For our American friends, last night was the occasion of the 47th airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. 47 years of the same show in an endless repeat. But according to this National Review story, by Lee Habeeb, the show almost didn’t happen:
As far back as 1965 — just a few years before Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” — CBS executives thought a Bible reading might turn off a nation populated with Christians. And during a Christmas special, no less! Ah, the perils of living on an island in the northeast called Manhattan.
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a groundbreaking program in so many ways, as we learned watching the great PBS American Masters series on Charles Schulz, known by his friends and colleagues as “Sparky.” It was based on the comic strip Peanuts, and was produced and directed by former Warner Brothers animator Bill Melendez, who also supplied the voice for Snoopy.
We learned in that PBS special that the cartoon happened by mere serendipity.
“We got a call from Coca-Cola,” remembered Melendez. “And they said, ‘Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas show with the characters?’ and I immediately said ‘Yes.’ And it was Wednesday and they said, ‘If you can send us an outline by Monday, we might be interested in it.’ So I called Sparky on the phone and told him I’d just sold ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and he said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘It’s something you’ve got to write tomorrow.’”
We learned in that American Masters series that Schulz had some ideas of his own for the Christmas special, ideas that didn’t make the network suits very happy. First and foremost, there was no laugh track, something unimaginable in that era of television. Schulz thought that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at its own pace, without being cued when to laugh. CBS created a version of the show with a laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind. Luckily, he didn’t.
The second big battle was waged over voiceovers. The network executives were not happy that the Schulz’s team had chosen to use children to do the voice acting, rather than employing adults. Indeed, in this remarkable world created by Charles Schulz, we never hear the voice of an adult.
The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. They thought the music would not work well for a children’s program, and that it distracted from the general tone. They wanted something more . . . well . . . young.
Last but not least, the executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. The network orthodoxy of the time assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Bible.
There was a standoff of sorts, but Schulz did not back down, and because of the tight production schedule and CBS’s prior promotion, the network executives aired the special as Schulz intended it. But they were certain they had a flop on their hands. […continue reading…]
The CBS executives saw what they had as, at best, a tax write-off.
I couldn’t help but think that actually parallels the original Christmas story in more ways than one.
John the Baptist was sure that Jesus was the Messiah on the day that Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized. But later, in the isolation of a jail cell, he wondered if he had backed that wrong horse. He thought he a flop on his hands.
Certainly there were people in the crowd who loved the miracles and the multiplication of the fish and bread that fed 5,000 men and countless women and children. But when he started turning his remarks to the “hard sayings” and spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, the crowd thinned out considerably. Having seen other Messiah figures come and go, they figured that, once again, they had a flop on their hands.
Judas Iscariot was one of the original twelve, and no doubt entered into that select group with enthusiasm and optimism. But into the third year of apprenticeship with the this particular rabbi, dreams of political conquest and liberation from the Romans turned into disillusionment when the talk turned to a Messiah that would suffer and die. Like the parliamentarians of today who ‘cross the floor’ to join the other party, Judas figured he had a flop on his hands.
Time exonerated the decision and vision by Charles Shultz, and the events in Acts 2 showed the world that something new and exciting was beginning; that instead of a flop, the disciples had a hit on their hands.
And today, there are those who complain that the Christian faith and worldview is foolishness. They have a checklist of things that they would change about the Christ story. They think we have a flop on our hands.
But the ratings have yet to come out on that one. The ultimate scene in the play has yet to appear on stage. Stay tuned…
We do know how the above story ended, though:
To the surprise of the executives, 50 percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in to the first broadcast. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit; it won an Emmy and a Peabody award.
Linus’s recitation was hailed by critic Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram, who wrote, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”