For countless families across the country, the annual broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas signals the official start of the holiday season. The animated classic will air for the 50th consecutive year tonight at 9 p.m. ET on ABC, preceded at 8 p.m. by a music-driven retrospective.

We caught up with Lee Mendelson -- the filmmaker who served as executive producer of the seminal show a half-century ago alongside Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and animator Bill Melendez -- by phone from his home in Hillsborough, Calif., about 20 minutes from San Francisco. The award-winning producer reflected on the origins and enduring cultural relevance of A Charlie Brown Christmas… and its little-known ties to Coca-Cola and a Bay Area baseball legend. 

Legend has it that in 1963, just after you’d made a TV documentary on Willie Mays, you were reading a Peanuts comic strip and got the idea to cold-call Charles Schulz and pitch him on the idea of making him your next subject. Do I have my facts straight?

You do. Schulz lived in Sebastapol, California -- about an hour from me in San Francisco -- and his number was actually in the phone book. I called him up and said, “I’d like to do a documentary on you. We’re a small, two-man crew. We won’t be intrusive.” He responded, “I appreciate the call, but I really just want to focus on the comic strip. I don’t want to be bothered with New York or Hollywood animation.” Just before hanging up, I said, “By the way, did you happen to see the Willie Mays documentary last week?” He said, “Yes, I did! Willie Mays is my hero… why do you ask?” And I replied, “Because that’s what we want to do with you.” He said, “Well, if Willie Mays trusted you with his life, I can trust you with mine. Come on up and we’ll talk.”

So we did the documentary and hired (jazz composer) Vince Guaraldi to do the music. He wrote “Linus and Lucy”, which eventually made it to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Bill Melendez came up, and we did two minutes of animation. That was the germination of everything.

When you made A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, did you ever imagine it would still be on the air 50 years later?

Absolutely not. Everyone liked the Schulz documentary, but nobody bought it. Two years later, a fellow named John Allen called from McCann-Erickson and said, “My client, Coca-Cola, liked your documentary.” I got all excited because I thought he was calling to buy it. Then he asked, “Have you ever thought of doing a Christmas show?” I lied and said, “Absolutely!” I called Schulz and told him, “I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas show. He replied, “What in the world is that?” And I said, “It’s something you’re going to write tomorrow.” Melendez flew in, and we put the whole show together in one day.

About halfway into the production process, a guy from McCann came in to see where we were. It was a very rudimentary beginning... it was all in black and white, with no color and no music. He said, “This is terrible… I don’t know what to do with it.” I said, “Trust me, if you believe in Charles Schulz, everything’s going to be fine.” But after we finished the show, all of us thought we’d ruined Charlie Brown because we thought it was too slow. We took it to the network, and they thought it was too slow. McCann and Coca-Cola did, too. It was unanimous. Nobody thought it was going to work.

So when you ask if we expected it to be on 50 years… we only expected it to be on once and then never be heard from again. But back in those days, there were only three networks, and almost half the country tuned in to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. We got a 45 share. The network ordered four additional specials, and we were on our way to doing 50 more.

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Why do you think those initial reactions were eventually proven wrong?

Because of the philosophy and characters of Charles Schulz, and the fact that he deals with basic truths. What he wrote about then is still true today.

So is it safe to say A Charlie Brown Christmas would never have been produced if the call had not come from Coca-Cola?

No. It never would’ve been made.

Did McCann and Coca-Cola provide you with any sort of a creative brief other than: ‘We want you to produce a Charlie Brown Christmas special?’

No. It was a Thursday and they said, “We’ll need the outline by Monday.” We were stupid enough to believe we could do it.

Describe the collaborative dynamic between you, Schulz and Melendez.

In 1961 or 1962, Charles Schulz met Bill Melendez. When I did the (Schulz) documentary a few years later and could only afford two minutes of animation, Schulz said, “You should meet Bill Melendez.” And we were partners for the next 38 years. We met once or twice a month and produced 50 specials, a series and four movies.

How did you first connect with Guaraldi?

The Schulz documentary was done, and I couldn’t figure out what kind of music I wanted. I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge listening to my favorite jazz station. I heard something called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, which had just won a Grammy, and they mentioned Vince Guaraldi. I called Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic at the (San Francisco) Chronicle, and asked if he knew Guaraldi. He said, “I’m having lunch with him today.” We met soon after that, and he wrote "Linus and Lucy" and a few other songs for the documentary.

It was all serendipity. Willie Mays came to San Francisco in 1958, and Charles Schulz came here from St. Paul in 1958. I met them both five years later, and then Vince Guaraldi.

You mentioned the initial feedback was that A Charlie Brown Christmas was too slow. Did Vince Guaraldi’s score pep it up a bit?

That was one of the things that worked, yes. Vince had written this great melody for the beginning of the show, an instrumental over the characters skating. I said, “I’m going to write some words for this.” I asked Vince to get a choir to sing it. So at the last minute, we put “Christmastime is Here” in the show. And it has since been covered about a hundred times. Also, nobody had used kid actors before we did (for the voiceovers), and nobody had mixed the types of music we did -- Beethoven, jazz and traditional. And certainly nobody animated from the Bible. That combination is why it all worked, despite our lack of faith… no pun intended.

Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of my favorite albums -- of any genre -- of all time. Obviously the great show you guys produced has stood the test of time, and I think the music certainly has, as well.

I think without the music, we never would’ve made it.

In the initial 1965 broadcast, a title slide let viewers know that the production was made possible by the support of local Coca-Cola bottlers around the country. Did the brand make any other cameos?

Originally, when Linus crashed into the tree, a Coca-Cola sign fell down. (Note: The scene was edited out the following year when Coke’s sponsorship ended). And at the end of the show, we showed Schulz at his writing desk with a Coke bottle, and he thanked Coca-Cola for sponsoring the show. I remember McCann flying a guy out from New York to make sure we had the right frosting on the bottle. But that clip has long been lost… we can’t find it.

How did critics respond?

TIME magazine gave us a glowing review several days before the show aired. The network didn’t want to show it to the TIME critic, but I convinced them. He didn’t say a word or take any notes while he watched it. I thought, “Oh no, he didn’t like it either!” But then we got this glowing review, which led to more great reviews. All the reviews we got were outstanding.

What about A Charlie Brown Christmas has continued to resonate with generations of viewers?

Just because we got a 45 share that first year didn’t mean people would watch it again. But, again, there were only three networks back then, so a 45 share is a tremendous amount of viewers. They obviously stuck with it and cared enough that it’s been passed on to the next two generations. Now we have grandparents, parents and kids watching. It’s been handed down and become a Christmas tradition. And I think it’s because of the music and talking about the true meaning of Christmas. All of these things touched people back then and continue to touch people today. The theme that has caught people’s fancy the most is its simplicity. And there’s also a lot of fun in it.

What does its legacy mean to you personally?

I’m still in shock, of course. We read recently that it’s the president’s favorite Christmas show and the first family decorates their tree every year to it. The whole thing is surreal.

Do you have a favorite character or scene?

Someone asked me that the other day, and I hadn’t really thought about it before. I think it’s when Linus talks about the tree and says, “I think all it needs is a little love.” That line has spoken to generations and has always been very important.

If you were producing A Charlie Brown Christmas in 2015, would you approach it differently?

This all came out in a one-day meeting and flowed like it was meant to be. I can’t think of anything we’d change, frankly.

How soon after its success did tackle next Charlie Brown special?

We went right into Charlie Brown’s All Stars, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this spring, and then It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next fall. A lot of comic strips had one network special and then were never heard from again. You only get one shot. We were lucky.

Did Coca-Cola sponsor any more of your shows after A Charlie Brown Christmas?

Yes, they sponsored Travels with Charley, an Emmy-nominated reenactment of the famous John Steinbeck novel, starring Henry Fonda. And we did Tips on Baseball with Willie Mays, which Coke has in its archives. As a Coke drinker all my life, I appreciate the product and I appreciate the sponsorship.

Have you seen new Peanuts movie?

Yes, it’s great! The Schulz family produced it… it’s fun, charming and a nice transition from our stuff.

Will it open up the Peanuts catalogue to yet another new generation of fans?

Well, we hope so. You never know how things translate, but it’s certainly reaching a new generation.

Tonight (Monday, Nov. 30) and again on Christmas Eve, ABC will air a special commemorating the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas. What can viewers expect?

We’ve done about 50 music variety specials, and this is my favorite. The host is Kristen Bell, and we have Sarah McLachlan singing “Christmastime is Here.” She’s my favorite to have covered it over the years. This is partly a tribute to the music of the show, partly a look at how we created it, and a bunch of highlights from the last 50 years. We’re very excited about it.