Charles Schulz

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.

I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.

Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”

Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.

It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.

Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.

The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.

Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.

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Dear Lexington editors: If Linus doesn't say you know what, then what is he allowed to say?

Dear Lexington editors: If Linus doesn't say you know what, then what is he allowed to say?

OK, close your eyes. You are watching television during the season before Christmas. To be specific, you are watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

So Charlie Brown -- I can't imagine calling him either "Charlie" or "Brown," under Associated Press style -- has purchased the sad little Christmas tree and all the other children are mocking him. Even Snoopy is laughing. Then they all exit, stage right.

The lovable loser shouts: "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

At that point, Linus van Pelt steps forward and answers in the affirmative. Then he walks to the center of the stage and, alone in a spotlight, says ...

Says what? 

Millions and millions of Americans know what Linus says in his pivotal speech in the classic television special. The question, in a "Christmas wars" update from The Lexington Herald-Leader, is what does Linus say in the controversial production of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" that is being staged at W.R. Castle Elementary School in Johnson County, Kentucky? Here is the top of this hollow story:

When students perform the play “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at W.R. Castle Elementary School in Johnson County on Thursday, the scene in which the character Linus quotes from the Bible is set to be deleted.

Johnson County Schools Superintendent Thomas Salyer told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that Christmas programs across the district were being reviewed for possible modifications of religious references. That news had led people to protest outside school district offices for a second day. ...

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