school the next day, and for the following week. We felt that TV had actually spoken to us at the right level for once. I mean, it’s hard to take Captain Kangaroo seriously when we were regularly doing nuclear attack drills, earthquake drills and tsunami drills at school. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aimed higher than that. Ever since, I’ve had a big warm spot in my heart for it, and up until I bought a VHS copy of it in the late-80s, I watched it every December when they rebroadcast it.
And beyond all that, we have this to thank the show for. From Wikipedia: “The popularity of the special practically eliminated the popularity of the aluminum Christmas tree, which was a fad from 1958 to 1965, when the special portrayed it negatively. By 1967, just two years after the special first aired, they were no longer being regularly manufactured.”

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