LOS ANGELES — Sometimes the smallest notion can create magic.
The 1973 animated special A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving was based on a “very simple idea,” said the show’s producer Lee Mendelson. Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the beloved Peanuts comic strip, “said I wonder what it would be like if kids did Thanksgiving dinner and the chaos that would ensue. That is what it is all about.”
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving premiered on CBS on Nov. 20, 1973, and has been a staple on TV ever since. (The classic Charlie Brown animated specials moved to ABC in 2001.) In fact, last year, the special drew its largest audience in four years.
ABC’s Mark Bracco, vice president of alternative series and specials, believes the Charlie Brown specials, which began with 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, have endured because they “resonate with viewers.” In an email interview he noted, “The kids that watched them a generation ago are now watching them with their own kids. Today’s parents have made the Charlie Brown specials a part of their own holiday traditions.”
Stephen Shea, who was a little boy when he voiced the role of the philosophical Linus, is still surprised at the reaction he gets when people learn he was part of the Peanuts gang.
“I don’t walk around saying, ‘I’m the voice of Linus,’” Shea said. “But when people find out one way or another, they scream, ‘I love Linus. That is my favorite character!’”
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is back at 8 p.m. this Turkey Day paired with a bonus cartoon from Schulz’s 1988 This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, which finds Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang experiencing the first Thanksgiving.
Warner Home Video has also released a 40th anniversary DVD of the restored special for which Schulz won an Emmy for outstanding individual achievement for writing. Producers Mendelson and Bill Melendez, the legendary animator and director who also voiced Snoopy and Woodstock, were nominated for the Emmy for children’s special.
In this outing, Peppermint Patty invites herself, Marcie and Franklin over to Charlie Brown’s for Thanksgiving. The only problem is Charlie Brown can’t cook. So with the help of Snoopy and the beagle’s best friend, the yellow bird Woodstock, Charlie and Linus prepare a feast in the backyard of toast, jelly beans, pretzels, popcorn and sundaes.
One of the high points of the special is when Snoopy battles a pesky lawn chair while setting up the Thanksgiving table in the backyard. Mendelson said that scene was Schulz’s tribute to the frenetic slapstick gags in Walt Disney’s early animated shorts.
“Bill Littlejohn was an amazing animator,” said animation historian Charles Solomon, author of The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation.
“By this time, they realized that the show should include some adventures with Snoopy — he had become the most popular character in the strip,” Solomon said. “They would give him some ideas, set up the situation, and the gags that they wanted and then they would turn Bill loose. “
Lucy only appears in the opening, when she convinces Charlie Brown against his better judgment to kick the football. “It’s a Thanksgiving tradition,” she tells him. Of course, in typical Lucy style, she gets the last laugh in what was one of the seminal moments in Peanuts lore.
Peppermint Patty, the outspoken tomboy Schulz introduced in the strip in 1966, takes front and center in the special as a delectable comic foil for Charlie Brown. Schulz, said Mendelson, “would bring in different characters at different times so there was some freshness to it.”
“He kind of fell in love with her,” Mendelson said. “She wore sandals and was against normal conventions. She was always one of my favorite characters because you never know what she is going to say.”
Mendelson recalled that Schulz told him that he thought Charlie Brown was so popular “because he was the kind of little boy you would like to have as your next-door neighbor.”
To Mendelson, “It’s all about Charlie Brown’s struggles. He gets off the floor every time and comes back and tries again. We all struggle through life. I think it’s the perseverance people identify with. And the great humor of Charles Schulz.”