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ABC Celebrates 50th Anniversary Of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'
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ABC Celebrates 50th Anniversary Of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'

Television

ABC Celebrates 50th Anniversary Of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'

ABC Celebrates 50th Anniversary Of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'
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ABC will air "It's Your 50th Christmas Charlie Brown" Monday night. On the classic Christmas cartoon's golden anniversary, NPR explores what makes this ageless special endure.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Tonight, ABC will celebrate the 50th anniversary of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," one of the most successful animated Christmas specials in TV history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Christmastime is here.

SIEGEL: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show found success by breaking all the rules for animated kids shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Fun for all that children call...

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When you think about it, there are lots of good reasons why "A Charlie Brown Christmas" should never become a TV classic. Instead of using grown-up actors to deliver polished imitations of children, they had real kids voice "Peanuts" characters like Charlie Brown and Lucy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS")

TRACY STRATFORD: (As Lucy) Get the biggest aluminum tree you can find, Charlie Brown. Maybe paint it pink.

KAREN MENDELSON: (As Patty) Yeah, do something right for a change, Charlie Brown.

DEGGANS: The animation was crude, cranked out in six months to meet a pressing deadline. There was no laugh track, and the score was slightly melancholy, written by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO SONG, "O TANNENBAUM")

DEGGANS: There was even a pivotal scene where Linus quoted the Bible to explain the true, non-commercial meaning of Christmas.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS")

CHRISTOPHER SHEA: And there were, in the same country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone 'round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel unto them, fear not.

DEGGANS: That moment drew concerns the network might look like it was trivializing the holiday in a cartoon. Lee Mendelson, executive producer of the special, told the Archive of American Television he had a very specific reaction when the show was completed.

LEE MENDELSON: We all thought we had ruined "Peanuts." It seemed very slow, and it was too religious, blah, blah. We didn't know.

DEGGANS: When Mendelson showed it to CBS, they didn't like it either. But a curious thing happened on December 9, 1965.

MENDELSON: Then it goes on the air and it gets, like, a 45 share. And in those days, there were only three networks, so I think we had half the United States tuned in who had television.

DEGGANS: Turns out, all those things which looked like drawbacks, viewers love. And that affection has continued for half a century. Tonight, ABC, which now airs the "Peanuts" animated specials, will also broadcast a celebration of the show's 50th anniversary. It features stars like the Black-Eyed Peas singer Fergie, who actually played Sally in several "Peanuts" cartoons in the mid-eighties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FERGIE: I remember always just feeling so welcome and a part of this Charlie Brown and Snoopy family.

DEGGANS: And Sarah McLachlan sings a version of "Christmas Time Is Here."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE")

SARAH MCLACHLAN: (Singing) Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer.

DEGGANS: The origin of " A Charlie Brown Christmas" is much more humble. Mendelson got to know "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz while making a documentary about him and the comic strip. Coca-Cola asked Mendelson and Schultz for ideas on a "Peanuts" Christmas special. Working with animator Bill Melendez, they wrote an outline in a day. Mendelson said the ideas which made the show classic mostly came from Schulz himself, who died in 2000 at age 77. Speaking in the documentary "A Christmas Miracle: The Making Of A Charlie Brown Christmas," Mendelson used one word to describe his longtime collaborator.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE: THE MAKING OF A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS")

MENDELSON: What you had here, a genius in Mr. Schulz, one of the great geniuses of the 20th century in terms of entertainment.

DEGGANS: And the fruits of that genius keep making the season a little brighter 50 years after "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first aired on television. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS TIME IS HERE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Christmas time is here. Happiness...

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