Home » Christmas in July: Larry Leichliter talks Tree Lot, His new Peanuts Limited Edition, A Charlie Brown Christmas, & Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales

Christmas in July: Larry Leichliter talks Tree Lot, His new Peanuts Limited Edition, A Charlie Brown Christmas, & Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales

Talking about doing a “Christmas in July” show all began when we discovered there would be a new limited edition being released based on the Tree Lot scene in the classic and historic 1965 animated Peanuts TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas.

In case you didn’t know, “CHRISTMAS IN JULY” is an actual thing, and has been for over 100 years! The first reference to it is in the English translation of the 1892 French opera Werther, in which someone says to kids practicing a Christmas carol in July, “When you sing Christmas in July, you rush the season.” (in French, it’s “vous chantez Noël en juillet… c’est s’y prendre à l’avance.” In 1935, there’s a reference to Christmas in July in the National Recreation Association’s journal, saying the event at a girl’s camp was full of mystery and wonder. Yellowstone park got into the fun with their own Christmas in August, a tradition that started in the 1950s.

and did you know there was a movie written by Preston Sturges released in 1940 actually CALLED Christmas in July

Meanwhile, right down the street from here in DC in 1942, The Cavalry Baptist Church instituted a yearly event where they sang carols and passed out presents. The post office and Navy and Army officials threw a luncheon with the same theme in 1944 and 1945, in the hopes that letters and gifts would make it to servicemen overseas in time for the holiday in December.  The idea expanded to become a theme on classic radio shows.

Fans of A Charlie Brown Christmas will remember the scene with Snoopy that Charlie Brown declares is “a dog gone commercial”. Actually, examples of advertising and promotional events celebrating Christmas in July can be found as early as 1950. There’s even a perfume from 1954 inspired by the trend! In countries in the southern hemisphere, holiday events are often planned in July (in ADDITION to those that still happen in December), because that’s their midwinter, and they want the holiday to have that wintery feel. In the northern hemisphere, parties themed around Christmas in July are meant to bring the feeling of cold climes into what is often a particularly hot time of the year. They celebrate with Santa, fake snow, and hot comfort foods. Coming into the fray recently is Hallmark and its movie channels, which show Christmas movies this time of year to coincide with their Hallmark ornament release. For folks who can’t get enough of those flicks, there are FOUR Christmas in July original releases happening this month, along with a ton of already released favorites. CLICK HERE TO SEE I AM NOT JOKING.

I can’t say we at ArtInsights had any idea about just how dog gone commercial July has been since all the way back in the 50s, but we DID know about the movie..(I mean, PRESTON STURGES!) and we also knew about the Hallmark movie thing. I love that this event has such a history!

Anyway, we partnered with the Peanuts animation folks to put together a collection of Christmas art to compliment the new limited edition, which, by the way, is spectacular. This new piece was designed and perfected by Emmy-winning animation director Larry Leichliter, who my friends and clients will know from other events we’ve featured him in, and the several blogs we’ve written about him, like this one and this one. Knowing he was the one behind this new limited edition (which has only 50 pieces) we wanted to offer other Christmas-themed art Larry was involved in, so we got some great original art from the 2002 special Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales, a great piece from I Want a Dog for Christmas, a few key setups with ORIGINAL BACKGROUNDS BY DEAN SPILLE (who you can read about HERE) from various specials, and DRUMROLL…..THREE lovely original layouts created especially for our show by Larry Leichliter himself. Also, for folks who do buy the new Tree Lot limited edition, you can, for FREE, choose between two special 3×5 original drawings of Linus or Charlie Brown, drawn by Larry for our event.

Since this show is virtual, we decided to do an interview with Larry Leichliter about the memories of Christmas that inspired him while working on the tree lot limited, which is officially called “Do They Still Make Wooden Christmas Trees, Charlie Brown?”. We also talked about his experience working on the piece itself, his recollections of directing Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales, and creating the three wonderful layouts inspired by the A Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Sandy, our friend from Peanuts who helped curate the collection sits in, too, and gives her thoughts, too. I learned a lot, as usual. Read on, and I promise you’ll see and learn all sorts of new great stuff!  Remember, if at any point you want to see all Larry’s art in one place, you can go HERE.

ALSO: If you want to see all the art that is part of our Christmas in July show, you can see them all HERE.


Leslie Combemale: I know you watched the Christmas special when you were in high school and were excited when it played every year. I know that you particularly love Linus, and the tree lot scene so captures both their friendship and each character’s personality. What does the tree lot scene evoke for you in terms of personal memories or nostalgia?

Larry Leichliter: I remember when I was a kid going to a Christmas tree lot at night to pick out a tree with my family, which was so special. Then the A Charlie Brown Christmas special came out right about the same time my father brought home a shiny aluminum tree in a box. We all assembled it and it really looked amazing with this color wheel that reflected all the different colored lights. It was like a disco ball before disco. So I had both sides of the experience, the traditional and the new. That scene, if you remember, of Charlie and Linus, walking away from camera towards the spotlights and you knew he was heading toward this Christmas tree lot, it brings back memories for kids of that era and folks who have gone out to get a real tree, of wandering through a forest of trees with lights all over, and getting a bit lost because you can’t see very well, but you smell the pine and you’re surrounded by these wonderful trees, and it’s magical. And then in the cartoon, they get there, and there are all these crazy colored trees. It’s just fantastic. There’s a contrast between those two memories for me and the fact that  Lucy sent him to get an aluminum tree, and what I remember as being what a real Christmas tree would be, which is more about what we think of as the spirit of Christmas.

~footage from 1965 of Christmas by the real tree in California:

~footage the 60s around the aluminum tree:

LC: Did you as a child or adult remember having a true A Charlie Brown Christmas tree?

LL: Not so much that but when I was in school and living in a little apartment, of course, I could neither afford nor headspace for a full grown tree. It was it was much more practical to just buy a little desktop tree, and so I had one of those for many years, a live tree, which I decided that I really kind of preferred a live tree just for sentimental reason.

LC: You lived in California, so where did you get your trees? What are your memories around that?

LL: There’d be a vacant lot, and in those days, there were more of them than there are now, or just the parking lot that they set up much like it is now. Until the day we left Los Angeles, there were still parking lots where they would come in and bring in truckloads of trees and set them up.

LC: You’re a pretty outdoorsy person. Did you ever choose to go out into the forest and pick a tree at a farm?

LL: My wife and I learned early on when we moved up to Oregon in 2015. Oregon was where we’d driven through looking for a home and there were trees everywhere. Christmas time comes, and I figured we’d  just go to a lot that had live trees. There was one just up the street from our home. There was a forest and I could cut down a tree, but you had to get permission. In California, you can wait till the last minute and still go to a tree lot, and they still have hundreds of trees. In Oregon. It wasn’t like that. If you didn’t get a tree or go looking for a tree the day before Thanksgiving, by the day after Thanksgiving, they were all gone. There was nothing but just bare bones, maybe a Charlie Brown tree or two, but that was about it. So we learned. Then when we came here to Iowa, we started going to this place just up the street from where we live now that grows all kinds of trees for Christmas time, and you can pick your own tree, so that’s what we’ve done for the last few years.

~In honor of Larry’s many years in and around LA at Christmastime, here’s a lane of trees that has been decorated since the early part of the 20th century:

LC: Early on, what did you and your wife do?

LL: Actually, in our first year together, I invited her to go to the Los Angeles railroad station, where trains would be coming in from up north and unloading trees, and you could actually buy your tree right off the train. It was late at night. It was all dark. None of the tree lights or any of the niceties of a tree lot. It was like an auction house, and just mayhem, but it was a lot of fun. We got a tree, brought it home, and we invited friends over for a streaming popcorn and cranberry party.

~Want to decorate your own Christmas tree like Larry did all those years ago? Well now you can:

LC: I think that speaks to the power that this TV special has of capturing the spirit of Christmas, and what memories the Tree Lot scene and limited edition evokes in all kinds of people. My family often got a tree and decorated it on Christmas eve, so we wound up with a LOT of A Charlie Brown Christmas trees, but it was a tradition that I hold dear. There are so many people, not just Christian but folks from all kinds of backgrounds, who have leaned into the tradition of the Christmas tree, because they’re so beautiful and the decorating brings people together, and they’re just such a wonderful addition to a winter home. Everyone who ever had a tree growing up and as an adult has their own memories, and the tree lot scene captures them all, which is amazing. Did you know that A Charlie Brown Christmas is what caused the aluminum tree fad to effectively end?

~If you love aluminum trees or just want to see a collection of them, look no further!:

LL: In my own family, as I said, we got that aluminum tree and then when I saw the show, I think it influenced me. I loved unwrapping the tree and putting it together and putting the lights on, it really was pure fantasy. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. After I saw the special, though, it made me a fan of live, real Christmas trees, and I’ve been a fan ever since. There’s nothing like a walk in the woods or a trip to the lot where it’s cold and smells like pine.

LC: Sandy, what are your memories of trees growing up?

Sandy: I grew up in Chicago, so we didn’t go to a lot, we always had a fake tree, but I do remember when we got the very first aluminum where you put the spokes in. Ours was green, and we had the color wheel. We had a cat and my parents didn’t want the cat going up a real tree, so I always remember just getting the fake tree out, and now to this day, we keep looking for one of those truly old aluminum trees from the 60s. My mom always decorated the tree. That was her joy. As kids, we’d tell her where the holes were. Now with my husband and I, we love putting the decorations on. Unboxing and seeing the ornaments is my favorite part. I remember my first ornament, and it was a Peanuts ornament, a bell with Snoopy and Woodstock. I still have that ornament.

~Watch the splendor of a great tree lot captured with this time lapse video:



LC: What were some of the challenges of creating the new limited edition?

LL: First, I knew one essential element. The part where there’s this incredible pan, slowly going through the tree lot and seeing all these wild colored trees that are just so dazzling to look at and crazy to think about, that was just a wonderful moment for me. Right from the start, I knew I wanted to bring that out. In terms of challenges, there were two particularly difficult things.

Larry perfecting the limited edition.

One was getting all the overhead lights right. I couldn’t just copy the background, because it didn’t work with the setup of the characters and the trees. It all had to be pieced together and flow correctly. The other issue was I had to put together these three poses of the characters, and had to get that exactly right.

~Watch the scene of Charlie Brown and Linus going to the tree lot from the original 1965 special:

LL: We knew we wanted to start with Linus knocking on the tree. When Linus knocks on the tree and says, “This really brings the feeling of Christmas to home to you”, it was so fun, so that was a given. Then we wanted to end with the two of them admiring the little tree, so we chose a connecting pose of Linus pointing and Charlie Brown seeing his little Christmas tree for the first time.

LC: Talk about the first image of the two characters.

LL: Linus is knocking on the tree, and because it’s a sound a effect and not a visual, because he doesn’t make the tree vibrate or anything, I drew a little special effect to express that, and I had to make a little room for that, so I had to adjust his pose, even accounting for the famously big Peanuts heads.

LC: the two characters convey so much.

LL: Yes. This moment of these two kids in the tree lot really captures the relationship between Charlie and Linus and they way they talked to each other. How Schulz wrote them, It’s so different than any other characters in children’s strips. It’s very gentle and honest and straightforward. It can be humorous and ironic, but at the core, there’s a kindness.

LC: Absolutely. They really represent a level of kindness and compassion we should all aspire to in our friendships, both as kids and adults. That’s one of the best elements of A Charlie Brown Christmas, is that kindness between Charlie and Linus.

LL: That first moment when Linus is knocking on the tree, there’s just a touch of sarcasm in it. Little kids are painfully honest, but they can also be so gentle. That moment just captures all that perfectly.

LC: What else in the limited edition required finessing?

LL: The background took a lot more editing. The number of trees, capturing the color of the sky, and making the Klieg lights not too obvious or be too distracting. Then the white lights that go through the lot required a lot of shifting. It took a lot of shifting but when it’s right, you know.

LC: and while you’re inspired by Ed Levitt’s designs, you never got to actually meet him.

LL: No. I was more inspired by his designs and his sense of humor, which you can see in the films and can be very subtle. It doesn’t seem like these garish Christmas trees are subtle, but it’s the way he tells the story. There’s this juxtaposition of setting up with scene, with them walking up to the lot, and you imaging a normal lot full of real trees, and then you get this very bright, dramatic visual image.

Sandy: The tree lot really captures something that’s very nostalgic but also very in style now. I follow this mid century modern expert on Instagram, DC Hilliard. He posted some pictures of the tree lot last Christmas and I wrote him about how very mid century modern A Charlie Brown Christmas was. It sent new grounds on so many levels, and now there are all these young folks admiring and collecting all things mid century modern, with all their clean lines and bright aesthetics.

LC: And someone who definitely had an impact on that colorful aesthetic was Dean Spille, who painted the backgrounds for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Larry, he’s someone you did work with for years, yes? But did you ever work with him in person?

LL: Actually, he came to Los Angeles at one point, because they were going to do another Madeleine cartoon, and he had done backgrounds for the original, so he was hoping to do them for this new one. Of course, as soon as he showed up, Bill put him to work.  I remember I would come into his office and he’d always have this music of an accordion player on. It was Astor Piazzolla. He’d have it on all the time when he was working. He did all those amazing little thumbnail color keys and to me, in terms of the color and styling, he was almost like a co-director. Dean knew what Schulz’s style was, and he knew the style of the studio’s representation of Schulz’s work was, and he made these amazing adjustments to the layout before he painted them.

You didn’t think I would make you look up Astor Piazolla yourself, did you? Here he is with a prog rock band in the 70s:


LC: Let’s talk about Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales, which you directed in 2002, two years after Charles Schulz passed away in 2000. His strips are the basis of every animated release, and this is true for Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales. The way it’s split into 5 sections or vignettes, Happy Holidays from Snoopy, Yuletide Greetings from Linus, Season’s Greetings from Sally, Peace on Earth from Lucy, and Merry Christmas from Charlie Brown, feels very nostalgic of the Schulz strips.

LL: I think a lot of people don’t realize that from the very beginning the shows were built from his strips. If you look at the storyboards for, say, Great Pumpkin, you’ll see Bill’s drawings setting up the scene, and then, cut and pasted, a comic strip from Charles Schulz’s collection. As to Christmas Tales, the storyboards always came to me finished, mostly done by Bill, although when the studio got really busy, he got help. I think Ed Levitt did a fair amount as did Bernie Gruber. I have a feeling that Bill and Lee Mendelson put it together. Lee was always pouring through the comic strips and coming up with great ideas for doing a show. What I know about it is that when I went on to do work at other studios, Christmas Tales was one cartoon that I would hear all the time was people’s favorite, and they’d say it was because it was so much like Schulz’s original comic strips. I had to laugh because that was because it WAS entirely from his original strips, just with little bits that tied them together.

LC: What elements can you point to that you had a strong hand in?

LL: One of my original ideas was the title sequence. Up until that time, most of them were just single cards, but of course In A Charlie Brown Christmas, there’s that whole skating sequence, Charlie and Linus, and Snoopy running into the tree, so I liked the idea of doing an animated opening title for Christmas Tales, which I did. That was my little contribution to the special other than directing it. I love having Snoopy on the doghouse holding the little shifting signs.

~Here’s the original opening sequence from 1965:

~And here is the opening sequence from Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales

LC: Do you remember working with Dean on the original backgrounds for that show?

LL: Absolutely. I would send him the storyboards, and we’d have a conversation, and then he would send back his little thumbnail sketches that he’d do in color. Most of the time when we worked together, he would pick and choose which scenes needed to be done, and he was always spot on. He always had everything covered that I needed to see. On the rare occasion when I needed more, or a little change, I could just call him up and ask, but mostly everything he did was exactly the way it needed to be.

Here is Dean Spille’s color key for a scene in Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales


Here’s the color model cel from Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales available as part of our Christmas in July show


LC: What a great collaborator.

LL: I really loved working with him. He was just so professional, and he had so many years of experience, not only at Bill Melendez Studios but at other studios, too.


LC: I have three layouts you created for our show, and I’d love to go through them a bit. Tell us about process on the Snoopy on the piano.

LL: I chose this one because it’s one of my favorite scenes, largely because of what happens with Snoopy. Schroeder is playing piano, and Snoopy crawls in while Lucy is admiring and flirting with Schroeder, and he starts to sway to the music and gets up and starts dancing. He’s just so overcome with the joy of the music. Then when they start looking at him, he gets embarrassed, melts down and shrinks away. It’s just so funny and sweet. I wanted to capture that moment of his bliss and abandon. I think Snoopy is most people’s favorite character for the simple reason of his joie de vivre. He just lives for the moment.

LC: Then there’s the scene with Lucy and Charlie Brown at the psychiatry booth.

LL: What I love about that scene is the contradiction between the crabby girl who sets up a psychiatric booth to help people by telling them what’s the matter with them. Here, though, she’s trying to be sweet and convince Charlie Brown she can be the Christmas Queen, and that she’s the prettiest girl in the world. Here again there’s that little bit of sarcasm that plays in these characters and their relationships with each other and I think that adds to the charm.

LC: What’s also so great about Lucy is she has a great sense of herself and a lot of self confidence. That aspect of who she is is very good for little girls to see. You really capture her self confidence in this image.

LL: That’s one of my favorite elements, too. Another thing that was important for me to include was getting the sign exactly right. I love that in A Charlie Brown Christmas, unlike other times she’s at the booth, it says “The doctor is REAL in”. In Schulz’s strips, it says “The doctor is in”, but in this one shot of the show, it says, “The doctor is REAL in”, which is very of its time and very cute of Lucy and another sign of her confidence and sense of humor.


LC: and lastly, you created a layout of Snoopy decorating his doghouse for Christmas, which is definitely iconic and evocative of the 1965 special. How did you come to the finished image and choose those exact character designs?

LL: This actually was the most challenging for me to arrange and still have it read well. It’s a visually complicated scene.

Larry putting the finishing touches on his Snoopy and Charlie Brown layout.

LL: I eliminated certain elements that are in the original color image on the show. I removed several boxes of decorations and bits of grass and bush in the foreground. I wanted to get those two elements, one of Charlie Brown reading the notice about a that decorating contest, where you win “money, money, money”, and Snoopy standing on a box of decorations and putting up the Christmas tree lights on his doghouse. It’s really all about getting the spirit of the scene and tell the story.

LC: Your layout really captures Snoopy’s determination and out-of-the-box thinking, which is one thing fans love. He’s a winner, even as his human, Charlie Brown, rarely comes out on top. It’s like Charlie should be living vicariously through is dog!

LL: Certainly in this picture, he’s on the side of self doubt and confusion about the spirit of Christmas, while Snoopy is plowing ahead and enjoying it in every way and for all its worth.


LC: You create such evocative images, and these layouts and the Tree Lot limited edition are no exception. What are you hoping fans and collectors will get out of it?

LL: The beauty of A Charlie Brown Christmas is that it means something different for almost everybody. I want them to get whatever they want out of seeing or enjoying these images. Those of us who watch the show over and over every year have their memories and nostalgia specific to their own families and friends and lives. For me, it brings back memories of what life was like for me when I was a kid. At the same time I really just enjoy the artwork both in the cartoons and on my walls. I enjoy the simplicity and charm of Schulz’s presentation of these characters and the depth of feeling they have. There’s great wisdom and pointed sarcasm, and also, at the core, they’re just nice and gentle to each other. They’re understanding with each other, but they also stand up for themselves. That’s something to aspire to for kids and adults alike.


Here is Charles Schulz talking about the power of Peanuts, and the importance of joy and kindness:


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