It was 1965 — Time magazine had not yet asked the question, “Is God Dead?” — CBS executives thought a Bible reading might turn off a nation populated with so many Christians, how strange a place is the island known as Manhattan. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a groundbreaking program in so many ways. Charles Schulz, known by his friends and colleagues as “Sparky” along with Bill Melendez produced and directed the Peanuts Christmas program.
“Someone from Coca-Cola,” remembered Melendez, called and said, “Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas show with the characters?”
Melendez said, “So I called Sparky on the phone and told him I’d just sold ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ Sparky said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘It’s something you’ve got to write tomorrow.’”
Schulz had some ideas of his own that didn’t make the network suits very happy. First and foremost, he didn’t want a laugh track. A radical thought in those days. Schulz thought that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at its own pace, no fake or forced laughter. CBS even created a version of the show with a laugh track added, just in case.
The network battled over voiceovers as well. They were not happy that Schulz’s team had chosen to use children to do the voice acting. Counter intuitive? The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack. They thought the music would not work well for a children’s program. Yes, and one more thing, the executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke.
But “Sparky” did not back down. Because of the tight schedule and CBS’s promotions already underway, the network aired the special just as Schulz had envisioned it. “They were freaking out about something so overtly religious,” explained Melendez. It was viewed as only a potential tax write-off for the network. Charles Schulz knew that the Luke reading by Linus was the heart and soul of the story.
Once again poor Charlie Brown sinks in despair trying to find the true meaning of Christmas. “A little child shall lead them,” as the Bible reminds us and Linus quietly led the way. He walks to center of the stage where the Peanuts characters have gathered, and under the spotlight, quotes the Luke 2:8-14. Linus concluded by saying, “ . . . And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
The scene only lasted 51 seconds. Charlie Brown invigorated with a new sense of Christmas spirit, picked up his little tree and walked out of the auditorium. CBS executives were horrified by the final production. Yet, the half-hour special aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965, preempting The Munsters. Fifty percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in to the first broadcast. This Peanuts version of the Christmas story was a critical and commercial hit. It even won an Emmy and a Peabody award. The New York Times even raved, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”
Maybe those TV executives are still getting it wrong. Don’t you think that God might have had something to do with bypassing those “Grinches” that sit in Manhattan suites deciding what America needs to watch? I think so.