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Not a Bad Little Tree

A new exhibit at Virginia Museum of History & Culture delves into the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas special.

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As Christmas trees go, this one is instantly recognizable.

Not even a yard tall, with barely half a dozen spindly branches, the little tree is decorated with a single shiny red Christmas ball. Wrapped around its base is a blue blanket, the most-cherished possession of Linus van Pelt. The same Linus who assured Charlie Brown, “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

For every generation since 1965 when it first premiered, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a recurring part of many families’ holiday celebrations. This year, fans of the classic show can enjoy full immersion into that world with a new exhibit, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

On loan from the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California, the exhibit demonstrates just how deeply ingrained Charlie Brown’s world has become in popular culture. For proof, look no further than Forbes magazine’s 2019 list of the top-earning dead celebrities. Although the estates of Michael Jackson and Elvis rock the top two spots, it’s Charles Schulz’ estate that holds down spot No. 3, coming in at $38 million.

The exhibit looks at not only the iconic holiday TV show, but also the lasting genius of cartoonist Schulz, who learned his trade through two correspondence courses taken through what is now the Art Instructions Schools in Minneapolis. Covering the 1950s through the 1990s, the gallery walls are hung with 50 “Peanuts” comic strips that address the traditions and emotions that comprise the holiday season. Also included is a vividly colored animation cell of the scene where all the Peanuts gang is dancing onstage to Linus’ piano playing.

In one strip, Sally is struggling with whether to go on believing in Santa Claus and in another, she’s writing thank-you notes for the gifts she received. Several address post-holiday let-downs, including one where Lucy van Pelt explains to Charlie Brown its inevitability.

“The reason the Peanuts characters are so beloved by all is that Schulz created a world inhabited only by children and their animal friends,” explains Karen Sherry, the museum’s curator of exhibitions. “Yet their foibles, strengths and weaknesses are ones we can all relate to.”

In addition to the iconic Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the exhibit, there are display cases full of Peanuts merchandise such as ornaments, plates, bells, music boxes and snowballs. “Charles Schulz worked with the manufacturers to create these novelties,” Sherry says. “From early on, everything had to be approved by Schulz.”

In the back of the gallery sits a couch and vintage wood-paneled TV, on which plays a documentary about the making of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It’s a fascinating, if little known, story of the longest running cartoon special in television history. Produced in only six months, the studio found fault with much of Schulz’s simple holiday story, insisting that the pace was too leisurely. It also didn’t like the jazz soundtrack — tough to imagine given the enduring appeal of Vince Guaraldi’s music — and it especially didn’t approve of using actual children to voice the characters. Interestingly, only Snoopy was voiced by an adult. But there was more: Executives insisted on adding a laugh track and wanted all the Biblical references removed, deeming them inappropriate for an animated show.

Schulz refusal to make a single one of their changes was vindicated when the special was ranked number two by Nielsen for the week. It also won a 1965 Emmy for outstanding children’s program and a Peabody Award for outstanding children’s and youth programming. Accepting the Emmy, Schulz famously said, “Charlie Brown never wins anything, so thanks very much.”

When it first aired in 1965, CBS and the show’s sponsor, Coca-Cola, received hundreds of letters from viewers, which were assembled into a scrapbook and given to Schulz. The letter writers praised the show for its acknowledgment of the commercialization of Christmas, the lack of crudeness in the commercials shown throughout and the overall high quality of the program. Small wonder that a flurry of holiday specials were put into production in the years following.

Still, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” became the gold standard. When the network balked about using the biblical passage, Schulz was ready with a comeback.

“If we don’t do it, who will?” he was said to have responded.

For the generations raised since 1965, Schulz’s creativity and artistic certainty ensured a holiday place of honor for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” runs through Jan. 12 at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd., virginiahistory.org.

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