Lee Mendelson was a huge part of my childhood. He was a big part of yours, too, and you probably don’t even know it. That’s because Mendelson was involved in almost every Peanuts cartoon ever produced.
After making the 1963 Willie Mays documentary, A Man Named Mays, Mendelson contacted Peanuts creator Charles Schulz about being his next subject. However, instead of a documentary, The Coca-Cola Company talked to Mendelson about doing a Christmas special. From there, Schulz brought in animator/director Bill Melendez and Mendelson hired jazz composer Vince Guaraldi. Soon, the holiday favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was born.
From there, Mendelson went on to work on It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and countless others. In fact, his resume features a total of 50 different Peanuts productions, including Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, which after 38 years, is finally coming to DVD this week.
Despite the time that has passed, the themes of Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown will be all too familiar to kids today. Sure, there are plenty of summer camp hijinks, but also the fear and strength that comes with encountering bullies. You can bet that Charlie Brown can tackle those kids better than he handles a football!
Besides his role as an executive producer for Peanuts and Garfield, Mendelson wrote the lyrics to “Christmas Time Is Here,” which has been performed countless times over the years. This year, at the age of 81, he received the Winsor McCay Award at the 2015 Annie Awards for his career contributions to the world of animation.
Recently, I got the chance to speak to Mendelson about the Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown DVD release, how the Peanuts franchise fares 50 years after A Charlie Brown Christmas, and what he sees for the future of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the rest of the gang.
GeekMom: Can you explain a little bit about your role in the Peanuts franchise? What exactly does the executive producer do?
Lee Mendelson: The executive producer normally makes the deal either with an advertising agency or a network and gets a budget for shows. Then, he hires the writer, the producer, the director, and so forth. Although we didn’t hire Mr. Schulz, obviously. He was one of the partners.
GM: I know that the Christmas special came first. Did you ever think that this one special would lead to so many other Peanuts productions?
LM: No. We thought it had failed. When we showed it to the animators before it went on the air, we thought it was too slow and when CBS saw the show, they thought it was too slow. We thought it was going to be one and out. But the next week, when there were only three networks, of course, 50 percent of the country tuned in. Half of the United States tuned in for this little cartoon. We suddenly realized that we had lightning in a bottle and the next day, the network ordered four more shows. But until it went on the air, we thought it was going to be one show and out and I would go back to making my documentaries.
GM: So would you say that A Charlie Brown Christmas is your favorite one?
LM: Oh sure. Not only has it become kind of a staple at Christmas time, it has the music; and without a doubt, we wouldn’t have been able to do the other 49 specials and I wouldn’t have been able to do all of the documentaries and entertainment specials that followed. It was like the grandfather to everything else.
GM: I know that some of the program ideas came from Charles Shultz’s comic strips. Was that the case with Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown?
LM: No. That was an exception. In the early days, almost all of the ideas came from the comic strips, particularly because they were around the holidays. Later on, we started to deal with other themes apart from the strip. We did one show about a little girl in Charlie Brown’s class who gets cancer, we did one about World Wars I and II, we did the mini-series This is America, Charlie Brown. The four movies did not come out of the comic strips. The characters did, but the themes and the action and the plot were totally apart from the strip, as far as the story goes. Race for Your Life, of course, and one of the main themes of Charlie Brown is to overcome bullies and that’s why Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown was important to us—to have these bullies get defeated.
GM: That theme of overcoming bullies is definitely important to today’s generation. Is that why some of these characters and films seem so timeless? My son loves the cartoons and I still watch them with him. What is it about them?
LM: I think Charles Schulz dealt with basic truths. What was true back then is true today. What was true 50 years ago is true today and will probably always be there is that we all struggle every day in our lives to overcome problems—and Charlie Brown’s struggle is our struggle. He keeps coming back over and over again and keeps trying and sometimes even has some success along the way. But again, Shultz was dealing with failure and overcoming failure. In baseball, you fail all the time, three out of four times. He [Charlie Brown] failed, of course, all the time. In love, all of the unrequited love sequences between the different characters, was always fraught with potential failure. And then the whole thing of overcoming bullies, these are themes that people identify with every day. And Schulz himself said once, he always felt that Charlie Brown was like a little kid you’d like you have as a next door neighbor. It’s just a matter of what was true 50 years ago is true now. And the whole bullying theme is as big a topic today as it ever was, as we know. All of the bullying that goes on in so many different areas. It’s as timely today as it was 50 years ago.
GM: Which of the characters do you most identify with?
LM: I enjoy Linus a lot. Mr. Schulz used to say that if the kids ever grew up, Linus would be the most stable because of his sucking his thumb and having the security blanket got him off to a good start. I just enjoyed him the most of all of the characters. I liked Peppermint Patty a lot, too. He kept adding characters to the strip and she was this independent latchkey kid and I got a kick out of her.
GM: Are you at all involved in the new film that’s coming out this year? And what do you think of it?
LM: No. That’s Charles Schulz’s family’s production and CGI and we don’t do CGI. It looks really good and I’m really excited because I think it will get a whole new audience, just like this HD version of Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown will get a bunch people who just know it from television. I think it will help the old shows and it will help get a new audience.
GM: Why do you think it took so long to get a new movie? It’s been like 30 years since the last one…
LM: We had done four feature films and we just moved on to other things. There was no particular reason. And of course, Mr. Schulz passed away in 2000, so for the past 15 years, there was no discussion about the movie. Then his son, Craig, came up with a good idea, so now they’re going ahead with it. But there was no reason. It just wasn’t time and now it is.
Look for Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown on DVD for the first time, starting February 10, 2015.