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How Vince Guaraldi Made Charlie Brown Cool

The story behind TV’s greatest Christmas special and why it was nearly cancelled by CBS

Derrick Bang
Dec 16, 2014 · 13 min read
Press play on this extended video of Guaraldi’s classic, and we dare you not to feel all kinds of good, holiday, dancey vibes

In early 1964, a short piece in the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned that local jazz composer and pianist Vince Guaraldi would write the music for a TV film about Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts newspaper strip: a documentary to be titled A Man Called Charlie Brown.

The April 1964 issue of San Francisco magazine gave additional details. The planned 60-minute TV special, now re-titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, would be written, directed and produced by Lee Mendelson, who had received critical acclaim the previous year for the October broadcast of his new production company’s debut TV special: a valentine to baseball great Willie Mays, dubbed A Man Named Mays.

Years later, when asked how he selected his follow-up effort, Mendelson would respond with a well-practiced comeback: “I decided, having done a program on the world’s best baseball player, that I should do the world’s worst: Charlie Brown.”

The idea truly came to him that quickly.

“I was reading a Peanuts newspaper strip, as I did every morning, and Charlie Brown was losing a baseball game, and the idea popped into my head. I learned that Charles Schulz was listed in the phone book, so I called him at his studio in Sebastopol. He was a big baseball fan, and he had seen our Willie Mays show. So he said ‘Come on up; let’s talk.’ We got along really well: There was an instant connection, and we started filming a week later.”

But how did Mendelson settle on Guaraldi?

Mendelson knew that he wanted a jazz score—“I had always loved jazz, going back to Art Tatum”—but he needed a composer.

“I first called Dave Brubeck, who’s an old friend, but he was busy. He suggested I call Cal Tjader, with whom I went to high school, but he was busy. Years later, they both said they wished they hadn’t been busy!”

Luckily, fate—or, rather, “Fate”—intervened a few days later.

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Vince Guaraldi hadn’t strayed far from his bossa nova origins for the music of Charlie Brown

“I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge,” Mendelson recalled, “and I had the jazz station on, KSFO, and it was a show hosted by Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collins. He’d play Vince’s stuff a lot, and right then, he played ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind.’ It was melodic and open, and came in like a breeze off the bay. And it struck me that this might be the kind of music I was looking for.

“I found out that Vince lived in San Francisco, so I got in touch with Max Weiss, at Fantasy Records, and we put the deal together.”

Mendelson and Guaraldi got together shortly thereafter.

“We met at a restaurant called Original Joe’s, in San Francisco,” Mendelson continued. “He had a great smile and a great laugh, and we hit it off right away. I was struck by his very short, stubby fingers, and I remember wondering how he played the piano with hands like that.

“He told me he loved the Peanuts strip, and that he never missed it.”

Soon thereafter, Guaraldi brought his trio into a studio and recorded several songs that Mendelson would incorporate into his film. In addition to the soon-to-be-iconic “Linus and Lucy,” Guaraldi wrote numerous additional cues. The trio delivered several versions of each, since there was no way to know how Mendelson would use the music in his film, or how many times he might want to use the same song in a slightly different context.

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Schroeder and Lucy

And while Guaraldi had created these new compositions to reflect Charlie Brown’s gentle, kid-oriented universe, the pianist hadn’t strayed far from the bossa nova stylings that had characterized his recent work.

“The Peanuts songs are all Latin-flavored jazz,” insists Toby Gleason, son of Guaraldi’s friend and champion, San Francisco Chronicle music columnist Ralph Gleason. “Listen to the basic rhythms; they’re all Latin rhythms. The percussiveness is toned down, and he put a lot of stuff on top, but the basic rhythms and melody structures are Latin.”

But once the show was completed, months later, Mendelson hit an unexpected stumbling block: ironic, given the subject of his new film. “We thought we’d sell the documentary right away, the way we’d sold the Willie Mays show to NBC… but, for whatever reason, we couldn’t sell it. We took it to all the networks, but they didn’t like it.”

Not for the first time in his life, Charlie Brown had been rejected… a fate that seems unimaginable, looking back with the benefit of hindsight.

1964 yielded to 1965, and then Mendelson received a rather unexpected phone call.

By this point, he had shopped his Charlie Brown/Charles Schulz documentary to everybody on both coasts, with nary a nibble. He therefore grew quite excited by a call from John Allen, who worked at New York’s McCann Erickson Agency. Mendelson hoped this meant that Allen had sold A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but that wasn’t the case. Allen had indeed liked Mendelson’s film, and he remembered it after learning that one of his clients—Coca-Cola—wanted to get involved with a new Christmas special.

Although today’s television viewers can’t go a single December evening without stumbling over two or three holiday specials, options were few in the early 1960s. The first small-screen yuletide special, UPA Studios’ Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, debuted on Dec. 18, 1962; it had the field to itself the next year, as well. It was joined, in 1964, by the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animated Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which debuted Dec. 6 that year. Mr. Magoo had brought all sorts of favorable publicity to its sponsor, Timex; Rudolph had done the same for General Electric. Coca-Cola wanted some of that action.

“Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas special?” Allen asked Mendelson.

“Of course,” Mendelson replied, having considered no such thing.

Allen brightened at this news, but cautioned that the Coca-Cola execs wanted an outline in their hands, in Atlanta, by the following Monday… less than a week away.

The call concluded, Mendelson stared at the phone for a few minutes, then called Schulz .

“I think I may have just sold a Charlie Brown Christmas show,” Mendelson said, without preamble.

“And what show might that be?” Schulz quite reasonably asked.

“The one you need to make an outline for tomorrow.”

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Charlie Brown and Linus

Schulz accepted the challenge graciously, and invited Mendelson to his studio the following day. The cartoonist outlined his ideas as Mendelson took notes; the finished concept was sent to Atlanta. The proposal was accepted, albeit with a caveat: Coca-Cola wanted the show for the upcoming 1965 Christmas season. Could Mendelson deliver?

“Of course,” Mendelson replied. Then he called animator Bill Melendez and Guaraldi.

After a flurry of phone calls and conferences, Mendelson and Melendez went to work; producing a half-hour animated special in less than a year was ambitious, to say the least… and it could have been even worse.

“They originally wanted an hour show,” Melendez said. “I told them, ‘You’re mad! It’d take me a year, two years, to do an hour show.’ So I said, no, I can’t do that, but I could do a half-hour… although I wasn’t even sure I could do a half-hour that fast.”

As details for the Peanuts Christmas special began to coalesce, Guaraldi naturally suggested that Fantasy plan on a soundtrack album, as they had done for the never-aired A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Max Weiss agreed, and the project was a go.

Although Guaraldi probably would have loved to recycle much of the music from the never-aired documentary, that would have been artistically questionable; the “tone” of those tracks didn’t suit the holiday vibe. Even so, Guaraldi chose to repeat “Linus and Lucy,” having already decided that this would serve as a Peanuts “main theme.”

“Vince was perfect for all of us,” Mendelson said. “He was easy to work with, like Schulz. When I finished the storyboards for A Charlie Brown Christmas and showed him my bar sheets—the pages that show the music and dialogue cues for each scene—he’d say, ‘Just tell me how many yards you want.’ By yards, he meant seconds of music.”

Armed with Mendelson’s story outline, Guaraldi knew he needed at least two more original compositions: something for an ice-skating sequence, and a vibrant number for a party that broke out on stage, when the kids failed to heed instructions from Charlie Brown, newly assigned director of the school Christmas play.

The former became “Skating,” a lyrical jazz waltz highlighted by sparkling keyboard runs that sounded precisely like children ice-skating joyously on a frozen pond. The latter emerged as “Christmas Is Coming,” a bright bossa nova anthem with strong overtones of rock ’n’ roll.

“The cascading notes to Guaraldi’s Vivaldi-like ‘Skating’ are the most vivid representation of falling snowflakes in music,” a newspaper columnist wrote, decades later.

Aside from a solo piano turn on Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”—inserted for an obligatory scene with Schroeder—the rest of the score featured Guaraldi’s arrangements of Christmas standards. He resurrected “Menino Pequeno da Bateria” from a recent album collaboration with Bola Sete, discarded the guitar portion and let the tune stand, with no other changes, as “My Little Drum,” a mid-tempo handling of “The Little Drummer Boy.” And since the show was devoted to Charlie Brown’s search for the perfect Christmas tree, a fresh arrangement of “O Tannenbaum” was essential.

One carol would be performed by the children voicing the characters in the special, so a fairly straight-forward version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” was selected for the closing scene.

Guaraldi also had written a languid waltz melody, intending it as the special’s title theme; he called it “Christmas Time Is Here,” and it was selected for the opening scene. Mendelson loved the song, but felt that something about it wasn’t quite right; this would eat at him, as he and Melendez put the show together during the ensuing months.

As late summer segued to early autumn, the Christmas special was coming together; a rough cut, set to Guaraldi’s music, opened on Charlie Brown and his friends skating on a frozen pond, as snowflakes gently flurried about them. But although Mendelson liked the music employed behind the action—the aforementioned “Christmas Time Is Here”—he felt the scene lacked something.

“The opening song was an instrumental,” Mendelson recalled. “I felt we should get some lyrics, and some voices. We couldn’t find anybody to write the lyrics, and I called all my Hollywood friends who were songwriters. But nobody took the assignment, so I sat down, and in about 10 minutes wrote the words to ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ on an envelope.

“I sure wish I still had that envelope!”

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When it came time to record those lyrics, along with the other two songs performed by the kids during the course of the special, Guaraldi knew precisely who to contact: the children with whom he had worked on the jazz-inflected Grace Cathedral Mass, which had debuted May 21 that year.

David Willat and Dan Bernhard, both young veterans of that earlier assignment, also were present for each of the Charlie Brown Christmas sessions.

“I remember getting the call that there would be an extra choir rehearsal,” Willat said, “and to come on down to St. Paul’s Church [in San Rafael]. I distinctly remember it being late summer/early autumn, because I was wearing a raggedy T-shirt and some cut-offs, because I thought it was going to be in San Rafael. I figured it would be a sunny Marin night; we’d sing and then go back home.

“But we got thrown into a van or station wagon, and whisked off to Fantasy Records. My mom and dad didn’t know where I was, and I was freezing!

Indeed, some of the parents hadn’t been told about this extra-curricular activity, let alone given the opportunity to supply permission slips.

“It was a different world then,” Bernhard admitted.

The sessions ran long and late, on school nights, and—that first night—several sets of parents were waiting angrily in the church parking lot, when everybody returned to San Rafael. A few children weren’t allowed to participate in the remaining sessions.

“For a kid who lived in Marin County,” Bernhard added, “driving to the old Fantasy Recording Studios, on Treat Street in San Francisco, was like going to the far side of the moon. There were three recording sessions—two in one week, and then a third a week later—and they did it at night. There were about 10 to 12 kids at each session, and not always the same kids.”

St. Paul Choir Master Barry Mineah was present to direct the children, as he had done for the Grace Cathedral Mass. But whereas that performance had demanded perfection in all respects, Mendelson and Guaraldi had something else in mind for this assignment.

“Barry was still training us like a choir,” Bernhard laughed, “but Vince and Lee wanted kids who sounded like kids. They used a version of ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ that was slightly out of tune, and Barry threw a fit. But Vince and Lee used that one on purpose; that was the cut they wanted. We did a whole bunch of takes that were perfect, but they didn’t want those!”

Aside from their work on the three songs, the choir also contributed an important bit of dialogue.

“At the end,” Willat said, “when all the kids shout, ‘Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown,’ that’s us!”

“We were paid handsomely,” Bernhard laughed, with deliberate irony. “We got $5 for each recording session. I still have a photostat of one of the checks from Fantasy Records!”

“And after one session, we went out for ice cream,” Willat added. “And I remember getting a free copy of the A Boy Named Charlie Brown album.”

With the music recorded and inserted into the final show, and work finally completed on A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mendelson suddenly wasn’t so sure if Coca-Cola’s earlier enthusiasm was deserved.

“When we finished the show,” he recalled, “Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown. It seemed like the show was really slow.

“We took it to CBS, and the two top folks liked it even less. They didn’t get the jazz score, or the fact that we had used children to voice the kids in the show. Bill and I figured we had a disaster on our hands.”

Indeed, that screening went so badly that the CBS brass coldly told Mendelson that they would have preferred to cancel the show, except that it was too late; A Charlie Brown Christmas already was listed in TV Guide and in newspaper television supplements across the country. The special would air at 7:30 P.M. Thursday, Dec. 9; the network was stuck.

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Wanting to take full advantage of the special’s air date, not to mention the approaching holiday season, Fantasy released the soundtrack the first week of December. A promotional single was issued—with Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” on the A-side, and his arrangement of “What Child Is This” on the flip side—and sent to radio stations across the country.

When the sun rose the morning after Dec. 9, it turned out that the special had changed many lives. Mendelson and Melendez’s fears notwithstanding—not to mention the contemptuous sniff from the CBS brass—A Charlie Brown Christmas was a smash success. It was the second most popular show on television that week, trailing only Bonanza, and its 45 percent ratings share was even more significant: That meant 45 percent of the people watching television during that half hour had tuned in to see Charlie Brown.

One of the CBS execs, obviously required to make a congratulatory call to Mendelson, couldn’t help trying to save face.

“I just want you to know,” Mendelson remembered him saying, “that my aunt in New Jersey didn’t like it either.”

They were a distinct minority. Critics across the country couldn’t say enough about the special: “Charlie Brown was a gem of a television show… the script was right… the voices of the children were a delight” (San Francisco Chronicle); “Charlie Brown’s Christmas is a special that is really special—one that bears repeating” (Time magazine); “delightfully novel and amusing” (Hollywood Reporter); “Charlie Brown’s Christmas is a yule classic” (Philadelphia Inquirer).

Guaraldi earned his share of plaudits, as well: “Credit must go, also, to Vince Guaraldi, who composed and conducted a delightful score” (Washington Post); “A few words should be said about jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s lovely, gentle, mood-setting score, which helped give the half-hour an unexpected and attractive contemporary tone, mature in an almost eerie yet enticing way” (United Press International).

Mendelson and Melendez took out a trade ad, thanking Coca-Cola, CBS, United Feature Syndicate (which controlled the Peanuts license at the time), the viewers at home, Schulz and Guaraldi… and promising that the Peanuts gang would be back on CBS-TV June 8, 1966, in Charlie Brown’s Baseball Special.

But that’s another story.

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Excerpted from Vince Guaraldi at the Piano © 2012 Derrick Bang, by
permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.

A Charlie Brown Christmas will air on December 16th at 8 PM (ET) on ABC.

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