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Charlie Brown’s timeless appeal: The secret behind the Peanuts franchise

Published: Sunday, Dec. 4 2011 9:20 p.m. MST

In this Sept. 29, 1995, fie photo, cartoonist Charles Schulz holds a drawing of his famous comic strip character "Snoopy" in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Ben Margot, AP

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Near the end of 1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — the Peanuts comic strip's first foray into full-fledged animation — the title character veers perilously close to his emotional breaking point.

Charlie Brown exerted a good-faith effort to direct his friends in a Christmas play, but the cast has laughed him to scorn and altogether abandoned him. It's painfully clear the production will end as a miserable failure.

"Everything I do turns into a disaster," Chuck bemoans. "I guess I really don't know what Christmas is all about. Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!"

A most unlikely voice of reason steps in to quell Charlie Brown's snowballing exasperation: Lucy's little brother Linus, who sucks his thumb and clings to his blanket and is the last living soul left on-stage with Charlie. In short order, Linus recites from memory the touching account of Christ's birth as found in Luke 2:8-14 — and thereby restores order once again to the Peanuts universe.

However, Linus's memorable monologue almost didn't happen, according to Amy Johnson, daughter of deceased Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.

"With the Christmas special, Dad took that risk of putting in the passage from the Bible," said Johnson. "He was told that if he put that it in, (1965) would be the first and last time ('A Charlie Brown Christmas') would ever show. He was told it was going to be a failure, and it would never play again."

The naysayers couldn't have been more wrong: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" went on to win Emmy and Peabody Awards — not to mention open the door for the approximately 50 made-for-TV Peanuts specials that would follow. Tonight, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" airs for the 47th consecutive year. (ABC Family, 8 ET/PT.)

As the anecdote about Bible verses illustrates, Schulz's singular blend of foresight and creativity is the driving force for a Peanuts franchise of animated holiday specials and comic strips that still resonates across generations of Americans.

At the heart of the cartoons' enduring popularity is how Schulz was able to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of families craving a certain kind of wholesome entertainment — one which appealed not only to children but adults too.

"I remember my dad saying he believed that the American people really do like decent entertainment," Johnson said. "As much as some people maybe don't think that Americans do like decent programming, Dad believed that they did. … And in this day and age, there is hardly anything that you can sit down with your whole family and be safe watching anymore."

Schulz's creativity pops up in Peanuts comic strips through unconventional storylines such as an entire week devoted to a kite-eating tree or the decades-long ordeal of Charlie Brown as baseball pitcher — a narrative that left a particularly lasting impression with writer Larry Granillo.

"I've been a big fan of Peanuts for as long as I can remember, reading and re-reading the various collections we had in the house," Granillo said. "Something about the strips — the poignancy, the perseverance, the fantastical imagination of Snoopy — appealed to me since I learned to read. The fact that Charlie Brown also shared my love of baseball just added to it."

Granillo writes for Baseball Prospectus, an organization revered in baseball circles for its cutting-edge statistical analysis. As a Peanuts aficionado who makes his living sifting through copious amounts of baseball numbers, it's natural that Granillo would start to wonder what kinds of stats Charlie Brown had piled up during his "career."

"At some point," he said, "the question occurred to me, 'We see Charlie Brown's team lose all the time; how many games did they really lose? How many home runs did Chuck actually give up?' I chalked these up to 'questions that could never be answered' but then I realized that, with the 'Complete Peanuts' books being published, it wasn't too hard to just read through the strips and catalog them. So that's what I did."

While reviewing the 655 baseball-themed Peanuts strips published between 1951-70, Granillo deduced wins and losses whenever possible. Last year he blogged the documentable results for that 20-year stretch of Charlie Brown's pitching career: 9 wins, 85 losses and 22 times knocked to the ground by a line drive.

As thorough as Granillo's knowledge of the Peanuts comic strips may, it still probably can't hold a candle to the institutional knowledge of Lucy Shelton Caswell. Before retiring on Jan. 1, Caswell was curator of Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum — the world's largest academic research facility for comic strips and cartoon art. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif.

"Schulz came along at a watershed in the history of the American comic strip," Caswell said. "World War II was over; television was coming along. He understood that he could communicate complicated ideas to grown-ups, to people of all ages, with sort of a minimalist artistic approach … and then had a style and an ability to write in a concise way that really popped for the time."

Caswell openly concedes her familiarity with Schulz's comic strips runs much deeper than her knowledge of the Peanuts televised specials. Still, she knows enough about Peanuts as a whole to pinpoint a very specific reason why the franchise has remained intact and viable for so long — even after a 77-year-old Schulz died in 2000 from complications related to colon cancer.

"He kept a very close reign on his properties," Caswell said. "I think that's one reason that the licensing has been so successful — he understood and demanded and was given the right to monitor the products in a way that some other cartoonists weren't. … Schulz was able to protect his property, and therefore the animated specials were done with his blessing and guidance."

Peanuts facts

$90: Schulz's October 1950 income for his first month of Peanuts syndication.

18,000: Approximate number of Peanuts comic strips Schulz drew over 49 years.

10: percent of Peanuts strips that feature baseball in some way.

2,600: number of newspapers that carried Peanuts at its subscription peak, in 1999.

2000: year in which Schulz died due to complications from colon cancer. He was 77 years old.

Sources: Charles M. Schulz Museum; Larry Granillo

EMAIL: jaskar@desnews.com

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