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Interesting Work: Willie Mays, Lee Mendelson and Charlie Brown

I don’t believe in the “Do what you love and the money will follow” argot. A lot of times, it won’t.

I learned this from both my parents (who were therapists). You can be miserable at a high-paying job, leave it for one you like– but pays squat. Often you end up miserable because you miss the money you were making.

Also, there’s no guarantee that working at a job you enjoy will become remunerative. It’s just a shuck– like the “If you do what we tell you to do, you will go to heaven” pitch that religion offers.

But something related is true. When you’re making a career choice, and pondering two options, don’t assume you can precisely calculate each outcome and get an accurate ROI. Do the one that seems more interesting to you.

That worked very well for Lee Mendelson

***

Mendelson, who just died of cancer, got into doing radio and TV in the 50s. He became a news producer for a San Francisco station, discovered he liked doing documentaries, and turned out to be really good at them.

He did a bunch of films about local people and events. They got good reviews, won awards and got onto the air.

In 1963, he decided to do a film about a local personality: Willie Mays, the superstar centerfielder for the Giants, who was one of the first players to break the color line.

He did a terrific job. And then someone suggested he profile another local celebrity: Cartoonist Charles Schulz, who had created the incredibly popular comic strip, PEANUTS.

***

That overture should have gone nowhere.

Schulz was almost as reclusive as J.D. Salinger. At the time, he was more reclusive. Salinger was still publishing until 1965, and he occasionally did interviews.

Schulz shunned publicity, didn’t do interviews and had turned down pretty much every attempt to commercialize his strip.

He’d said no to a dozen filmmakers. There was no reason to think he’d agree to this pitch.

Unless, of course, you read PEANUTS on December 22, 1962.

***

Two months earlier (October 16, 1962), the San Francisco Giants were playing the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series.

The Yankees were winning 1-0; Ralph Terry was pitching a 2-hit shutout going into the bottom of the ninth inning.

Then pinch-hitter Matty Alou led off with a bunt single. After Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller struck out, Mays doubled to send Alou to third.

Cleanup hitter Willie McCovey came up to the plate and belted a line drive into the first-base gap. But Second Baseman Bobby Richardson was playing him perfectly. He put up his glove and caught it, ending the game.

The strip that day featured three panels of Charlie Brown and Linus sitting mournfully on the front step.

In panel four, Charlie Brown jumps to his feet and cries “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?”

***

There are a number of remarkable things about that story. To go from small to big:

1. Yankee manager Ralph Houk let Terry pitch into the ninth inning, when he was over 100 pitches.

2. Terry got to keep pitching– to the top of the lineup– after the leadoff man reached base. (That would bring the closer nowadays.)

3. No modern manager would have let Terry– after he gave up a double to Mays, putting men on second and third– pitch to McCovey.

4. With first base open, the correct move would have been an intentional walk. The fifth batter (Orlando Cepeda) was much more likely to strike out– or not put the ball in play– than McCovey.

But by far the most astonishing thing was Schulz doing a punch line that the majority of his audience– which didn’t follow baseball, hadn’t watched the series– would have no idea what he was talking about and no easy way to find out. (Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet yet; Gurgle didn’t exist.)

But Charles Schulz was a fanatical Giants fan, he was in pain– and it was funny, if you understood the joke. Schulz told his syndicate that any newspaper who didn’t like the strip could skip running it.

(There was a small amount of pushback from the syndicate, but nothing compared to what there would be now.)

***

Schulz lived in San Francisco area; he was a Giants fan. So of course he had seen Mendelson’s special on Mays. He loved it, and agreed to meet with Lee Mendelson.

While they were working on the film, Schulz got yet another offer to do an animated project:  CBS offered a Christmas special.

Schulz asked Mendelson if he thought it was a good idea. Mendelson said he thought PEANUTS could be a great show… assuming Schulz hired the right people to do it.

Schulz, who knew nothing about TV, immediately asked Mendelson if he would do the film with him.

***

They went hunting for an animator, and picked Bill Melendez–who’d been fired by Walt Disney for striking–then fired by Warner Brothers for being a commie.

Melendez ended up at United Productions (you don’t know it; trust me, it was a quality place) then did a ton of commercials that used animation.

The two neos and the misfits broke pretty much every rule in the book.

1. All TV comedies used a laugh track. A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS did not.

2. All animated product used adult voice actors. ACBC used kids (the exception being Snoopy, who was voiced by Melendez when they couldn’t find anyone better.)

3. There were no adults shown in the comics, so there were no adults in the TV show.

4. The animation was, shall we say, primitive and ugly. It was identical to the look and feel of the comic— but that was unusual.

5. Cartoons used orchestral scores (usually based on classical music or popular songs. ACBC used jazz.

Mendelson called Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic of the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, and said “Can you think of a local jazz musician who reads PEANUTS and his small kids?” Gleason told him to call Vince Guaraldi.

6. Schulz, who was an evangelical type, wanted to make the heart of the show about the true meaning of Christmas. He insisted on including a long (53 seconds) passage from the bible on the birth of Jesus.

7. Just so we’re clear on the era: In 1965, a TV show complaining about the commercialization of Christmas was subversive.

8. The accurate depiction of many elements of the strip— the main character being depressed, his being disliked by the rest of the cast, Lucy’s psychiatrist’s booth, Snoopy acting like a human— were unusual for the era.

***

The project had been pitched in April of 1965— an insanely short amount of time for an animated special that had to run in December.

The show was scheduled to air on Thursday, December 9. CBS and Coke had been advertising it. Mendelson, Melendez and Schulz delivered the complete film on November 28th— 10 days before the air date.

CBS hated it, Coke disliked it. But there was no time to fix it— and they’d already been promoting it, so they couldn’t pull it.

All they could do was run it (at 7:30 PM, by the way).

And everyone adored it. Nearly 50% of the people watching TV that day tuned in (it got higher ratings that week than any show except BONANZA). Critics noted, with a fair degree of awe, how faithfully the show translated the look and feel of the strips to TV.

It won an Emmy and a Peabody— and became a whole media franchise. (The last is not a good thing, unless you were making the shows.)

***

Over the years, Mendelson reflected on the series of coincidences and happenstance that led to A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS.

I’m in the cohort who believes that the show wouldn’t have happened without him. Schulz had passed on other offers; he took the initial meeting to do the film about him largely because he’d seen Mendelson’s work and wanted to talk to him.

They also had to be working together before Coke decided it wanted a Christmas show.

Nobody would have told Lee Mendelson: “Definitely do that Willie Mays show— you might get 30 years of work in animation out of it.”

Sometimes it’s just a good idea to do work you want to do.

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