Charles Monroe Schulz was one of the brighter kids at Central High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but that didn’t help his social life. He was already a shy boy and skipped two half-grades, graduating as the youngest student in the class of 1940.
The boy loved to draw. He was good at it, too. The family once owned a hunting dog called “Spike”, with the cringe-worthy habit of eating sharp objects. It didn’t seem to bother him much, and the boy sent a drawing to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! who ran it, complete with a description of Spikes unusual predilections.
The drawing was signed, “Sparky”. Even with Schulz later celebrity, you could always weed out those who merely claimed to know him, if they called him “Charles”, or “Chuck”. Schulz’ uncle called him “Sparky” as a boy, after the horse Spark Plug in Billy DeBeck’s comic strip, Barney Google. He always signed the strip “Schulz”, but friends and family knew him as Sparky, until the day he died.
Schulz was drafted into the Army in 1943, a Staff Sergeant with the 20th Armored Division in Europe and squad leader on a .50-caliber machine gun team.
He never got a chance to fire his weapon, though he did come face-to-face with a Wehrmacht soldier, once. His blood must’ve turned cold in his veins when he realized he’d forgotten to load, but the man he faced was no Nazi fanatic. This was just a guy, who wanted to go home. The German surrendered, happily. I hope he did get to go home.
Schulz returned to Minneapolis after the war where he did lettering for a Catholic comic magazine, Timeless Topix. He took a job in 1946 at Art Instruction, Inc., reviewing and grading lessons submitted by students, a job he held for several years while developing his talents as comic creator.
Charlie Brown, that little boy who was always close but never quite succeeded, first appeared in a series of single-panel jokes called “Li’l Folks“, along with a dog who looked something like Snoopy. It was published in the local papers from June 1947 to January ’50, and later syndicated. The first strip was published in seven newspapers on October 2, 1950, but United Features thought the name was too close to two strips already in syndication, Li’l Abner, and “Little Folks“.
They called it “Peanuts” after the peanut gallery of the old Vaudeville days, the cheapest and rowdiest seats in the theater. Schulz didn’t like the name, saying it “made it sound too insignificant,” but the name, stuck.
Schulz took pride in his service during the war, and his strip paid tribute to Rosie the Riveter and Ernie Pyle. More than any other, he’d honor “Willy & Joe”, those two GIs from the imagination of war correspondent and cartoonist Bill Mauldin, a man to whom Schulz always referred as “My Hero”. Over the years, Snoopy visited with Willie & Joe no fewer than 17 times. Always on Veterans Day.
A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, but Linus almost didn’t get to tell his famous story of the baby Jesus. ABC executives thought Linus’ recitation of the birth of Christ too overtly religious. They wanted a laugh track too, but Schulz refused. “If we don’t do it, who will?” So it was that the scene remained, perhaps the most memorable moment in cartoon history. The laugh track version was produced, but never aired.
Charlie Brown’s love interest in some of the TV specials, the “Little Red-Haired Girl”, was based on an accountant from that old job at Art Instruction, Donna Mae Johnson. The two had an office romance, but she turned him down when he proposed they marry.
She wasn’t the only character based on a real person. Linus and Shermy were patterned after Schulz’ close friends Linus Maurer and Sherman Plepler. Peppermint Patty was inspired by a cousin on his mother’s side, Patricia Swanson. Snoopy himself resembles that old family dog Spike, though he was a Pointer, not a Beagle.
American opinion polls showed a sharp drop in support for the war in Vietnam over 1967. 1968 was a wretched year in American politics, beginning with the Tet Offensive in January. Media reporting turned the American military victory over the Vietnamese New Year, into a thing of despair. President Johnson withdrew from the Presidential election, that March. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April and riots swept through cities across the country. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated that June, after winning the critical California primary. The Democratic National Convention that August more closely resembled a riot, than a political convention.
Race relations were particularly vile, when Los Angeles schoolteacher Harriet Glickman wrote to the cartoonist, asking if he could add a black character. Glickman never expected a response from the now-famous Charles M. Schulz, but respond he did. He said he liked the idea, but expressed a concern about seeming “condescending”, to black families. With Schulz’ permission, Glickman asked friends of African ancestry, how to make such a character “more relatable”.
Franklin Armstrong made his first appearance on July 31, 1968. What was remarkable for the time, was how unremarkable, he was. Just another little boy, at first confused about the strange stuff in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood. Particularly Linus’ obsession with the ‘Great Pumpkin’. Franklin first met Charlie Brown on a beach. He said his father was a soldier, off fighting in Vietnam. “My dad’s a barber,” said Charlie Brown. “He was in a war too, but I don’t know which one.”
One newspaper editor wrote saying he didn’t mind a “negro” character, but please don’t show them in school together. Schulz didn’t bother to respond.
I wonder if Donna Mae Johnson ever regretted turning down that marriage proposal. Peanuts went on to become a pop culture phenomenon, with countless animated specials combining with merchandise sales to produce revenues in the Billions. At it’s peak, Peanuts ran in 2,600 papers in 75 countries and 21 languages. Schulz himself is estimated to have earned $30 to $40 million, a year.
The command module for the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon was named Charlie Brown and the lunar module, Snoopy. President Ronald Reagan was a fan, and once wrote to Schulz that he identified with Charlie Brown.
Over fifty years, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 strips, taking vacation only once in 1997, to celebrate his 75th birthday. In all that time, that one five-week stretch was the only time the papers ever had Peanuts reruns.
Fun fact: Former child actor Stephen Shea inherited the speaking role for Linus van Pelt when his older brother Chris’ voice changed, and went on to perform in eight animated specials. Chris went to summer camp with a boy who happened to be President of The Doors fan club. It turns out that Jim Morrison was a big Peanuts fan, and invited Chris and his father to be his special guests, at a concert.
Schulz’ health began to deteriorate in the late 1990s, his once-firm hand, now developing a tremor. He never really recovered from the stroke that hit him in November 1999 and announced his intention to retire, on December 14. The last original Peanuts strip was published on January 3, 2000. This son of a barber and a housewife, just like Charlie Brown himself, passed away just over a month later, a victim of colon cancer.
There will never be another.
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