Lee Mendelson, the longtime producer of Peanuts TV specials who wrote the lyrics for the yuletide classic “Christmas Time Is Here,” died on Christmas Day at the age of 86.
Mendelson’s sons confirmed the A Charlie Brown Christmas producer’s death following a long battle with lung cancer to the Palo Alto Daily Post. “It wasn’t great for us, but to have him pass on Christmas really ties into his history and legacy,” his sons said.
Mendelson first linked up with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz after the cartoonist saw Mendelson’s documentary about baseball legend Willie Mays in 1963. The plan originally was for Mendelson’s production company to make a documentary about the Peanuts comic strip, but the two instead decided to create the now-classic A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Mendelson is also credited with hiring Vince Guaraldi, a fellow Bay Area resident who caught Mendelson’s era with a jazz tribute to the Golden Gate Bridge, to do music for the television special. The result was one of the most beloved Christmas albums; Rolling Stone listed Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas at Number Four on our 25 Greatest Christmas Albums of All Time list.
Guaraldi — who recorded the special’s soundtrack in just one three-hour studio session, the trio’s drummer Jerry Granelli told Rolling Stone — initially composed “Christmas Time Is Here” as an instrumental before Mendelson added lyrics to the piece.
“Guaraldi had written a very beautiful melody for the opening skating scene, but about two weeks before it was about to run on the air, I thought, ‘Maybe we could get a lyricist to put some words to this,’” Mendelson told Rolling Stone in 2015.
“I called a few lyricist friends of mine, and everyone was busy. So I sat down at my kitchen table and I wrote out a few words, and we rushed it to the choir that Vince Guaraldi had been working with in San Francisco. And he recorded it, and we got it into the show about a week before it went on the air.”
A Charlie Brown Christmas would go on to win an Emmy Award in 1966 for Outstanding Children’s Program and launch a collaboration between Mendelson Productions and the Peanuts brand that has spanned over 50 years, including It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Bon Voyage Charlie Brown (And Don’t You Come Back) and, most recently, 2015’s It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, a celebration of the original special and which also won the Outstanding Children’s Program Emmy in 2016.
“The whole thing from beginning to end has been surreal,” Mendelson told Rolling Stone. “The fact that it’s become such a permanent part of the holiday season is surreal. And every time I hear it on the radio, or I hear it in a store, or someone says, ‘wah, wah, wah,’ I realize we’re very lucky to have been associated with Mr. Schulz and his characters. It all comes back to his characters, and his philosophy, and his humor.”