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1966 United Feature Syndicate Inc.
A scene from "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" depicts trick-or-treaters.

Television executives wanted a "blockbuster," and Lee Mendelson promised them one — not having a clue what it would be.

Never mind that their animated "A Charlie Brown Christmas" show had been a surprise hit, far surpassing expectations. Never mind that their second "Peanuts" show, on baseball, had come in at No. 1 in the ratings. In television, it's all about the next big hit. And the "suits" promised that if this third cartoon wasn't a "blockbuster" — an evergreen show that could be run year after year — there would be no more "Charlie Brown" specials.

So Mendelson, who produced the first two shows, did what anyone would do in that circumstance — he promised to deliver. Then called his partners in the endeavor, creator Charles Schulz and director Lee Melendez, in a panic. What could they do?

The three men got together. But, where the idea for the Christmas show had come almost miraculously overnight, this one was "like a faucet dripping, like watching grass grow," said Mendelson during a telephone chat from his California home.

They began tossing around ideas:

• The way Lucy always pulled the football away from Charlie Brown — that would be fun to animate.

• Snoopy as the Red Baron — that was a fun idea. Too bad he couldn't actually fly. Well, said Melendez, with animation he could.

• Schroeder and his piano — that had possibilities.

"We were quite literally going minute by minute," said Mendelson. But so far, nothing said "blockbuster." Then Sparky (Schulz's nickname) began talking about their Christmas show, and the fact that he'd always been a bit ambivalent about Santa Claus because so many children didn't get a visit or presents from him, and so that's what his strips on the Great Pumpkin were all about.

And suddenly everything just clicked, said Mendelson. They were still a bit nervous, because "there had never been a Halloween special. But we thought that the fact that Linus gets his holidays mixed up would be the basis for some humor. We could do the Red Baron, as a Halloween costume idea, and his flying doghouse had great animation potential. And fall would be a great show for color."

And "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" was born.

They got Vince Guaraldi to do the music again, and almost the same cast of kids from the Christmas show, and put the special together. "We thought we had a good show," said Mendelson. But a blockbuster? "We still worried it would be three-and-out for 'Charlie Brown."'

Mendelson said he had no idea that some 40 years later, not only would he still be talking about "The Great Pumpkin," it would still be running on TV. "We have a contract with ABC that goes through 2010."

But the show proved to be everything Mendelson had promised. It tied the popular "Bonanza" for No. 1 in the ratings and actually had the highest numbers of any of their animated shows to that point.

The three went on to produce a total of 50 prime-time animated "Charlie Brown" specials, 18 Saturday morning TV specials, four animated feature films, won five Emmys and were nominated for 10 more, and also won two Peabody awards. None of that would have happened without "The Great Pumpkin," Mendelson said. "That was the Great Pumpkin's gift to us."

Over those 40 years the show has become a true classic and a fixture in pop culture. A picture of Snoopy as the Flying Ace was flashed from outer space by the astronauts on Apollo 10. An exhibit of the Flying Ace and the Red Baron was in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for many years. The Flying Ace even appeared on a postage stamp. Which just goes to show, said Mendelson, "how far an idea can fly."

And then there's what has happened to Halloween, which has gone from a one-day event to a monthlong celebration, the second-most decorated-for holiday in the country. There have been "Pumpkin Carols" to sing to the Great Pumpkin, and games and books and other additions. There are Pumpkin Festivals held all over the country, and contests for the greatest pumpkin.

They'd like to think that maybe their special had something to do with that, said Mendelson. "I think the Great Pumpkin is one of the most unique in the history of the comic strip."

Although they took the idea and ran with it, "the basis for our success goes back to Schulz. Bill and I were the middlemen. It was a great honor, a great privilege to work with Sparky.

"We all got along. We were creating as friends. We were having fun."

If you watch

What: "It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"

When: Tonight, 7 p.m.

Channel : ABC, Ch. 4

E-mail: carma@desnews.com