Jazz was the first genre of music I ever really liked. At the time, I had no idea it was called Jazz. All that I knew was that the opening theme to A Charlie Brown Christmas made me happy. I was all of one year old when A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on national television in the United States. I had no idea how groundbreaking it was for there to be a prime time animated television show voiced by children for children. I didn’t bat an eyelash when the character of Linus gave his famous speech about the Nativity scene using language taken directly from the Bible. I also guess I figured out when to laugh and when to listen quietly without the need for a laugh track, which was something Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schultz demanded I be allowed to do. But, more than anything, there was just something about the tinkling of the ivories all throughout this TV show that gave it the feel of being in a nightclub or a piano bar all the while being just the perfect soundtrack to a story that everyone can relate to about life during holiday time. Failure and redemption. Loneliness and friendship. The bullying sound of mocking laughter directed your way and the joy of lifting your head to the Heavens in song. A Charlie Brown Christmas had it all. It had it all then and it still has it all today. It remains my favourite holiday show to watch at this time of year. This is the story of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
A Charlie Brown Christmas aired for the first time in 1965. The characters in the show all came from the comic strip called Peanuts. The Peanuts comic strip was created by Charles M. Schultz. It was already a huge hit as it was syndicated in newspapers all across North America. The world was different in those days. Back in 1965, most people got their news and information from radio, television and via daily newspapers. One of the features of newspapers back then was that there was always a page or two devoted to comic strips. These comic strips would be used to tell jokes, to tell stories in serial form, and in some cases, to teach lessons and/or to offer some sort of morality tale as told in three or four panels. One of the most popular comic strips at the time was Peanuts. So when CBS Television decided to create original family programming for the holiday season, bringing the Peanuts gang to the small screen seemed like a logical idea. When the Coca Cola company signed on as sponsor, the wheels were set in motion to make the very first prime time animated television show in broadcasting history.
Charles M. Schultz only agreed to participate in the project if certain criteria were met. First of all, because he was a staunch ally of children everywhere, he insisted that they be treated with respect every step of the way through the planning and production process. Schultz was very fearful that if left in the hands of studio executives, his beloved characters would be used to talk down to children viewing the show from their homes. Schultz insisted that the show would resonate more with children if real child actors voiced the roles of each character. This was unheard of at the time. The studio heads initially thought that the likes of Mickey Rooney and Dick Van Dyke would become the voices of Charlie Brown and Linus, for example, but Schultz had other ideas. So, child actors were hired to speak for all of the characters who appeared on screen. The second thing that Charles M. Schultz argued successfully for was the elimination of a laugh track. Almost every standard thirty-minute television show being made on soundstages in America was produced with a laugh track (for comedies) and musical soundtracks (for dramas) that would help audiences know how to react to what they were seeing on screen. In Schultz’s mind, he believed that children were much more intelligent than many adults ever gave them credit for. He trusted that children watching from their homes would know which parts of his show were meant to be funny and which were meant to be more reflective and serious, and that they would know how to act accordingly. The lack of a laugh track is one of the defining features of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It helps to give the show a more quiet and cerebral feel. In addition, it allows viewers to appreciate those moments, such as when everyone is skating on an outdoor rink or catching snowflakes on their tongues. In real life, those moments outside in the winter time are often experienced in silence, as the snow muffles the usual hubbub of everyday life for a short while. Charles M. Schultz insisted that his show be more quiet than loud, and because of that the other big thing that happened was that the musical soundtrack of the show was allowed to shine through.
When a musical soundtrack is done correctly, it adds layers of atmosphere to the onscreen visuals, but it does not detract from or compete against what you are watching. When Charles M. Schultz removed the laugh track and insisted upon telling a quiet morality tale, he also wanted to give a gift to those watching at home…that gift was an introduction to Jazz. The show’s musical score was created by a man named Vince Guaraldi and his band The Vince Guaraldi Trio. Prior to creating the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi had never created a musical score before. In many ways, this lack of experience freed his mind and left him more open to try things that went against the conventional wisdom of the entertainment industry experts. In speaking with Schultz and understanding that he wanted the entire show to feel intimate and quiet, Guaraldi immediately thought of those smokey, dimly lit Jazz clubs where the music plays in the background while the swingers swing and the lovers conspire in whispers. To bring that vision to the Peanuts gang, Guaraldi made good use of the piano-playing character known as Schroeder. While Schroeder had usually been known as a classical pianist in the comic strip, Guaraldi postulated that it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to think that Schroeder would like other genres of piano music, too. He also thought it would be good for viewers to see the serious Schroeder cutting loose. So, Guaraldi created a song called “Linus and Lucy”, which acts as the thematic opener of the show. Completely instrumental, “Linus and Lucy” introduces the setting, most of the main characters, and does so with a peppy, uptempo Jazzy beat. By the time the opening credits had finished rolling on the debut showing, most of America had heard a Jazz song for the very first time…and they loved it! A Charlie Brown Christmas won the Emmy that year for Best Animated Feature and Guaraldi won for Best Song for “Linus and Lucy”.
The final aspect of A Charlie Brown Christmas that set it apart from anything else that was airing at the time was the quality of the storyline and the lessons that poured out of it. One of the things that Charles M. Schultz understood most of all was the complex social journey that children all make as they grow up. Peer pressure is a very real part of adolescence, and Schultz nails it with how he portrays the stressful nature of accepting a social role that forces you into the spotlight. Charlie Brown had many opinions about the state of the holidays, as we all do. But, being convinced to act upon those opinions is not something many of us choose to do in the end. It is far easier to sit quietly by and stew in your own discontented juices than it is to stand up and take action in a public manner. The easy thing for Schultz to have done would have been to have let Charlie Brown enjoy a moment of easy triumph as a reward for agreeing to run the Christmas pageant at school. But Schultz is nothing if not true to his characters, because instead of allowing Charlie Brown to become the hero, Schultz did something to a main character that is rarely allowed to happen on prime time TV: he allowed Charlie Brown to fail. Not only that, he allowed Charlie Brown to fail in a very public and humiliating manner. As anyone who has ever been bullied can tell you, the sound of mocking laughter is what stays with you long after the bruises have healed. But then, with that laughter reverberating in our ears and Charlie Brown shrinking under the weight of it all, Schultz swept in with a moment of redemption in the form of a bystander stepping up, as one should in such a situation. Having Linus come to centre stage and give his Nativity speech is much more than the endorsement of the Biblical story of Christmas than it may seem at first blush. When Linus came to centre stage he, essentially, saved his friend Charlie Brown. He stood up and stopped the mocking laughter of his friend in its tracks. That is such a hard thing to do in real life, as we all probably know, to our own personal shame. It takes such courage to not only protect a victim in public, but to rehabilitate their image at the same time, which is what Linus did for Charlie Brown. If the ultimate lesson from this television show was to reject commercialization and return to what the true meaning of Christmas is all about…love, family, friendship, peace…then Schultz accomplished that in one brilliant scene. It is not surprising that the scene with Linus is immediately followed up with the scene where everyone stands around Snoopy’s doghouse and sings “Christmas Time Is Here”, which is a lovely song that is made better because it requires many voices singing in harmony to make it right.
I was just a toddler when I first heard Jazz, but I have loved music my whole life since. I have also lived my life in the warm embrace of those I love and who love me in reply. So, as we wend our way ever closer to Christmas Day, my wish for all of you is to be next to those you love most, to share a thought or two for those you love who cannot be with you and most importantly, to do it all with a great holiday soundtrack like the one for A Charlie Brown Christmas playing in the background. Peace be with you all. Merry Christmas.
The link to the video for the song “Linus and Lucy” by The Vince Guaraldi Trio from the Original Television Soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Christmas Time Is Here” by The Vince Guaraldi Trio from the Original Television Soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the video for the trailer to A Charlie Brown Christmas can be found here.
The link to the official website for the comic strip Peanuts can be found here.
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