Thursday, October 26, 2006

Still waiting on the ‘Great Pumpkin’

The Record (Hackensack N.J.)

You'd think that selling "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" to CBS back in 1966 would have been as easy as selling ... well, pumpkins on Halloween. Or Charlie Brown at any time.

Not so, animator Bill Melendez recalls.

"We didn't know whether the network would buy it," Melendez says. "I'd always have to do a sales pitch. And I can really do a pitch. They used to say: ‘Come on, Bill, do a dance for The Man.'"

And this was after "A Charlie Brown Christmas" had been a huge, Peabody- and Emmy-winning hit in 1965, and after the "Peanuts" comic strip mania was well under way.

Friday will mark the 40th anniversary of the TV special, which has now become for some as much of a Halloween tradition as candy corn and soaped windows.

It will be shown at 8 p.m. Friday on ABC (WOLO-25, cable channel 5), in tandem with "You're Not Elected, Charlie Brown," a later "Peanuts" special with a "Great Pumpkin" subplot.

"We translated the Christmas idea to the pumpkin patch," says Melendez, who had little idea he was creating a small but much-loved new piece of Americana with his yarn of the eternally optimistic Linus, who forgoes trick or treating to spend his night in the pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arise and bring toys to all the good little children of the world.

Never mind that the other kids laugh at him. Never mind that Linus — otherwise the egghead of the Peanuts bunch — would seem to have rather obviously confused Christmas and Halloween.

Commentators — the kind of people who write books like "The Gospel According to Peanuts" — have seen in Linus a symbol of faith, which endures even in the face of doubts and sneers.

Or, alternately, a symbol of religious delusion — persisting in spite of the efforts of sensible people to talk the sucker out of it.

"We threw everything (into) it," Melendez says.

And viewers responded. To this day, every gardener who discovers an oversize gourd in October feels it a civic duty to phone the local newspaper to report that the Great Pumpkin has arrived in his back yard.

"Believe it or not, that's Charlie Brown, above, happily perched inside our version of the Great Pumpkin (a 125-pound North-ville-grown giant)," reads one newspaper caption below a photograph of a toddler peeping out of a giant jack-o'-lantern, reprinted in the book "Charlie Brown & Charlie Schulz."

More recently, and more cynically, an episode of the quirky animated cable TV series "Robot Chicken" featured a Great Pumpkin summoned by black magic, who kills off all of the "Peanuts" kids except Charlie Brown, before being destroyed by the Kite-Eating Tree.

This year, in honor of the 40th anniversary, there has been a cornucopia of Great Pumpkin-related merchandise, including an "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" domino set from Sababa Toys, a 500-piece "Great Pumpkin" jigsaw puzzle from USAopoly and a 40th anniversary coffee table book about the making of "Great Pumpkin" from HarperCollins.

"I didn't know at the time that this was going to be anything vital," says Melendez, 90.

Originally from Sonora, Mexico, south of Arizona, Melendez had already been in the animation business for years — working for such giants as Disney, Warner Bros. and UPA — when Charlie Brown and fortune came knocking.

By the early 1960s, he had set up his own fledgling animation studio, where among other things he made several Ford TV spots using animated "Peanuts" characters.

In 1965, Coca-Cola approached the late "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz and independent movie producer Lee Mendelson about doing a "Peanuts" Christmas TV special. Mendelson and Schulz got Melendez onboard, and they proceeded to create a 30-minute show that turned all the rules upside-down.

Instead of professional adult actors, they recorded kid voices. Instead of brassy humor, they kept the warm, whimsical tone of the original comic strip. Instead of standard "cartoony" music, they used jazz.

"I was at that time doing a lot of work out of San Francisco," Melendez recalls. "That's where I met Vince Guaraldi. He was a very popular musician in the Bay area. You could go into a bar where he would be playing piano. I said, ‘We gotta use him.'"

"Linus and Lucy" and the other tunes Guaraldi wrote for the "Peanuts" specials have since become classic. But when Melendez and his colleagues first screened "A Charlie Brown Christmas" for CBS executives, they weren't having any of it.

"Too slow ... the kids don't sound pro ... the music is all wrong ... the story kind of wanders" are some of the comments Mendelson recalled hearing from the CBS brass.

"They questioned it for a simple reason: They wanted something that would be guaranteed to succeed," Melendez says.

They needn't have worried. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was such a hit that the network went ahead with plans for other "Charlie Brown" specials. Of the six earliest ones, only "Christmas" and "Great Pumpkin" are regularly revived — probably because unlike, say, "He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown," they revolve around holidays.

"If it was tied up to Happy Dog Day, that would be something," Melendez says. "But that show and the others don't have a strong link-up to anything. We don't have any means or chance to expose them."

By now, Melendez has done 50 Charlie Brown specials, and four Charlie Brown feature-length movies. And he's ready to do more.

Even if he has to dance, once again, for The Man.

"Even now, we always go job to job," he says. "I have things, stories, and I'd sure like to do some more. But it depends. First, I have to get a network to agree with the idea."


  1. Peanuts rock! I watched the Great Pumpkin last night. Those Charlie Brown specials really take me back in time.

  2. Me too. Peanuts were really a big part of my life growing up.