Podcast: How 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Almost Didn't Come to Be

Few television shows make it past the pilot phase. Fewer still become hits. Only one has been a hit for more than five straight decades. Indeed, it seems inconceivable to think of the holiday season without the classic cartoon. But the story of how "A Charlie Brown Christmas" came to be is itself a classic American story. Or, more precisely, how it almost didn't come to be.

Charles Schulz, the show's creator, had some fundamental ideas about the 30-minute Christmas special. One of them had to do with a reading from the King James Bible. It turns out that as far back as 1965 — just a few years before Time magazine asked "Is God Dead?" in a big cover story — network bosses, advertising executives on Madison Avenue, and some of Schulz's artistic collaborators thought a Bible reading in a cartoon might turn off a nation populated with Christians. And in a Christmas special, no less!

But before that tale gets told, it is worth telling the story of how this national treasure was conceived: It turns out it didn't spring from the mind of its creators, but rather its sponsors.

"We got a call from Coca-Cola," remembered Lee Mendelson, who produced the special. "And they said, 'Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Charlie Brown show?' And I lied, and said, 'Absolutely, we've been thinking about it.' And this was on a Thursday. And they said, 'We have to make a decision on Monday. Can you send us an outline of the show?' So I call Mr. Schulz and I tell him, 'I have good news and bad news. The good news is I think I just sold 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.' The bad news is we have to write it tomorrow.'"

Write it they did. Schulz got together with Mendelson and former Warner Bros. animator Bill Melendez, and the men quickly put an outline of the show together and locked down the sale.

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There were fears among the creative team that the characters would not translate well from cartoon strip to television. They'd created a pilot recounting the story of the world's worst baseball player, Charlie Brown. All three networks rejected it.They hoped this time would be different. Luckily, they didn't have much time to ponder their earlier failure: They had only three months to create a working script, record voices, get a soundtrack together, and create more than 30,000 animation cells from scratch. And all back before the days of computer animation.

The network was not pleased with the final product. The first big complaint was the lack of a laugh track, something unimaginable in 1960's television. Schulz thought the audience should be able to laugh without being cued. CBS created a version of the program with a laugh track, just in case Schulz changed his mind.

The second battle was waged over the voice work. Network executives weren't pleased Schulz had chosen to use children rather than adults to do the voice acting.

The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. They thought that children wouldn't like it, and that it just didn't make sense in a Christmas cartoon.

Network executives also thought the show was too slow. There wasn't enough action, went the thinking, to hold the attention of young people.

Last, the executives weren't pleased with the scene in which Linus reads the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The media orthodoxy of the time assumed Americans wouldn't want to sit through a long, spoken passage from the King James Bible during prime-time programming.

"They were freaking out about something so overtly religious in a Christmas special," explained Melendez. "They basically wrote it off, like, 'Hey, this just isn't going to be interesting to anyone, and it's just going to be like a big tax write-off.'"

Schulz experienced some pushback from members of his own creative team, too. Melendez himself was hesitant about the reading from Luke. "I was leery of the religion that came into it, and I was right away opposed to it."

Schulz, a Sunday school teacher, pushed back against the pushback. He had many doubts in his life, but few about his characters and his storytelling choices.

He also had the benefit of a very tight production schedule. The network, the advertising agency and the show's sponsor, Coca-Cola had already invested in the program and its promotion. Schulz knew he had leverage, and he wasn't about to acquiesce on core creative elements — especially the Bible reading.

The network executives, thank goodness, capitulated and aired the special as Schulz designed it.

As Charlie Brown sinks into a state of despair trying to find the true meaning of Christmas, an unlikely character saves the day. Linus walks to the center of the stage where the "Peanuts" characters have gathered, and under a narrow spotlight, reads from memory chapter two of the Gospel According to Luke, verses 8 through 14:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will towards men.

After Linus finishes, he walks across the stage and says: "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

The reading lasted less than a minute. And with those words, Charlie Brown realized he didn't have to let commercialism ruin his Christmas. With a sense of renewed purpose, he picked up his tree and walked out of the auditorium, intending to take it home to decorate and show all who cared to see how it would work in the school play.

CBS network executives were certain they had a flop on their hands. CBS programmers were equally grim, informing the production team, "We will air it next week, but I'm afraid we won't be ordering more."

The half-hour special aired on Thursday, Dec. 9, 1965, pre-empting "The Munsters" and following "Gilligan's Island." To the surprise of the executives in New York, 50 percent of the televisions in America tuned into the broadcast. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit. It won an Emmy and a Peabody Award.

Linus' 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."

As for the Guaraldi soundtrack, music reviewer Shawn M. Haney described it as "joyous and festive, and a meditation for the holiday season." It was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007, and in 2012, was added to the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry list of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important" American sound recordings.

It's unimaginable to think of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" without Guaraldi's music, without children doing the voices, and without the Linus reading from the Gospel of Luke. And that's why Charles Schulz was Charles Schulz. He knew his own country and the things we care about. He knew our heart.

Indeed, he had a higher opinion of Americans – young and old alike – than the network executives. And more respect. The Christmas classic is unimaginable without Guaraldi's music, adult voices, and no laugh track.

Coca-Cola was inundated with thousands of letters from people who loved the special. Here are two.

Gentlemen:

I am writing the first fan letter in my 52 years of a rather full life to compliment you on sponsoring the "Charlie Brown Christmas" television program. I don't know when any program has delighted as many adults, as well as children, and I am writing to express the hope voiced by many who saw the program that you might be able to sponsor additional "Charlie Brown" programs.

Grand Rapids, Mich.

Here's another.

To the makers of Coca-Cola:

We wish to compliment you on the series of "Peanuts" which you sponsored on TV. Your production stands out as refreshing in entertainment as your product. Our sincere thanks to you and Mr. Schulz for bringing to the fore, in his wholesome philosophy, the real spirit of Christmas, which is so often obliterated by a false one. It is our hope that "Peanuts" may find a permanent place in the TV realm. May the makers of Coca-Cola be greatly blessed for their part in this worthwhile endeavor.

Belle Vernon, Penn.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" found that permanent place in the TV realm. It was a hit for CBS for more than three decades, but in the year 2000, ABC outbid them for the show's broadcast rights. It has aired on ABC ever since, playing last week to great ratings.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" is equaled only by the 1966 program "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" in its popularity among young and old Americans alike. Thank God the Grinch-like the New York executives caved to the demands of its creator, and aired the special back in 1965. If it had been left to their gut instincts, we would all have one less national treasure to cherish come Christmastime.

Podcast: How 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Almost Didn't Come to Be | U.S.