It was 50 years ago, on Dec. 9, 1965, that A Charlie Brown Christmas aired for the first time on CBS. According to Rolling Stone, this classic Christmas special is 25 minutes of Charlie Brown’s struggle to find the true meaning of Christmas amidst the commercialism that has replaced the holiday season. Within those 25 minutes, viewers witness the anxiety and depression that comes to some during the holidays and Linus recites the Christmas story from the Bible – all encompassed by the melancholic jazz of the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This was not what CBS was looking for in a holiday special. Something fast paced and fun was their idea of a Christmas special.
According to Rolling Stone, CBS did not like the finished product of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The network executives did not like that the movie was a slow animation with religious undertones and a jazz soundtrack. However, it was too late, because CBS had already advertised the movie in TV Guide.
Jerry Granelli, the drummer for the Guaraldi Trio, stated that the network officials did not like a kid telling the audience outright that the real meaning of Christmas was not about spending money. They thought the movie progressed too slowly, and they did not like the improvised jazz. Nonetheless, A Charlie Brown Christmas was a roaring success, second only to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for longest-running Christmas special, according to the Bellingham Herald.
It only took six months to complete the film. The team of Charles Schultz, Guaraldi, Lee Mendelson, and Bill Melendez would continue to collaborate on several Charlie Brown specials.
Guaraldi mixed some West Coast jazz from original compositions and re-arrangements of holiday favorites. He even brought in a children’s choir that, although off-key at times, fit well into the overall theme. The music fused with the characters of the movie -Schroeder’s book-learned sophistication, Snoopy’s unpredictability, and even the melancholy, searching heart of Charlie Brown.
The jazz trio spent three hours in the studio recording A Charlie Brown Christmas. Afterward, they played at a nearby club. The soundtrack came together naturally because the three musicians were able to improvise so well together, according to Granelli’s recollection of the event. As he reflected, he said, “We’re living in times where so much is done to manipulate us and things last for, what, a news cycle? A few minutes? This is something that’s lasted 50 years. And not only lasted, but grown…I think there’s just a humanness.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas is still a part of family Christmases today. Tracy Shaw, from Bellingham, was a part of the famous Schultz Christmas special. In 1965, she was the voice of Lucy Van Pelt. She states that it was not a big deal then, but the older she has gotten, the more of a legacy it has become to her.
She was Tracy Stratford when she first gave Lucy her voice; a 10-year-old actress who had appeared on The Twilight Zone and several Bob Hope specials. She was also the voice of Lucy in a Schultz documentary in 1963 which was never aired.
She recalls the negativity surrounding the Christmas special even then. The jazz band, the Bible verses, and children who were not actors giving voices to many roles were not the elements of a hit movie. The characters voiced by child actors were those of Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy. They worked with director Melendez in the recording studio.
Six-year-old Chris Shea was the voice of Linus, and he was unable to read. He was coached through his lines by Melendez, who was the voice of Snoopy.
Now, at the age of 60, Shaw admits that A Charlie Brown Christmas was not a tradition in her family while she was growing up, nor when she raised her two daughters, although she recalls that when her oldest was three years old, they came across the movie on television and watched it together. When she told her daughters she was the voice of Lucy, they did not believe her at first.
Today, Shaw is a librarian at Squalicum High School. She still gets letters in the mail requesting her autograph.
Shaw believes A Charlie Brown Christmas has lasted so strongly for 50 years because people can relate to the characters in the movie, it reminds people of what Christmas is really about, and it reminds them of love. The message of the movie is that the holiday is not about gifts or the decorations; it is about love and being around those you call family.
By Jeanette Smith
Rolling Stone: ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ at 50: The Making of a Classic Soundtrack
Billingham Herald: Squalicum Librarian Voiced Lucy in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’
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