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The Secret History of A Charlie Brown Christmas

By:  Ted Ryan Nov 28, 2012
Tags & Topics:
Charlie Brown Christmas and Coca-Cola

One of the first things you notice when you enter the Coca-Cola Archives is a very large, hand-illustrated Charlie Brown Christmas scene signed by Charles Schulz. I always get questions on why the illustration is there, and the story is a long and interesting one. On Dec. 9, 1965, a television classic was born. The very first A Charlie Brown Christmas aired at 7:30 p.m. on the CBS Network and its affiliates. While the program was an instant success, attracting an estimated 36 million viewers, the program almost never made it on air

While Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters were well known as a newspaper comic strip, there were fears the characters would not translate to television. Lee Mendelson tells the full story of the classic cartoon in his book, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition. He and Charles Schulz produced a pilot television program recounting the story of the world’s worst baseball player, Charlie Brown. Unfortunately for the pair, the pilot was rejected by all three major networks.

Coca-Cola did not want the baseball program, but we approached Mendelson to see if they could create a Peanuts Christmas special. While Mendelson and Schulz did not have anything prepared, they quickly crafted a simple, single page (triple spaced!) creative treatment to present to Coke. The next day, Coke sent Schulz and Mendelson the following telegram:

“CONFIRM SALE OF CHARLIE BROWN FOR CHRISTMAS TO COCA-COLA FOR DECEMBER BROADCAST AT YOUR TERMS WITH OPTION ON SECOND SHOW FOR NEXT SPRING. GOOD GRIEF!”

Once the special was commissioned, the real work on the program began. Schulz and Mendelson only had three months to produce the special, animator Bill Melendez had to create more than 30,000 animation cells, and the voices had to be recorded. In a move unusual for the time, Schulz required that the voices of the kids be real kids as opposed to adults voicing the roles. Schulz also announced the show would contain one whole minute of the character Linus reading from the Bible. This was considered highly unusual in an entertainment show, but Schulz prevailed.

The special was an immediate and enduring success. Nearly half of all Americans watching television on Dec. 9 tuned in to see the exploits of Charlie Brown and his friends. The only Coca-Cola messages were title slides telling viewers that the production was made possible by the support of the local bottlers around the country.

The Television Audience Reacts

In a preview of what would happen a few years later when The Coca-Cola Company produced the famous Hilltop commercial, Coke was inundated with letters from the public who loved the special.

Here are just a few of the thousands of letters the company received about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Gentlemen:
I am writing the first fan letter in my 52 years of a rather full life to compliment you on sponsoring the Charlie Brown Christmas television program. I don’t know when any program has delighted as many adults, as well as children, and I am writing to express the hope voiced by many who saw the program that you might be able to sponsor additional Charlie Brown programs…
Grand Rapids, Mich.

To the makers of Coca-Cola:
We wish to compliment you on the series of “Peanuts” which you sponsored on TV. Your production stands out as refreshing in entertainment as your product. Our sincere thanks to you and Mr. Schulz for bringing to the fore, in his wholesome philosophy, the real spirit of Christmas which is so often obliterated by a false one. It is our hope that “Peanuts” may find a permanent place in the TV realm. May the makers of Coca-Cola be greatly blessed for their part in this worthwhile endeavor.
Sisters of St. Francis
Belle Vernon, Penn.

I have always loved A Charlie Brown Christmas, and it is a family tradition in our house to watch the program every year. I concur with the good Sisters of St. Francis, and hope that the Peanuts gang will continue to enchant audiences for years to come.

If you are curious about the rejected Charlie Brown Peanuts special, it eventually made it on television, too. Coke also sponsored Good Grief, Charlie Brown, which aired in June 1966.


Ted Ryan is director of Heritage Communications at The Coca-Cola Company.

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