Soon it will be Thanksgiving. Regardless of the complicated origins of the holiday, because of its focus on gathering with friends and family and showing appreciation and love to one another, it has always been and continues to be one of my favorites. In light of the pandemic, this year in particular it will be a time for giving thanks for the continued safety and support of those we love. That brings us to all the various traditions and celebrations so integral to the holiday. Gathering as a family (and sharing stories, or arguing, or both), eating, watching football, and, of course, watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. This blog is dedicated to the classic TV special, and I’m happy to say, I’ve got some art surprises in store!
But first, I’d like to share my perspective on the holiday, which I’ll warn you is both very personal and a bit of a downer, but I promise I get happy at the end. You can skip the paragraphs between the lines if you’d rather just read about Peanuts, but people ask me all the time why I have such a love of cartoons, and this, as much as anything, explains that.
I have a strong connection to Thanksgiving. It has always been my parents’ favorite holiday, and nearly every year, my stepmother Mary (whom I refer to as my ‘second mother’, given the negative connotation Disney inflicted on the title of stepmom) has invited her sister, her brother and his family, and several close friends to join us. Since my parents recently sold our family farm and moved to a condo in Alexandria, the party will be quite a bit smaller this year, and it will take place at my house. I’ve never cooked a turkey in all my life, but there’s a first time for everything, and it’s my turn this year to make it happen. There’s a reason I want to make sure we actually have a gathering, however small, on the holiday.
The Thanksgiving holiday is complicated and weighted for me by the fact that it was the last time I saw my little sister Jane alive. In 1998, Jane, who was 16 1/2 at the time, died in a car accident a week before Christmas. That day I was actually in the gallery, working with Michael, which was a rarity even then. My dad called and told me she’d been killed. It was early afternoon on December 17th. I remember it was both raining and sunny out. That very short conversation between my dad and I played over in my head about every two minutes for over a year. Suffice it to say the loss of a family member, a sibling, a spouse, or especially a child, is the club nobody wants to join.
The year before, we’d had a huge Thanksgiving, with something like 15 or 18 people. Jane and our sister Coco, who was 14 at the time, drew really cute paper place settings with turkeys and all our names on them. Though 20 years their senior, I was really close to both Jane and Coco, and I remember we all sat down and watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving together, and it brought us a lot of joy that day. It was a cartoon I’d watched many times with them and my dad, who had raised both his older kids, my sister Joëlle and I, and his younger kids, Jane and Coco, on all things Peanuts.
At first, after losing Jane, it was really hard to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, I pretty much hated even having to see other people happy and celebrating. I went at least 10 years not watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Though it’s taken time, over the years I switched from hating the holidays around the anniversary of Jane’s death to embracing the joy and celebration of the time. Jane was a huge fan of both holidays, so I’m glad I could find my way back. Now I watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and A Charlie Brown Christmas, dare I say it, ‘religiously’ every year. I still remember the scenes where Jane and Coco and I, (our other sister Joëlle lived in Hawaii for much of the time Jane and Coco were growing up), would speak the lines or stare at the screen contentedly. I held both of their hands multiple times when we watched these specials together. For the Thanksgiving special, our favorite part was when Snoopy cooks the popcorn, but isn’t that true for everyone?
I’m glad to say the Peanuts tv shows don’t break my heart anymore. They only give me warm memories of great times. I find I am thankful, not just for what I have now, but for the 16 years I had my with my sister Jane. When I watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, I think of her. I even think of her whenever I eat popcorn. That’s the power of Schulz’s strip, characters, and cartoons. They really were and still are a part of our story, and, I think, so so many family stories around the world.
The Emmy Award-winning A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is the 10th primetime animated special created in partnership between Peanuts created Charles Schulz and animation director Bill Melendez. It first aired on November 20th, 1973.
One of the best aspects of the cartoon is the wonderful music. Of Peanuts composer Vince Guaraldi’s early work for the Peanuts animated specials, producer Lee Mendelson said, “There’s no doubt in my mind, that if we hadn’t had that Guaraldi score, we wouldn’t have had the franchise we later enjoyed.” We all enjoy his great music in the Thanksgiving special, but did you know that while the song Little Birdie was of course written by the famed musician, he also sings the song? His singing style in both this song and Joe Cool was inspired by Jack Sheldon, who performed songs for Schoolhouse Rock, which was released around the same time.
Vince had a wonderful voice, actually, that I think was way underutilized. The song Joe Cool was featured in You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown and There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown.
In the mid-2000’s, Vince’s son David found master tapes for seven 70s-era Peanuts specials scored by his dad. They included You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown, There’s No Time for Love, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown, and You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown. Vince was instrumental in remastering these pieces and putting them together into a release called The Lost Cues from the Charlie Brown Television Specials. During Vince Guaraldi’s lifetime, there had been only two Peanuts-related releases, “Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, so adding these lost cues allowed fans to hear a lot more of his work for the Peanuts animated specials. There are 2 volumes in all of the lost cues, and you can find them on a number of music streamers and on physical media, so you should check them out. It might offer an alternative this holiday season to just playing the Christmas special music!
There’s also a great covers release where B.B. King sings “Joe Cool”, and Joe Williams does “Little Birdie”, (and while I’m at it, I’ll say that Patti Austin does a great cover of “Christmastime is Here” on the release as well!) and you can check that out wherever you listen to music.
Todd Barbee was the voice of Charlie Brown for the Thanksgiving special. He had just turned 10 years old at the time of recording the show. Chuck Barbee, Todd’s dad, was the director of photography for Peanuts producer (and writer of the lyrics for “Christmastime is Here”) Lee Mendelson. Lee mentioned that they were having auditions for Peanuts character voices, so Todd tried out. Barbee started out doing voices of secondary characters, then graduated to Charlie Brown in 1972 on You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown. He always did his recordings alone in the studio, with Bill Melendez helping to guide him through. Explains Barbee, “Bill would always work with us kids in the sound room that had just a podium, a stool, a script, and a big boom mic. Bill would kind of walk us through each scene with his thick Spanish accent and then would leave the room and watch us through the glass with Lee and the sound engineers.” After all these years, Todd is still friends with the voice of Lucy, Robin Kohn.
Many of the artists credited on this tv special worked on lots and lots of Peanuts cartoons, because Bill Melendez made an effort to keep the artists he had on the payroll working as much as possible, and, by all accounts, he was also quite a pleasure to work with. A lot of folks on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving have long lists of other credits to their names. Bill Littlejohn won the June Foray Award for his contribution to animation. He worked on some great MGM shorts in the 30s and 40s, including some classic Tom and Jerry cartoons. Don Lusk, winner of the Windsor McCay Award at the Annies, worked at Disney on Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty, leaving to work at other studios after 101 Dalmatians. Bill Melendez Studios was the lucky recipient of all his experience. Al Pabian worked on Looney Tunes and the very first Wile E and Road Runner cartoon, Fast and Furry-ous in 1949, as well as 1953’s Duck Amuck, before joining Melendez at his studio. Sam Jaimes, who directed a number of Peanuts specials, started at Disney with Sleeping Beauty, moved to Hanna Barbera for The Flinstones, and moved to Melendez Studios in the late 60s and worked there for over 20 years. Delightful badass Carole Barnes did animation checking, producing, ink and painting, and concept work, starting at Disney on Sleeping Beauty, then for Tom and Jerry shorts, then for Melendez Studios, where she remained for over 30 years.
Bill Melendez Studios built their own kind of family, which I experienced when I went to a gathering of former employees in person for the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas some years ago. I’ve rarely experienced the kind of warmth I felt while watching the many artists who had worked there over the years visiting with each other.
Whether it’s turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, a tofurky, or the preferred Peanuts spread of toast and margarine, popcorn, pretzel sticks, and jelly beans, Thanksgiving is about family. Whether built or born, by blood or by choice, gathering and being grateful for each other and for the good in our lives is what makes the holiday so special. How nice that we can celebrate with the tradition of watching a Peanuts cartoon together!
Michael and I at ArtInsights wish all of you a safe and happy Thanksgiving!
Right now, I’m giving thanks to the folks at Bill Melendez Studios, who offered up 3 great production cels from the Thanksgiving special for me to offer to collectors and fans of the 1972 classic cartoon:
You can see all the Peanuts art featuring A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving HERE. Folks snapped up all the pieces available for purchase almost immediately, so if you’re looking for original production art from the special, contac the gallery and we’ll see if we can find anything more…
I’ll leave you with a great scene that will prepare you for watching the whole special: Snoopy Chef!