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A Halloween Evergreen Celebrates 40 Years

Did you know that 40 Halloweens have come and gone since Linus first awaited the arrival of the Great Pumpkin in the pumpkin patch? Hard to believe.

The classic TV special "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," which first aired in 1966, has become a Halloween tradition in many households. It aired again this year on Oct. 27 on ABC.

"Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz died six years ago but his legacy lives on through various TV specials and The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which opened in 2002. On this the 40th anniversary of the TV special, The ShowBuzz chatted with Schulz's widow, Jeannie, and TV producer Lee Mendelson, who collaborated with Schulz on 50 "Peanuts" specials (the 50th, "He's A Bully, Charlie Brown" airs next month).

Why do you think "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" has become a classic?

JEANNIE: "You remember it from your childhood before you could wear a costume or when you wore a costume and held your mother's hand. Then you become a parent and you have to make the costume and you have to take them out trick or treating. So it gets repeated over and over again."

How did "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" come to be?

LEE: "After we did 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' the network asked for another kind of show that could be repeated. So, Sparky (Schulz's nickname) had done a lot of strips about Linus and the pumpkin patch ... So, one thing led to another and we came with the Halloween show. Animator Bill Melendez came up with the idea of dropping the rock in the bag for Charlie Brown, which people seem to remember."

What was it like working with Charles Schulz?

LEE: "It was fabulous. We (Schulz, Mendelson and Melendez) were like three friends. We didn't have any studio pressure. We would meet once a month. We could come up with any shows we wanted to do because they trusted Sparky and his ideas. It was a ball for 38 years. We never had a single argument in 38 years.

"The first time I met him he says, 'I have a great job, I have very little overhead. I have a piece of paper, a pen and a pencil.' And that's what he did. Over 18,000 times, he did the strip. He just wanted the strip to be the best it could. He said: 'I never want to disappoint my readers.' "

What was the message Schulz tried to convey through the TV special, "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"?

JEANNIE: "I always say that Sparky just wanted people to have fun."

LEE: "Well, he had the thought, 'What would happen if a little boy got his holidays mixed up?' And that's what he did in the comic strip and that's what came onto the show."

Do you think Schulz would be proud of his legacy?

JEANNIE: "Well, I think it would embarrass him to think of it as a legacy. As Lee said, he wanted to do everything the best that he could. And, so, I think from that point of view, there's a part of him that would say, 'No, well, I'm not surprised because I put everything I had into it.' "

LEE: "He liked to say that he was a humbled egotist. He said doing the strip was like having to do a term paper everyday and it was great pressure always. Whereas on the TV shows we could take some time to develop them. So, again, it was just a great pleasure working with him."

Schulz once said, "If you want to know me, read my (comic) strip." What do you think he meant by that?

JEANNIE: "I think people kept saying, 'What are you like?' Some days he was the egotistical Snoopy, thinking that he knew everything, charming the chicks on the street corner. Then the next day he was Charlie Brown, almost crying into his lunch bag because the little red-haired girl wouldn't look at him. So, he had all those qualities, which of course we all do. He just illustrated them so beautifully."

LEE: "When he was in grammar school, he was jumped ahead two grades and suddenly he was the smallest and skinniest and youngest in his class, and he got bullied quite a bit. So, a lot of Charlie Brown came out of those early experiences — the fact that Charlie Brown is bullied a lot and, yet, he endures. And Linus and the pumpkin patch gets bullied or ridiculed, and he endures. And, in fact, our next new show, 'He's A Bully, Charlie Brown,' this was the last show that he and Bill and I worked on together on in 1998. So, this whole theme of enduring hostility and bullies is going to come out in that show."

Do you think these specials will be around for another 40 years?

JEANNIE: "Boy, I would not have thought that they would be on for 40 years this way. It's amazing that people still want to go back to something quiet that comes from their childhood. But based on that, I think it will. There's a part of people that will always stay the same."

LEE: "Well, of course, when we did the 'Charlie Brown Christmas' we thought it would be on one time and that would be it. We've been shocked that it's still on 40 years later."
By Amy Bonawitz

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