How Charlie Brown Came to Mean Christmas The history of landmark Christmas TV specials.

How Charlie Brown Came to Mean Christmas

How Charlie Brown Came to Mean Christmas

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The history of landmark Christmas TV specials.


So it's Christmas day, which means, among other things, that the long season of Christmas specials is at an end. Our friends at NPR's On The Media ran a story this weekend about the wild popularity of all these shows, especially the big three. You know, "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer"…



(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And "Charlie Brown Christmas." You got a line from that one.

STEWART: Charlie Brown, of all the Charlie Browns out there, you're the Charlie Brownest.

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) this woman is good. And "How The Grinch Stole Christmas." Go, Ali.

STEWART: Oh, it's a little (unintelligible) here. His heart grew to something times two.

MARTIN: It's pretty good. So even though all the shows are over 40 years old, they all still pull in more than 10 million viewers a piece. Now, seriously, my sister, who lives in Portland, Oregon, spending Christmas with her 6-year-old, she tried to go to Blockbuster to rent any of these movies. All gone.

STEWART: Oh, my gosh.

MARTIN: All gone. Everyone loves this stuff. So anyway, on the On The Media reporters Alex Goldmark and Rachel McCarthy tried to find out why. What makes these classics so classic? Here's Alex.

ALEX GOLDMARK: First of all, back in the mid-'60s, there were only three channels. So a hit program or animated special could be huge. For instance, half of all American viewers watching TV the night "Charlie Brown" first aired, were watching "Charlie Brown."

(Soundbite of movie "Charlie Brown")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Christmas time is here…

GOLDMARK: It was a cultural experience shared by the whole nation and baby boomers like teacher Larry Caplin(ph) remember it vividly.

Mr. LARRY CAPLIN (Teacher): When it came out, everybody in school was talking about it. Everybody was, you know, going home that night to watch it and you had to watch it. If you didn't watch it, you are like on the outside. You didn't get to talk about it the next day.

(Soundbite of movie "Charlie Brown")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Carols everywhere…

GOLDMARK: Back then, the networks subscribed to a big (unintelligible). Get everybody and their mothers watching, literally, and make specials extra special.

Mr. PHIL ROMAN (Animator, "How The Grinch Stole Christmas"): It was kind of like a golden age.

GOLDMARK: Phil Roman was one of the animators of "How The Grinch Stole Christmas." He says there was a flood of creativity.

Mr. ROMAN: Disney has had a big layoff in the late '50s. And a lot of the animators had gone into television. So it's just a very exciting time to be around. It's a very fleeting time. But it was a very special time.

GOLDMARK: And the right time for these special characters. "The Grinch" was already a popular Dr. Seuss book. "Rudolph" had been a hit Gene Autry song and an advertizing icon for years. And "Charlie Brown" was one of the most popular comic strip characters in America. That big name recognition was an advertiser's dream. Maybe that's why it was Coca-Cola, not CBS, that initially commissioned a "Charlie Brown Christmas" from Peanuts' creator Charles Schultz. Executive producer Lee Mendelson brokered the deal.

Mr. LEE MENDELSON (Executive Producer): When we were putting the show together, as Schultz said, well, if we're going to do an animated Christmas show, one, why don't we talk about the true meaning of Christmas. And we said, what do you know? He said well, I think we ought to have Linus, you know, talk from the Bible and…

(Soundbite of movie "A Charlie Brown Christmas")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER SHEA (Actor): (As Linus Van Pelt) And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.

GOLDMARK: Mendelson said he and the animator were taken aback because nobody had ever animated the Bible.

Ms. MENDELSON: And Schultz noticed that hesitation. He said, and if we don't do this, who will? And that's the line that projected us into the whole show and to the whole philosophy.

GOLDMARK: Mendelson wasn't worried what Coca-Cola would think about mixing the Bible with Vince Guaraldi's jazz soundtrack.

(Soundbite of music)

GOLDMARK: He was worried about the slow pace which was rare in cartoons. And also the use of real kids voices which was unheard of.

(Soundbite of movie "A Charlie Brown Christmas")

Ms. TRACY STRATFORD (Actress): (As Lucy Van Pelt) Look Charlie, let's face it, we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.

Mr. PETER ROBBINS (Actor): (As Charlie Brown) Well, this is one play that's not going to be commercial.

Ms. STRATFORD: (As Lucy van Pelt) What do you want?

Mr. ROBBINS: (As Charlie Brown) The proper mood. We need a Christmas tree.

GOLDMARK: Ron Simon is curator at the Museum of Television and Radio.

Mr. RON SIMON (Curator, Museum of Television and Radio): It was not a phoniness of adults. It dealt with kids grappling with the meaning of Christmas. And here, you actually have kids saying these lines.

GOLDMARK: So what was once seen as a big risk is now hailed as an innovation. Like "Rudolph's" quirky cast.

(Soundbite of movie "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer")

Mr. BURL IVES (Actor): (As Sam the Snowman) What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a talking snowman before?

GOLDMARK: Seems obvious now. But inserting narrator Burl Ives as a snowman into the story and yet still apart from it was a big step for animated storytelling. Two years later came "The Grinch" - a major production which, under the direction of legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, made TV animation look and sound like the movies, only tailored for the small screen.

(Soundbite of movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas")

Mr. BORIS KARLOFF (Actor): (As Narrator) Then he got an idea - an awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea.

GOLDMARK: Of the dozens of animated specials since "The Grinch" a few, like "Frosty the Snowman," have endured. But none of them were particularly groundbreaking nor is popular as the originals. There was "The Year Without a Santa Claus," also the lesser-known Chuck Jones special - "Raggedy Ann and Andy's Great Santa Claus Caper." Maybe you remember "He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Spectacular." "Christmas Comes to Pac-Land"? No? Well, neither does Ron Simon.

Mr. SIMON: They're very forgettable. And no one has allegiance to them at all. And it's really the progenitors - these three specials - that have started the trend and are now cemented as the Christmas memory.

(Soundbite of movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas")

Mr. KARLOFF: (As Narrator) Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.

GOLDMARK: They're all created in mid-'60s America - very special time. It's America where there's all possibilities. The possibility of racial harmony. It's the great society that we're going to take off everyone in the society.

(Soundbite of movie "How the Grinch Stole Christmas")

Mr. KARLOFF: (As Narrator) And then the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches plus two.

GOLDMARK: When else would you get something like Rudolph's "Island of Misfit Toys"?

(Soundbite of movie "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer & the Island of Misfit Toys")

Mr. LEE TOCKAR (Actor): (As Charlie in the Box) I'm the official sentry of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Mr. SCOTT McNEIL (Actor): (As Hermey the Elf) A Jack in the box for a sentry?

Mr. TOCKAR: (As Charlie in the Box) Yes. My name is…

Mr. KATHLEEN BARR (Actress): (As Rudolph) Don't tell me. Jack.

Mr. TOCKAR: (As Charlie in the Box) No. Charlie.

GOLDMARK: Weird stuff, huh? Anyway…

Mr. SIMON: That Charlie Brown can understand the meaning that the misfit toys of Rudolph can be part of an entire Christmas. And then somehow, even the sourpuss of sourpusses - the Grinch - can be part of a harmony of more perfect union. And that type of feeling, not idealism, is not part of our culture today. But it is a postcard from America's past.

GOLDMARK: From a time when we watched TV together, before narrow casting in five TV households, televisions become more solitary today. The average program gets just over one viewer watching per household. But senior vice president at Nielsen Media Research, Patricia McDonough says "The Grinch," like the other specials, still draws an old-fashion audience.

Ms. PATRICIA McDONOUGH (Senior Vice President, Planning Policy & Analysis, Nielsen Media Research): Which is a mix of kids, some teenagers and usually at least one - if not two - parents watching it with them.

GOLDMARK: So when a baby boomer like Larry Caplin hears the soft melodies of the Whos down in Whoville, it's not just that he remembers the hot popcorn of his childhood and singing to the TV with his brother 40 years ago. He also remembers doing it with his kids just last year.

(Soundbite of music)

GOLDMARK: And this year will be no different.

Mr. CAPLIN: It's our traditional way of spending Christmas Eve is to watch all the cartoons and all the Christmas movies. You know, when they were little, we do the old thing with the popcorn and things like that. Now, we kind of have eggnogs with, you know, a little rum.

GOLDMARK: Well, some little things have to change even with the classic.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: That's an NPR On The Media story reported by Alex Goldmark and Rachel McCarthy. The originally aired on On The Media.

That does it with this hour of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. I'm Alison Stewart along with Rachel Martin. Have a great day.

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