HolyCoast: The Iconic Christmas Special That Almost Didn't Happen

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Iconic Christmas Special That Almost Didn't Happen

Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of Charles M. Schulz and his Peanuts comic strip.  I grew up with his work, collected the books (which I still have), and have twice visited the museum built in his memory in Santa Rosa, CA.  Seeing his office reconstructed in the museum is a bit like traveling to a shrine.

His iconic Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, almost died before it aired because of network fears that a character reciting a Bible verse in a Christmas special would offend a Christian nation.  They also opposed the lack of a laugh track, the use of actual children to voice the characters, as well as the jazz music that accompanied the show.  They were wrong on all counts.

Lee Habeeb writes about the results from that first showing in 1965:
As Charlie Brown sinks into a state of despair trying to find the true meaning of Christmas, Linus quietly saves the day. He walks to center of the stage where the Peanuts characters have gathered, and under a narrow spotlight, quotes the second chapter of the Gospel According to Luke, verses 8 through 14: 

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill towards men.
“ . . . And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” Linus concluded.
The scene lasted 51 seconds. When Linus finished up, Charlie Brown realized he did not have to let commercialism ruin his Christmas. With a sense of inspiration and purpose, he picked up his fragile tree and walked out of the auditorium, intending to take it home to decorate and show all who cared to see how it would work in the school play.
When CBS executives saw the final product, they were horrified. They believed the special would be a complete flop. CBS programmers were equally pessimistic, informing the production team, “We will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”
The half-hour special aired on Thursday, December 9, 1965, preemptingThe Munsters and following Gilligan’s Island. To the surprise of the executives, 50 percent of the televisions in the United States tuned in to the first broadcast. The cartoon was a critical and commercial hit; it won an Emmy and a Peabody award.
Linus’s recitation was hailed by critic Harriet Van Horne of the New York World-Telegram, who wrote, “Linus’ reading of the story of the Nativity was, quite simply, the dramatic highlight of the season.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas is equaled only perhaps by the 1966 Howthe Grinch Stole Christmasin its popularity among young and old alike. Thank God the Grinch-like executives at CBS chose to air the special back in 1965 despite their misgivings. If it had been left to their gut instincts, we would have had one less national treasure to cherish come Christmas time.
And here is the moment on screen:
When we visited the museum the last time we watched the entire special again in the museum theater. Still good.  The unedited version is scheduled to air again this year on Thursday, December 15, 8pm Eastern and Pacific, 7pm Central.  Hopefully it won't be bumped by an Obama speech like it was in 2009.  I'll record it again.

No comments: