January 3, 2000 There will Never be Another

A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, though Linus almost didn’t get to tell his famous story of the baby Jesus.

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Charles Shulz, high school yearbook photo, class of 1940

Charles Monroe Schulz loved to draw.  He was good at at, too.  Already one of the brighter kids at Central High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Shulz skipped two half-grades graduating youngest member of his class, in 1940.  Already a shy boy, rapid academic advancement did little to help his social life.

In those days, the family owned a hunting dog.  “Spike” had a number of cringe-worthy habits, including eating sharp objects. It didn’t seem to bother him much, and the boy sent a drawing to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!  The magazine ran it, complete with a description of ol’ Spike’s more unusual predilections.

The drawing was signed, “Sparky”.

Even with Schulz later celebrity, you could always weed out those who merely claimed to know the man, as opposed to those who did.  If Schutz-Letterthey called him “Charles”, or “Chuck”, that was a sure sign of the mere pretender.   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 of 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 a regular guy, who wanted to go home as much as Shulz himself.  The German surrendered, happily.  I hope he got home.

Schulz returned to Minneapolis after the war where he did some 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.

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Charlie Brown, that lovable little loser who was always close but never quite made it, first appeared in a series of single-panel jokes called “Li’l Folks“, along with a dog who looked something like Snoopy.  The comic was published in local papers from June 1947 to January ’50, and later syndicated.  That 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“.

So it was they called it “Peanuts” after the peanut gallery of 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.  At various times, Peanuts 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.PeanutsA Charlie Brown Christmas has been a staple of the Christmas season since 1965, though 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.  The “suits” wanted a laugh track as well, but Schulz refused. “If we don’t do it, who will?” In the end, 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 those TV specials, the “Little Red-Haired Girl”, was based on an accountant from that old job at Art Instruction, named Donna Mae Johnson.  The couple had an office romance for a time, but she turned him down when Shulz proposed.

Johnson 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, though Spike was a Pointer, not a Beagle.

In 1967, American opinion polls showed a sharp drop in support for the war in Vietnam.  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 that April leading to riots across the country.  Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June, after winning the critical California primary.  The Democratic National Convention that August was more of a riot, than a political convention.

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Franklin Armstrong

Race relations were particularly vile in 1968, when a Jewish Mom and Los Angeles schoolteacher wrote to the cartoonist, asking if he would add a black character.  Harriet Glickman never expected a response from the now-famous Charles M. Schulz, but respond he did.  He said he liked the idea but expressed concern the character might seem 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 going on 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 to that one.

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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.

I wonder if Donna Mae Johnson ever regretted turning down that marriage proposal.

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In 1969, the command module for the Apollo 11 mission to the moon was named Charlie Brown.  The lunar module was called Snoopy.  President Ronald Reagan was a fan, who once wrote to Schulz that he identified with Charlie Brown.

Imitation of Charles Schulz cartoon, madOver fifty years, Schulz drew nearly 18,000 strips, taking vacation only once in 1997 to celebrate his 75th birthday.  In all those years, that five-week stretch was the only time the papers ever had Peanuts reruns.

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Stephen Shea, H/T Huffington Post

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 Doors concert.

By the late 1990s, Schulz’ health was beginning to fail.  His once-firm hand, now had 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 comic 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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December 20, 1943 Fishing Buddies

“You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity”

franz-stiglerAt the age of 26, Franz Stigler was an Ace. The Luftwaffe pilot of a Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, some of his kills had been revenge, payback for the death of his brother August earlier in the war. But this man was no Nazi. He was a German Patriot with 22 confirmed kills. On December 20, 1943, he needed one more for a Knight’s Cross. He tossed his cigarette aside and climbed into his fighter as the crippled American B17 bomber lumbered overhead. This was going to be an easy kill.

21-year-old Charles Brown was at the throttle of that B17, a planeb17pilotcharlesbrown named “Ye Olde Pub”. The earlier attack on the munitions factory in Bremen had been a success, but the pilot and crew paid a heavy price for it. Their aircraft had been savaged by no fewer than 15 German fighters. Great parts of the air frame were torn away, one wing severely damaged and part of the tail torn away. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns. Brown himself had been knocked out at one point, coming around just in time to avert a fatal dive.

The aircraft was completely alone and struggling to maintain altitude, the American pilot well inside German air space when he looked to his left and saw his worst nightmare. Three feet from his wing tip was the sleek gray shape of a German fighter, the pilot so close that the two men were looking into one another’s eyes.

Brown’s co-pilot, Spencer “Pinky” Luke said “My God, this is a nightmare.” “He’s going to destroy us,” came the reply. This had been Brown’s first mission, he was sure it was about to be his last.

Before his first mission, Stigler’s commanding officer, Lt. Gustav Roedel, had said “Honor is everything here.  If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself”. Stigler must have remembered those words as he watched the wounded, terrified US airmen inside the B17, some still helping one another with their injuries. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy, Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

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Tail Gunner, Ye Olde Pub

The German had to do something. The Nazis would surely shoot him for treason if he was seen this close without completing the kill. One of the American crew was making his way to a gun turret as the German made his decision. Stigler saluted his adversary, motioned with his hand for the stricken B17 to continue, and then peeled away. Ye Olde Pub made it, crossing 250 miles of the frozen North Sea before finally landing in Norfolk.

More than 40 years later, the German pilot was living in Vancouver, Canada, when Brownbrown-and-stigler took out an ad in a fighter pilots’ newsletter. It said that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ Stigler saw the ad, and the two met for the first time in 1987. “It was like meeting a family member”, Brown said at their first meeting, “like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years”.

fishing-buddiesThe two became close friends and occasional fishing buddies until their passing in 2008, six months apart. Stigler was age 92 and Brown 87. Their story is told in a book called “A Higher Call”, if you want to know more about it. In their obituaries, both were mentioned as the other man’s “special brother”.