The all-time favorite holiday cartoon special around my house is A Charlie Brown Christmas, based on the comic strip by Charles M. Schultz. This special aired for the first time in 1965 on CBS, sponsored by Coca-Cola. It continued its annual airing on CBS through 2000. In 2001, ABC took over the annual telecast.
The version we watch today is not the same as the original telecasts in 1965-1967. During those first three years, there was additional footage due to the sponsorship by Coca-Cola. During those years, during the main titles, Linus crashed into a Coca-Cola sign after Snoopy spun him and Charlie Brown around with Linus’s blanket (today’s version still shows Snoopy spinning Charlie Brown and Linus, but it does not show where Linus lands). Another edited portion is during the scene in which various characters are trying to knock cans off a fence with snowballs. During 1965-1967, the can was a Coca-Cola can (in today’s version, the can is blank). A third difference is during the final scene when the characters are gathered around the Christmas tree and sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Today’s viewer may notice that the singing ends abruptly. This is because during 1965-1967 a voice-over would come in at that point saying, “Brought to you by the people in your town who bottle Coca-Cola.”
The voices of the characters were not all done by children with experience with voice work. The thought was that more innocence would be brought to the characters by using the voices of actual children, rather than adults making their voices sound like those of children. However, the combination of inexperience and youth brought with it problems. For example, Kathy Steinberg, who was the voice of Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister, was too young to read her lines. Therefore, she had to be cued one line at a time during the recording of the soundtrack. This resulted in the choppy, though heart-warming, delivery of some of her lines such as, “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”
It is hard to believe given its popularity today that in the beginning the producers were critical of the show and thought it would be a big flop. Among their complaints were that it was too religious (Linus quotes from the Bible; in response to the complaints about the religious message, Charles Shultz reportedly responded, “If we don’t do it, who will?”), that it did not have a laugh track like most children’s programs of its time (Charles Shultz wanted the audience to laugh when they wanted and not be cued by a laugh track), for using the voices of children instead of adults doing children’s voices, and that it paired a jazz soundtrack with a children’s cartoon. After viewing the final version prior to its initial airing, CBS programmers told the production team, “We will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”
Despite the doubt of the producers, the special was a hit from the beginning. For its inaugural airing on December 9, 1965, nearly 50% of the possible audience (more than 15 million homes) tuned in. It won two notable awards: an Emmy for outstanding children’s program and a Peabody for excellence in programming.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is currently the second longest-running Christmas special in the United States (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is the first, having first aired in 1964).
Category: Television Programming