‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ is a classic for many, making its way into the living rooms of families every Christmas. However, the holiday staple almost never even made it to air in 1965.
Charlie Brown became popular to many via comic strips in newspapers. Every day from the fall of 1950, the hijinx of the Charlie Brown clan was on Americans’ doorsteps. The comic allowed many to relive their childhoods through Brown’s antics and continued to do so for several more decades. Comic creator Charles Schulz later said of Charlie Brown’s longevity and success, “All the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.”
For Charlie Brown on the big screen, Schulz and Disney animator Bill Mendelson took on the project. The pair had previously brought Charlie Brown to life for a 1959 Ford commercial. Coca-Cola executive John Allen told Mendelson the company wanted to sponsor a family-friendly Christmas special in 1965. Mendelson agreed to produce a Charlie Brown one before asking Schulz. Luckily, Schulz was on board and their work began.
A Charlie Brown Christmas Came With Challenges
However, there were challenges. Critics expressed concern over how bringing a comic strip to life might displease viewers. They were concerned about fans expectations for how the characters should sound, act, and move. If the animated portrayal challenged this, the project would fail, they thought.
Additionally, CBS was hesitant to disrupt their formula and air a children’s special at night. When the idea for the special was first pitched to CBS executives, it was immediately rejected. The president of CBS at the time did not believe in specials. He saw them as interruptions that distracted “habit viewers” from their usual TV-watching routines. According to him, this included children who would typically tune in on Saturday mornings and expect cartoons. No one was expecting the same type of program to air on a weeknight. However, in early 1965, that president was fired from CBS.
Additionally, there was concern surrounding how audiences would receive the material. One The New York Times television reporter wrote, “Television is running a big gamble. It will attempt a half-hour animated cartoon in color based on the newspaper comic strip ‘Peanuts.’ In lifting ‘Peanuts’ characters from the printed page and infusing them with motion and audibility, television is tampering with the imaginations of millions of comic strip fans both well and self-conditioned on how Charlie Brown, Lucy and others should act and talk.” Ironically enough, The New York Times was not one of the newspapers where readers could enjoy the Charlie Brown comics.
Almost Half of America Tuned In
CBS executives eventually agreed to the idea when they learned that the CBS corporation president was friends with Schulz and a fan of the comic. This left the team with 6 months to prepare a half-hour animated special, something none of them had attempted before. The completed special disappointed executives. However, the slot was already scheduled. With no time to pursue something else, the special aired as scheduled.
However, the public proved them wrong. When the special aired, over 15 million households—nearly half of the television sets in America at the time– viewed the special. The reception to its initial airing quickly turned the program into a classic, one that was aired every year for 35 years before ABC acquired rights to the program a year after Schulz’s death. That 1965 special ended up being the first of more than 45 Charlie Brown animated specials for TV.