On December 9, 1965 a TV special called A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on CBS. No one could have predicted that what American audiences watched on that otherwise normal Thursday evening would become an annual event for families around the world. All told a staggering 45% of the entire viewing audience in the U.S. watched the special on that date 50 years ago.
Ironically, at the time, the execs at Coca-Cola, who sponsored and financed the 25-minute program, and those at CBS who aired it, were disappointed in the resulting work from Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz, director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson, but felt obligated to broadcast it thinking it would be a one-time airing.
The executives hated most everything about the final result, from using real children to voice the characters and not using a canned laugh track to what they believed was a slow pace. They even questioned the use of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz music soundtrack.
The naysayers couldn’t have been more wrong, although they probably lined up to take credit for the show once the phenomenal results were in. A Charlie Brown Christmas has since become the second longest running holiday special in television history; trailing only Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer which premiered the year before. The critics loved the program as much as the American public.
Oh yeah, and that jazz music soundtrack? Guaraldi’s soundtrack has gone on to sell more than three million copies since its release and remains in the Top Ten among the best-selling holiday albums in U.S. history. Credited to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, which consisted of Guaraldi, bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli, the soundtrack will be performed live by the trio’s sole surviving member Jerry Granelli in Boulder, Colorado at Macky Auditorium on December 9, the anniversary of the television debut.
Watch this CBC video interview with Granelli discussing his upcoming concert and the musical legacy that he contributed to:
In addition to the music, over the past half-century the popularity of this Peanuts’ special has transcended time with its simple outline, which producer Mendelson described in the 2005 book A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition, as "winter scenes, a school play, a scene to be read from the Bible, and a soundtrack combining jazz and traditional music."
That basic premise was put together by Schulz and Mendelson in one day in order to meet a deadline with execs at Coca-Cola, the program's potential sponsor. Interestingly enough, the outline never changed throughout the eventual production and obviously struck a timeless chord with its audience. Although the now-famous Bible recitation by Linus was initially thought by some to be too controversial to include in a primetime special, Schulz was firm about including it and that scene is arguably the most memorable in the entire program.
In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, producer Lee Mendelson, now 82, summed things up quite well, saying:
It became part of everybody's Christmas holidays. It was just passed on from generation to generation...We got this huge initial audience and never lost them.
ABC, which acquired the broadcast rights of A Charlie Brown Christmas at the beginning of the millennium, will be airing a two-hour special this Christmas Eve starting with It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, a retrospective hosted by Kristen Bell, followed by A Charlie Brown Christmas.