'Peanuts' First Black Character Franklin Turns 50 Fifty years ago, Charlie Brown lost his beach ball. It was gone forever, that is, until a boy named Franklin returned it to him.
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'Peanuts' First Black Character Franklin Turns 50

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'Peanuts' First Black Character Franklin Turns 50

'Peanuts' First Black Character Franklin Turns 50

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(SOUNDBITE OF "PEANUTS" THEME SONG)

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Charlie Brown, of the comic strip "Peanuts," is well-known for losing things - losing a game, losing his cool. Fifty years ago, he lost his beach ball. That is, until the ball was returned to him by Franklin. And that's how Charles Schulz introduced Franklin to the world. He was smart, thoughtful, also black, the first person of color to join the "Peanuts" gang. So it was a big deal for Schulz and many of his readers. One young reader was especially happy, and that was Robb Armstrong. Now he's the creator of "JumpStart," one of the most widely syndicated African-American comic strips ever, and he joins us. Welcome.

ROBB ARMSTRONG: Hi, Renee. Delighted to be here.

MONTAGNE: We're glad to have you. And I - first, I should say you would've been 6 years old in 1968. So do you actually remember flipping open the newspaper and seeing Franklin for the first time?

ARMSTRONG: Oh, my goodness, do I. It was really amazing because that year was so tumultuous that - not only did Dr. King get assassinated in '68. My oldest brother was killed in '68, caught in the doors of a moving subway. So I remember it very vividly.

MONTAGNE: Oh, gosh. For a little kid going through all of that, then Franklin might've stuck with you more than he might have and...

ARMSTRONG: Totally. It was Dr. King. It was my brother. It was Bobby Kennedy. It was insane. It was just crazy.

MONTAGNE: Well, had you been reading, though, all along "Peanuts"? I mean, as a 6-year-old, were you pretty hooked on him? That's why you noticed Franklin...

ARMSTRONG: Oh, yeah. When I was 3, my mother said, I want you to tell me what you want to become as an adult. And I knew for sure that I wanted to be a cartoonist.

MONTAGNE: Then, you might really have some insight into Charles Schulz himself because he was wary about introducing a black character to "Peanuts." He didn't want to come off as patronizing, being white...

ARMSTRONG: Right.

MONTAGNE: And maybe that's why Franklin was perhaps just a little too perfect - you know? - a good student, kind to everyone, possibly a bit bland. I mean, what do you think? Should Schulz have been maybe more bold and given Franklin some of the quirks that his other characters had?

ARMSTRONG: I don't think so. I think Schulz played it smartly. He was always very thoughtful into how he treated his characters, you know? I went on to meet Charles Schulz in 1990. When I met my new editor, I was very well aware that "Peanuts" was also with United Feature Syndicate. And I said, would you mind introducing me? And he said no. He doesn't want to meet you. He doesn't want to meet anybody. But if you send him one of your comic strips, he is kind of into that. And that's what I did.

MONTAGNE: So let me stop you there. Very quickly, you sent him a comic strip. What was it...

ARMSTRONG: Yes. I did a strip where Marcy - who's one of the main characters in "JumpStart." She's a nurse. She's married to Joe, a police officer. So Marcy's in the shower, and she's singing that old song from the 1960s, "Hang On Sloopy," you may have heard...

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

ARMSTRONG: ...But she's singing, hang on, Snoopy. Snoopy, hang on. And Joe walks in and says, Marcy, that song you're singing, they're saying Sloopy with an L. And she goes, are you sure about that? He says, I'm positive. And he walks out of the bathroom. And she pauses for a second, thinks about it and then continues singing, hang on, Snoopy. And about a year and a half later, I ended up going to his studio, and the strip I had sent him was framed on his office wall. Renee, this is incredible. The only other stuff in his office was his drawing table, a sofa, a writing desk and a bookcase. He said, your comic strip has great characters. That's the whole thing. That'll carry you for your entire career. You want to have a long career. That was the moment for me (laughter). That was the moment for me I'll never forget.

MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder if your strip gave him something that he couldn't do, but he really wanted to have, which is - you know, you have a family. "JumpStart" is a family...

ARMSTRONG: Right.

MONTAGNE: ...A nurse, a mother, a police officer father, kids. Did you think of that?

ARMSTRONG: I think exactly that. I think that, on some level, he knew he had inspired me and that I would be speaking about this black family in ways he never could. It was the reason he always was supportive of me.

MONTAGNE: You know, many people may not know this. But Franklin has a last name...

ARMSTRONG: (Laughter).

MONTAGNE: ...Which he acquired many years later. And you would know that story.

ARMSTRONG: (Laughter). I got a phone call in 1998. Schulz passed. Sparky is what people who knew him called him. Sparky passed in 2000. But I got a call in my studio. And he said, I have a video coming out, and I noticed Charlie Brown has a first name and a last name. And so does Linus and so does Lucy. And a PA announcer says their names first and last. And they run out, and they kick a football. He said, I noticed when Franklin's name is called, there's no last name. How would you feel if I gave him your last name from now on?

Renee, I was - I, of course, said yes. It'd be a tremendous honor. I appreciate it. And he said thanks. OK. I've got to go. And just kind of - that was it. It was unceremonious, but I was so taken aback, you know? He inspired a kid. I don't think there's a higher calling in this life. When you inspire a little child, it's not your kid. He inspired some kids 3,000 miles away. It's incredible. It's incredible what happens when you inspire a kid, and that's what Schulz did.

MONTAGNE: Robb Armstrong, the namesake of Franklin Armstrong and the creator of the comic strip "JumpStart." His book is "Fearless: A Cartoonist's Guide to Life." Thank you very much for joining us.

ARMSTRONG: It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANG ON SLOOPY")

THE MCCOYS: (Singing) Hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy, hang on. Hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy, hang on.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Sloopy lives in a very bad part of town. And everybody, yeah, tries to put my Sloopy down.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It is mistakenly said in this story’s audio that the character Franklin got his last name in 1998 for a video. Franklin’s last name was announced in 1994’s You're in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown.]

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