Possibly no TV special in the history of the medium went up against so much opposition and counter-intention as the CBS Christmas classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. When one hears of all the problems, obstacles, and snags A Charlie Brown Christmas encountered during production, one wonders how it ever got made at all.
Written by Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, the original script dealt with the commercialization of the holiday and tried to reveal the true meaning of Christmas. Directed by Bill Melendez and produced by Melendez and his partner Lee Mendelson, the holiday special introduced several other "revolutionary" ingredients into the mix.
Instead of the usual Mel Blanc-type adults-doing-kids voices, the producers decided to actually use real kids. Peter Robbins took on the lead voice of Charlie Brown, Christopher Shea voiced the blanket-toting Linus sand Tracy Stratford did the voice of Charlie Brown's main nemesis, Lucy. These were the only child cast members with any experience at all. For the entire rest of the cast, A Charlie Brown Christmas was to be their television voiceover debut. (Director Melendez himself voiced the ever-popular Snoopy.) Chris Doran did the voice of the piano-playing Schroeder and Karen Mendelson (Bill's daughter) voiced Patty (not the now-familiar Peppermint Patti, but the character Patty, one of the four original Peanuts characters, who never really caught on and was phased out in the '70s).
Little Kathy Steinberg, who did the voice of Sally, was actually not even old enough to read. Her lines were fed to her aloud, one at a time, and she would merely parrot them back. All the children cast members were uncredited. The suits at CBS were against this casting decision from the word go. They disliked the novel "kids voicing kids" angle and preferred to get seasoned voiceover actors.
Also Melendez and Mendelson had opted to record the show without the customary laugh track. This was also something the boys at CBS hated. They wanted the old reliable laugh track. Otherwise, how would the folks at home know when to laugh? But when approached with the idea, creator Charles Shulz was adamant- no laugh track.
In addition, the anti-commercialization angle was all fine and noble, but there were sponsors to please. In the show's climatic moment, Linus pontificates on "the true meaning of Christmas" and actually quotes scripture. When Melendez and Mendelson went to writer Schultz and asked him to possibly reconsider the Biblical message (especially Linus' speech), Schulz insisted the show's theme and dialogue stay intact and unchanged. "If we don't do it, who will?" he challenged.
Composer Vincent Guaraldi had written the show's score with a hip, jazzy flavor. CBS hated the show's jazz score. They much preferred a standard (and non-controversial) tepid holiday score.
Because of the delivery of the children in the cast, their lines had to be spliced together, line by line, in post-production. This led to a resulting choppy, clippy, uneven type of delivery. When the show was finally taped and edited together, a preview screening was given to the CBS brass.
The preview went over like the proverbial lead balloon. Everyone present thought the show was a huge disaster, a total flop, and predicted it would lay an ostrich-sized egg. The sour-faced CBS suits curtly told Melendez and Mendelson, "We will, of course, air it next week -but we won't be ordering any more."
Terrified, the two producers commiserated and said to themselves, "We've just ruined Charlie Brown!"
A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on CBS on Saturday, December 9, 1965 (following an episode of Gilligan's Island). To the surprise (shock) of creators and executives alike, A Charlie Brown Christmas was a huge popular and critical success. Fifty percent of American televisions tuned in to watch the Peanuts gang celebrate the Yuletide.
A Charlie Brown Christmas became the second most-watched TV special of 1965. Critics around the country raved. To everyone's surprise, Linus' recitation was hailed as one of the most powerful moments of the show. Influential New York critic Harriet Van Horne said, "Linus' reading of the nativity was, quite simply, the drama highlight of the season."
Instead of sounding unprofessional, the children's voices, coming out clipped and choppy, brought a charm and realism to the performances and created the now-popular Peanuts style of talking.
Unique moments in the show were also noted. During Linus' big speech about the true meaning of Christmas, he actually drops his blanket (an almost unheard-of event), spreads his arms, and passionately talks without it. Seeing Linus sans his beloved blanket brought a certain passion to his speech.
Also, just before she remarks about Christmas being too commercial, Lucy calls Charlie Brown "Charlie." This remains the only time she addresses him as such, instead of the widely-accepted "Charlie Brown," in this or any future Peanuts TV special (or book).
In a slight glitch, Schroeder is playing the piano while the whole gang is wildly dancing. Then he stops playing but the dancing continues unabated for a few seconds. These odd touches all seemed to add a charm and naturalness to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
A laugh track was recoded and dubbed into an alternate version of the show, but Charles Schulz never gave his agreement to its use, and this "sweetened" version has never been officially aired (although bootleg laugh track versions have been viewed on the internet).
A Charlie Brown Christmas went on to win both an Emmy and a Peabody Award. Long considered a holiday classic, it is now the second longest-running animated Christmas special in television history. Only 1964's Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer premiered earlier. Like egg nog, caroling, and decorating family tree, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a holiday staple for millions during the Christmas season.