This story was originally published on December 9, 2015
The legend goes like this: In 1963, producer Lee Mendelson made a documentary about Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, for which he needed music. One night, Mendelson was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, tuned into a San Francisco jazz station. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” came on the air, a drifting cut where melodies appear and then disappear, and bouncing elation is matched by tiny moments of despair. The track was pianist Vince Guaraldi’s mini-hit that year, and Mendelson was struck by how it sounded simultaneously adult and childlike. The next day, he called up the San Francisco Chronicle‘s jazz critic, Ralph J. Gleason. “Do you have any idea in the world who Vince Guaraldi is?” Mendelson asked. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I’m having lunch with him tomorrow,” Gleason said. Mendelson met Guaraldi a few days later, and they agreed to work together.
The documentary ultimately didn’t sell. But two years later, Coca-Cola, who had seen the doc, called up Mendelson, and asked if he’d ever thought of making a Christmas special. Mendelson said, “Absolutely!” and hung up the phone, then called Mr. Schulz. As Mendelson remembers it: “I said, ‘I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas.’ And Schulz said, ‘What in the world is that?’ And I said, ‘It’s something you’re going to write tomorrow.’ There was a long pause, and he said, ‘Alright. Come on up.'”
The rest, of course, is history. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired 50 years ago, on December 9th, 1965. Over the years, the special has become a perennial classic: the 25-minute story of wistful Charlie Brown and his struggle to find the true meaning of Christmas in the face of holiday-season commercialism. “I almost wish there weren’t a holiday season,” he sighs, at the story’s beginning. “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” The genius of A Charlie Brown Christmas was the way it channeled the looming sadness and anxiety that come with the holidays — and the way its timeless, best-selling soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio tapped into that narrative seamlessly, with muted, melancholic jazz.
Indeed, to create such an unabashedly anti-consumerist story with the backing of both Coca-Cola and CBS was a subtly radical accomplishment in 1965, as it would be now. The executives at CBS were displeased with the finished product: its slow-moving animation, its religious undertone, its jazz soundtrack. They had no choice but to air it, though — they had already advertised it in TV Guide.
“They wanted something corporate, something rousing,” says drummer Jerry Granelli, the lone surviving member of the Guaraldi combo. “They thought the animation was too slow. They really didn’t like that a little kid was going to come out and say what Christmas was all about, which wasn’t about shopping. And then the jazz music, which was improvised — you know, the melodies only take up maybe 30 seconds.” Yet A Charlie Brown Christmas was an immediate, massive success.