The Making of “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”–50th Anniversary
Wednesday, October 26, 2016—I went into the afternoon meeting—where the producers, reporters, web desk writers meet to discuss the stories to do for the 10 & 11 o’clock news.
“Hey, Mike—you have an idea for us?”
“No. I have a story—finished and edited.”
“Great! We love to hear that. What is it?”
“Well, it’s not about the elections.”
“And it’s about Halloween.”
“Does it have kids in it?”
“But they aren’t real.”
“. . . huh?”
“They’re drawn. They’re animated.”
“Okay . . .”
“Fifty years ago this week, in October 1966, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! aired on TV and became a classic. I’ve done a story about this with exclusive interviews with Charles Schulz’s son Craig Schulz, who produced and wrote The Peanuts Movie that came out last year, as well as the original show’s producer Lee Mendelson, who has a bookshelf lined with Emmies. And I have everyone’s permission to use all of this material.”
“I love it.”
“We love it!”
“There’s just one thing.”
“This story was originally produced to run in Common Ground. But we’re not running Common Ground this month because of all the political shows. So the story’s long.”
I took a deep breath.
“Five and a half minutes.”
The 10 O’clock News is an hour-long broadcast. Any story that can fill a chunk is welcome news to a producer putting together a show that’s twice as long as the other prime newscasts.
“Great. We’ll run it tomorrow.”
-Tomorrow- turned out to be significant and completely unplanned.
The story ran in the Thursday night 10 O’clock News on Thursday, October 27, 2016. The original Charlie Brown special, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! ran on CBS-TV on Sunday evening, October 27, 1966. Exactly fifty years earlier. Truly an anniversary event.
Provided here are the complete interviews with Craig Schulz, with his permission.
I love Peanuts. I am an unabashed Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz fan.
I can still vividly remember watching the original It’s Christmas, Charlie Brown and It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!!” when they were first broadcast in 1965 and 1966 respectively. I was only ten and then eleven, but I clearly remember watching and being struck by them. They were different. Simple. With a stark reality to them. The voices were not adult actors. The music was different. The drawings represented kids in an ordinary working class neighborhood. I honestly always thought they were a New York or Chicago production. These shows distinctly did not look like anything that came out of Hollywood or any of the Saturday morning animated shows.
So, to my total amazement, decades later when I started working at KCRA-3 TV is Sacramento, California—only then did I learn that Charles Schulz lived in Santa Rosa, California, and that the Charlie Brown specials were independently produced largely out of the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
Provided here are the complete interview with Lee Mendelson, with his permission.
I’d always been curious about the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, but I never made the journey there until two years ago when I went on a day trip with my step-daughter Jenna. She and I both love the Charlie Brown shows and would watch the Christmas and Halloween one together. So we went and it was one of those magical days.
I equate visiting the Charles M. Schulz Museum as what Woodstock would be like, only without the music and the drugs. There is an air of peace, love and understanding there. Universal brotherly love and basic, common decency. Charles Schulz original hand-drawn comic strips are there, along with concept notes and sketches. There is a gallery that displays themed strips—such as strips that are sight gags without any words or thought balloons, or that are all about the Peanuts kids staring at the black, starry night and wondering where the stars came from. These exhibits rotate every three months, making the museum a new experience that is worthy of repeat visits.
As Jenna and I were leaving, after spending several hours examining everything, I resolved to want to do a story about Charles Schulz and the museum someday. I spoke with someone at the welcome desk who gave me the business card for Cesar Gallegos, the museum archivist. Now I just needed to find the right hook.
Earlier this year in July 2016, on a day off, I had my laptop open, reading newspapers—when it suddenly occurred to me to go to Wikipedia. I knew that the first Charlie Brown Christmas special aired in 1965, but I couldn’t remember when The Great Pumpkin first aired. Within seconds I had my answer—October 27, 1966. In just a matter of months would be the 50th anniversary.
This was my chance.
Amazingly, I still had Cesar Gallegos’ business card in my wallet. I wrote him an e-mail about doing a story.
An hour later Gina Huntsinger, marketing director for the museum, phoned and I told her my idea and that I’d like to shoot the story soon, before they started to get deluged with media requests. Gina told me that I was the first person to contact her about the fiftieth anniversary.
I did have one other dilemma to sort out: It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! first aired on CBS and currently runs annually on ABC. KCRA is an NBC affiliate. What would our connection be to that show? As it turns out, that answer was provided to my by none other than Lee Mendelson in his first e-mail back to me–he had been in the Air Force in the 1950s, a navigator in surveillance planes (“Worst navigator in the Air Force,” he told me), based at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento. After being discharged, the first job he tried to get in TV was to work in the newsroom at KCRA-3 TV.
Sometimes things are just meant to be.
I set up a Monday at the end of September for the shoot. Mondays are my day-off and I knew that the only way I could get this story done—with all the news happening around the elections and the opening of a new arena in Sacramento—would be to do this on my own time.
There are lots of people in the business who don’t do stories unless they’re on-the-clock, getting paid for it. And I understand that. But on a story that’s a passion project—that I want to do—I’m happy to do it on my own time. To me, to be able to do a story that I really want to do about something that I really care about and am interested in, and that has meant something special to me my whole life—to me it’s a privilege and a gift to be able to be allowed into these people’s lives and to hear them share their stories. And since it’s my day off, I’m not rushed. I have no timetable hanging over me.
This story, most especially, was a joy.
Leaving from Sacramento at 7 AM to drive to Santa Rosa, during Monday morning rush hour, then at the end of the day leaving San Francisco at 4 PM and getting into end of the day rush hour—I didn’t get back to Sacramento until 8:30 that night. A long day. But, again, worth every moment.
Gina had arranged for me to interview Craig Schulz, Charles M. Schulz’s son and Lee Mendelson, producer of all of the Charlie Brown TV shows and movies. What I didn’t realize, and felt like an idiot about, was that Craig was one of the producers and writers on The Peanuts Movie, which came out last year and was the only movie I saw at the show—going with stepdaughter Jenna. And I must say that I loved it and bought the Blu-ray the day it was released.
When I do interviews I don’t write questions down beforehand. I had made a point of re-watching It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! the night before to be fresh.
When I arrived at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Gina met me outside and took me upstairs to the archivist office so we would have clean sound for the interview. To my surprise and delight, they had laid out original animation cells from the show, as well as some of Charles Schulz’s very first hand-drawn comic strips that dealt with The Great Pumpkin. Not the published comic strips—his own original artwork—which is so amazingly clean and precise, even when given up close scrutiny.
Craig was wonderful and open and easy to be with. In fact, we continued chatting for a little while even after the interview was finished. The museum just provided such a comfortable environment.
For the photography of the cells and the comic strips, I did not use my Sony HD XDCAM. Instead, I use a small Panasonic Lumix pocket camera because it shoots 14 megabyte photos, capturing amazing ultra-HD-quality detail, allowing me to digitally zoom in on the artwork without any loss of resolution.
Afterwards I shot a short interview with archivist Cesar Gallegos in the exhibit gallery on the first floor for a little further background information on Charles M. Schulz. For this I broke away and shot hand-held with a wide-angle lens. I wanted to see the gallery and the space and the exhibits and the whole museum environment as Cesar spoke to me.
From Santa Rosa I drove south to San Francisco (and after all the years that I’ve lived in Northern California, I still get a thrill when I have to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge) to Lee Mendelson’s house.
Growing up watching the Charlie Brown specials, the name credits at the end of the shows—Lee Mendelson-Bill Melendez—had become iconic to me. The multiple-Emmy Award-winning producer of all of the Charlie Brown TV specials and movies.
Now I was driving to Lee Mendelson’s house.
Lee Mendelson is still sharp as a tack, gracious, unpretentious, open, and very welcoming. I tried to move quickly because I did not want to take up his time.
At the end of the interview he signed a few things for me. And then said, “Hey, bring your camera. Let me show you something. Nobody’s ever filmed this before.” He led me down a hallway into a library-TV room and to a shelf—filled with national Emmy awards for Charlie Brown and Garfield specials.
This story could only be done with the cooperation and support of the Charles M. Schulz Museum, and for me to have access to the animation cells and the footage of the shows I needed the permission of Lee Mendelson. His immediate e-mail response was:
“Use whatever you want.”
Thanks need to be given to everyone involved in this story—Gina Huntsinger, Craig Schulz, Cesar Gallegos, Lee Mendelson, Jean Bertelsen, who handles legal permissions and use for the museum—for going out of their way to accommodate me, in the most friendly, helpful, and welcoming of ways.
I strove to respect everybody’s time and be as efficient as possible, and I think that was appreciated, to make the intrusion of a TV camera as effortless of an experience as possible. Everyone at every step of the way was fabulous, warm, generous, and made what I was trying to do a total joy.
The story aired on Thursday night, October 27, 2016—the 50th anniversary of the first airing of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!
The average running length of a TV news story is a minute-and-a-half. This story ran 5-minutes-and-20-seconds. With anchor intros, I took up over seven-minutes of primetime TV news.
Friday morning I received the following e-mail from Lee Mendelson:
“Mike – as you can expect I have done hundreds of interviews over the past 50 years but I think yours is by far one of the best ever, with both Craig and myself. My thanks to your station and anchors for such a splendid presentation.”