Listen: The Christmas Song
On Tuesday night, ABC airs what is now a holiday tradition: the animated special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired on CBS in 1965. The show's jazzy soundtrack is a familiar holiday staple, too — but Vince Guaraldi's classic score almost never made it on the air.
Lee Mendelson first paired Guaraldi's music with the Peanuts comic-strip characters for a television documentary about artist Charles Schulz and his pioneering strip.
Excited by the results in the documentary, Mendelson, Schulz and animator Bill Melendez set to work on a Christmas special that featured more of Guaraldi's music. But the network hated both the special and the music.
CBS "didn't think jazz fit properly," Mendelson recalls. The network also wanted professional child actors to do the voices of the characters, not the untrained youngsters Mendelson recruited.
He says the network also objected to the adult themes; they didn't think the topics of materialism and faith were appropriate for children.
Despite their concerns and after a few cosmetic changes, CBS aired the program. It was a hit.
Mendelson and Melendez went on to do 50 Charlie Brown specials, the most recent being last year's He's a Bully, Charlie Brown.
Guaraldi collaborated on 17 shows before he died suddenly at age 43 in 1976 — too early to see his songs become modern symbols of the holiday.
Guaraldi's soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas has never been out of print since it was released 41 years ago. This year, it has been re-released with bonus alternate takes of the classic songs.