CHICAGO (MarketWatch) — “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” one of the best in the long-running series of “Peanuts” specials, returns to TV this week to remind us why these animated shows have been a part of American culture for the last 47 years.
While overshadowed by the two most popular and critically acclaimed “Peanuts” specials — “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” — the Thanksgiving special is also fondly remembered, with good reason.
The show will air Wednesday night at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC
, and will be repeated on Thanksgiving night at the same time. On both nights, it will be paired with “This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers,” the premiere episode of a 1988-89 “Peanuts” miniseries.
ABC began airing the specials in 2001, after they had been seen on CBS from 1965 until 2000.
On Nov. 20, 1973, CBS
slotted “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” — sponsored by Interstate Brands, the parent of Dolly Madison cakes and pies — at 8 p.m. Eastern to kick off its Tuesday night lineup. The Peanuts cartoons had become such ratings blockbusters by this time that the network had no problem preempting “Maude,” the “All In The Family” spinoff that would finish as the sixth most-watched show of the 1973-74 season.
Against the short-lived NBC crime drama “Chase” and the medical sitcom “The New Temperatures Rising Show,” ABC’s second attempt to find a starring vehicle for comedian Paul Lynde, “Thanksgiving” easily won the time period, averaging a 27.8 rating and 43 share of the television audience. (One ratings point was equal to 1% of the 65.6 million U.S. television households in existence at the time. Share is the percentage of sets in use tuned to a specific program.)
“Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz uses Peppermint Patty as the catalyst in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” She invites herself, Marcie and Franklin to Charlie Brown’s house for dinner, ignoring his attempts to explain that he and his family have to be at his grandmother’s house by 4:30. Linus asks the most obvious question.
“Why don’t you just call Peppermint Patty back, and explain your dilemma?”
“Because,” replied Charlie Brown, “you can’t tell Peppermint Patty anything, because you never get to say anything. I’m doomed.”
Linus agrees to help Charlie Brown cook a special dinner for the gang — with the aid of Snoopy and Woodstock. When they come up with a meal of pretzel sticks, toast, popcorn, jelly beans and gelatin sundaes, Patty blows her stack.
The appeal of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” lies in Patty’s brashness; her awkward crush on Charlie Brown, which seems to have started the whole thing; Snoopy’s flights of fancy; and jazz composer Vince Guaraldi’s music.
The musical backdrop
Guaraldi composed music for the first 16 “Peanuts” specials, before his death from a heart attack in 1976. While “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is usually cited as his masterwork, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” is every bit its equal.
The stately, uptempo main theme evokes the dignity of the holiday. It’s heard most effectively in the final scene with Snoopy and Woodstock, when trumpet soloist Tom Harrell explores the tune’s playful bridge.
Guaraldi was clearly inspired by Snoopy’s antics here. When he and Woodstock begin to set up a ping-pong table for dining, we hear the first notes of “Little Birdie,” a bluesy song with the pianist himself on vocals. The music continues as Snoopy fights with a lawn chair.
“For me the standout in that special is Snoopy having the fight with the collapsible chair, because that’s a wonderful piece of animation,” said Charles Solomon, an animation historian and author of a new book, “The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials,” in an interview. “It was so fascinating to see the drawings that [animator] Bill Littlejohn did for that sequence. The drawings are so vivid.
Littlejohn, a veteran who had worked at Disney, MGM and elsewhere, is quoted many times in Solomon’s book. “Snoopy was a dream; he was my favorite,” Littlejohn told Solomon. “He’s crazy! There’s no dialogue, just pantomime. He can do anything.”
A big-band version of the signature “Peanuts” theme, “Linus and Lucy,” is the perfect accompaniment as Snoopy directs the making of the dinner. Guaraldi always played “Linus and Lucy” differently for each special, and he and arranger John Scott Trotter came up with perhaps their best treatment for “Thanksgiving.”
Celebrating holidays for 47 years
The first Peanuts special to air was “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” on Thursday, Dec. 9, 1965 at 7:30 Eastern on CBS, opposite NBC’s family drama “Daniel Boone” and a special London-based episode of the ABC music program “Shindig,” featuring the Who and the Yardbirds. Though the show would generate great critical acclaim and a 45 share of the television audience on that first night, making it the No. 2 show for the week, CBS executives still weren’t entirely sure what they had, even as they ordered four more shows.
What convinced them, ultimately, was how well the shows did when they were repeated. When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was rerun for the first time on Dec. 10, 1966, it averaged a 33.6 rating. The result was even stronger the next year, when it got a 34.3, and a perennial hit was on its way.
“I’ve sat through dozens and dozens of Christmas specials, things where little animals save Christmas, or this kid doesn’t get his present, or Santa is in trouble — and ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ is the only Christmas special where someone discusses what Christmas is about,” Solomon explained.
“And if you just listen in your head, you can probably hear Linus’s voice reciting St. Luke. The entire special builds to that so skillfully, and it still has relevance. You hear people today talking about the commercialization of the holiday, and no one really understanding the spirit of it. So I think that’s why this one resonates so strongly.”
The second Peanuts outing was “Charlie Brown’s All Stars” (June 8, 1966), which focused entirely on the travails of Charlie Brown’s baseball team, which has managed to lose 999 games in a row. CBS still didn’t seem to understand what a juggernaut it had, pitting the Peanuts gang against a repeat episode of “The Virginian” on NBC and an ABC drama that lasted just half a season, “Blue Light.”
“’All-Stars’ is known in the ‘Peanuts’ canon as a lesser-known gem that has its own special charm,” said Solomon.
Airing in an 8:30 slot on Thursday, Oct. 27, 1966, “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” generated a 31.6 rating and tied “Bonanza” as the No. 1 show for the two-week Nielsen rating period ended Nov. 8. It ranked as the third most-watched special of the season.
“ ‘Great Pumpkin’ is just so much fun. Schulz wanted Linus to get two holidays ahead of himself, to turn Halloween into Christmas,” Solomon recalled. “And that’s just so hilarious.”
Linus makes fun of Charlie Brown for believing in Santa Claus, yet doesn’t hesitate to ascribe Santa’s attributes to the Great Pumpkin. In his mind, the Great Pumpkin not only knows which boys and girls have been good or bad but also uses that same omniscience to know who is truly sincere, and who has even the slightest doubt of his existence. Both children and their parents can watch and be amused by the little boy’s delusions.
“This is also the first time we see Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace,” Solomon went on. “And when Charlie Brown keeps getting rocks in his trick-or-treat bag, we can identify with the disappointment of not getting as much as we want, or the kinds of candy we had hoped for. It’s just very well done.”
‘Peanuts’ collections that include shows mentioned in this story
DVD: Peanuts 1970’s Collection, Vol. 1: Includes “Play It Again, Charlie Brown,” (original airdate March 28, 1971), “You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown” (Oct. 29, 1972), “There’s No Time For Love, Charlie Brown,” (March 11, 1973), “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” (Nov. 20, 1973), “It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown” (Feb. 1, 1974) and “It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown” (April 9, 1974). From Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Available at Amazon, $25.
Peanuts 1960s Collection: Includes “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (Dec. 9, 1965), “Charlie Brown’s All Stars” (June 8, 1966), “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (Oct. 27, 1966), “You’re In Love, Charlie Brown” (June 12, 1967), “He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown” (Feb. 14, 1968) and “It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown” (Sept. 27, 1969) From Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Available at Amazon, $25.
Book: “The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials,” by Charles Solomon. Chronicle Books, 2012. 192 pp. At Amazon, $30.
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