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Lee Mendelson, the Man Who Brought Us ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ Passes Away at 86
December 29, 2019  | By Mike Hughes  | 4 comments
 


Lee Mendelson, who died Wednesday, Dec. 25 at 86, produced a multitude of pretty good television and 30 minutes of perfection. That half-hour leaves him forever in the warmest part of our memories. He recalled it in his 2000 book: A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition.

Back in 1965, Mendleson was 32, fresh from Stanford, the Air Force, and some success with a San Francisco TV station. He had made a documentary about Willie Mays then pondered a quirky idea – going from “the world’s greatest baseball player (to) the world’s worst baseball player.”

That’s Charlie Brown, in the Peanuts comics. Mendelson called Peanuts creator Charles Schulz who agreed to a documentary. The result added two key elements.

One was the addition of Vince Guaraldi, a light-jazz composer known for Cast Your Fate to the Wind, to the project. That was NOT Schulz’s idea. “He told a reporter, ‘I think jazz is awful,’” David Michaelis wrote in the 2007 book, Schulz and Peanuts.

The second was to bring in Bill Melendez, a former Disney and Looney Tunes producer. That idea came from Schulz, who liked Melendez’s work on a Peanuts-themed Ford commercial.

After finishing the documentary, Mendelson couldn’t find a buyer. (A half-century later, parts of it were included in a 2015 documentary.) But an ad-agency man liked it and called Mendelson, saying Coca-Cola was interested in a cartoon Christmas special with Charlie Brown.

The catch: They only had six months – about half the usual time – to do it. The project rushed ahead.

Schulz wanted an anti-commercialism theme and a scrawny tree. He accepted Guaraldi – who wrote the now-famous theme song – and insisted on child actors, no laugh track, and a full minute of Scripture.

Mendelson resisted that last part, Michaelson wrote, saying, “but this is an entertainment show.” But Schulz was adamant. He later said the biggest blessing was the short time frame; there was no chance for sponsors or the network to meddle.

One quick step involved the gorgeous tune Guaraldi had written for the opening. “We all felt it needed some lyrics,” Mendelson wrote. “Because we were running out of time, I wrote some lyrics in about 15 minutes on the back of an envelope. The song became Christmas Time is Here, which has become a holiday standard, covered by dozens of recording artists. Who knew?”

Certainly, no one seemed to know what they had. When Mendelson showed it to two CBS executives, he wrote, he was told it was “a little flat” and a “little slow,” then was told: “We will, of course, air it next week, but I’m afraid we won’t be ordering any more.”

But they had already promised to show it to Time magazine writer Richard Burgheim. The resulting review praised “a special that really is special,” one that is “unpretentious,” with a “refreshingly low-key tone.” He added: “A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children’s special that bears repeating.”

Mendelson would feature Charlie Brown in at least 45 more specials, plus a Saturday morning series, a mini-series, several movies, and a Broadway show. He also had Garfield and Mother Goose and Grimm series, plus Cathy and Babar specials.

Disney bought the rights and has continued to make more Charlie Brown specials after Schulz’s death, at 77, in 2000. And it has followed the suggestion of repeating A Charlie Brown Christmas.

This year, Disney-owned ABC ran it on Dec. 5 and again on Dec. 17. Lee Mendelson died eight days later; it was the morning of Christmas, a day he had helped to enrich.

 
 
 
 
 
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4 Comments
 
 
Thomas Hoffmann
Thanks for a great tribute. But "Guarini" should be Guaraldi," yes? And didn't Guaraldi AND Mendelson together compose the song, "Christmas Time is Here?"
Dec 31, 2019   |  Reply
 
 
Mac
Future Charlie Brown animation won't make it to Disney,ABC or Disney+. Apple TV+ has it. Yes,another dreaded paywall.
Dec 30, 2019   |  Reply
 
 
Mac
"Cast Your Fate To The Wind" first appeared on Guaraldi's "Impressions of Black Orpheus" LP and appears on Guaraldi's hits comps on Fantasy. The true radio hit version of "Cast",though, comes from a British group,Sounds Orchestral,and was released in the U.S. via Cameo-Parkway.
Interesting that while Guaraldi did a commendable job with the "Black Orpheus" themes,Bola Sete did a kick butt medley of the material at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966. The"Black Orpheus" soundtrack CD has it attached as a bonus track. Sete & Guaraldi were label mates on Fantasy and appeared together often in the San Francisco area.
Dec 30, 2019   |  Reply
 
 
Andy Balterman
No more time should pass with this unfortunate misspelling remaining in place! All praise to "Vince Guaraldi", esteemed jazz composer/pianist best remembered not just for "Charlie Brown" but also for his "Cast Your Fate To the Wind." The latter album is certainly on my Desert Island Disks list. . .
Dec 30, 2019   |  Reply
 
Andy Again
Linda....
Two more corrections to go!
Meanwhile, thanks for the great website....
Andy B.
Dec 30, 2019
 
 
Linda Donovan
Boy. Is that embarrassing. We know better, Andy. Thank you for saying something.
Dec 30, 2019
 
 
 
 
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