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Randall Benton, The Sacramento Bee
Henri Dark-Fleury, 9, examines one of the original "Peanuts" comic strips on display while his brother Taylor Dark, 8, and grandmother Peggy Dark, rest on a bench at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center located in Santa Rosa, Calif.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Sparky said he would end "Peanuts" when he finally wore a hole in the drawing board he used for 50 years. Sadly, that day never came.

The famous piece of hardwood now resides in a re-creation of his working studio at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which recently kicked off its yearlong fifth-anniversary celebration. Schulz's old drawing table stands at a permanent tilt in front of his favorite leather swivel chair.

"Peanuts" fans who never set foot in his longtime studio down the road at One Snoopy Place can linger here and imagine. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Pigpen, Peppermint Patty, Woodstock and the smartest beagle ever, Snoopy, came to life on this table, born out of the mind of a shy, funny, bespectacled man known since age 2 as "Sparky."

Here, too, are old studio wall paneling and draperies, along with some of Schulz's favorite books and knickknacks. A 1963 documentary with rare footage of him drawing "Peanuts" characters plays in a continuous loop on a small TV set.

Shulz's widow, Jeannie, was surprised when the museum's staff proposed celebrating the anniversary. Her husband won his first Reuben Award, the top honor given by the National Cartoonists Society, in 1955, five years into the five-decade run of "Peanuts."

"That was pretty amazing and a great vote of confidence for the comic strip," she says, "but he had to keep working at it, to keep ahead of the competition. So I'm like Sparky: When the museum is 50 years old, we'll consider it a success."

Schulz died at age 77 on Feb. 12, 2000, the day before the last original "Peanuts" appeared in Sunday newspapers. A fresh "Peanuts" had been in the funny pages every day since Oct. 2, 1950, and those closest to Schulz believed he simply couldn't bear to see it all end.

He was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 1999 and announced his retirement a few weeks later. He had drawn enough dailies (Mondays-Saturdays) to run through Jan. 3, 2000. On Jan. 4, strips pulled from the "Peanuts" archives — which number 18,000 Sundays and dailies — started running in 2,600 subscriber newspapers.

Seven years later, "Classic 'Peanuts"' still appears in 2,400 newspapers worldwide.

"We all continue to see ourselves in the strip, in how we connect to the world and how we relate to other people," says museum director Karen Johnson. "And we see our own hopes, dreams, wishes and fears. 'Peanuts' is decent and it's funny and it's whimsical and it's everlasting, because it's just about being human."

"There are so many themes and expressions and emotions in 'Peanuts' that we can all relate to. It's timeless," says Melissa Menta, an executive with United Media, the licensing and syndication agency for "Peanuts," and a member of the Schulz Museum's board of directors.

United Media and Scripps Howard News Service are both part of the E.W. Scripps Co., based in Cincinnati.

The museum's mission from the beginning has been to preserve, display and interpret Schulz's artwork and to support cartooning in general. Since opening on Aug. 17, 2002, a quarter-million visitors have gazed upon and pondered original "Peanuts" strips, and some of them spend a little extra time at Sparky's studio, where his drawing board sits, retired.

The museum is at once classy and whimsical. It's a modern-looking building made of slate, glass and rich-looking woods with more than 6,000 square feet of gallery space and a 2,000-square-foot Great Hall dominated by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani's two large "Peanuts"-inspired art installations. One is a layered-wood wall sculpture depicting Snoopy as he morphs from looking like Schulz's childhood pet, Spike, to the beagle he is today. The other is a mammoth mural showing mischievous Lucy holding the football for good ol' Charlie Brown. The surprise is that, on closer inspection, the mural is composed of 3,588 ceramic tiles, each a miniature "Peanuts" strip.

Also part of the museum are smaller exhibit spaces on two floors, a research library, a 100-seat theater and a room where kids create their own art. Among the outside attractions are a labyrinth that looks like Snoopy's head and a "kite-eating" tree.

The idea for the museum originated with two friends of the Schulzes, cartoon collector Mark Cohen and longtime attorney Ed Anderson. It took the couple a while to embrace the notion, though.

"Ed began to think about Sparky's legacy and how we were going to preserve it," says Jeannie Schulz, who was married to the cartoonist for 26 years. "He and Mark said to Sparky, 'We need to do something, to have a museum.' And I thought, 'What do you mean, a museum? Sparky is here.' I don't think I ever thought (the comic strip) would end, but finally I began hearing what they were saying and thinking how it could really happen."

The Schulzes financed the $8 million museum, which operates as a nonprofit.

"Peanuts" licensing — the plush Snoopys and all — is a $1.2 billion international business, according to Menta. One example of its merchandising success is retailer Urban Outfitters, which sold out of its "Charlie Brown Christmas tree" the last two years, along with the Linus blanket it introduced for the 2006 holiday season. This year, Urban Outfitters will sell "an exclusive Snoopy plush," with a portion of profits going to the U.S. Humane Society.

The characters also live on with young fans who every year watch the animated specials "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which premiered on television in 1965; "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" (1966); and "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" (1973). Every season, these beloved shows still draw millions of viewers.

And now Snoopy is about to rock the Big Apple.

Top fashion designers, such as Betsey Johnson and Isaac Mizrahi, have created "Peanuts"-inspired frocks for the "Snoopy in Fashion" runway show during next month's Fashion Week in New York City. Afterward, the clothes will be sold on eBay, with proceeds going to Dress for Success.

"It's another sign that 'Peanuts' remains relevant to people, and now it's reaching the hip fashionistas," says Menta.

If you go

What: Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center

Where: 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Winter hours: noon-5 p.m. weekdays (closed Tuesdays), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends

Summer hours (as of Memorial Day): 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends

Closed: major holidays

Cost: $8 general, $5 ages 4-18, 62-plus and college students with valid ID

Phone: 707-579-4452

Web: www.schulzmuseum.org


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.