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Charlie Brown lives on after death of creator

Sunday, February 10, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. - Despite the death of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, animated television specials featuring Charlie Brown and friends will continue with the blessing of Schulz's family.


"A Charlie Brown Valentine"

When: 8 p.m. Thursday on ABC.

Starring voices of: Wesley Singerman, Lauren Schaffel, Bill Melendez


First up: "A Charlie Brown Valentine," a new "Peanuts" special that premieres Thursday on ABC, new home to the franchise after decades on CBS.

In this one, Charlie Brown (voice of Wesley Singerman) tries to work up the nerve to give a valentine to the little red-haired girl with whom he is besotted. Meanwhile, the more confident Snoopy writes love notes, including one that says, "I miss you morning, noon and night."

"That's too vague," Lucy (Lauren Schaffel) complains. "When you write to a girl, you have to be more specific."

Snoopy's rewrite: "I miss you at 8:15, 11:45 and 9:36."

"Good grief," Lucy says.

As they have been from the start, this "Peanuts" special is executive produced by Lee Mendelson and animated by producer/director Bill Melendez, who also voices Snoopy.

"We were debating whether we would do more shows or not," Mendelson said at a press conference last month. "Bill and I had met with [Schulz] over the last two years to create some outlines. ... We agreed with the family [that for the new shows] we would rely on the comic strips, and he did over 18,000 comic strips."

For the animated Charlie Brown, this is actually his second Valentine's Day special. Mendelson said the first "Peanuts" Valentine's Day show aired 30 years ago.

"You have enough material left over to do another one," Melendez said.

"We had new characters. Like on this one we have Peppermint Patty and Marcy and all the relationships developed over the years," Mendelson said. He added that unrequited love was one of Schulz's trademark themes.

"Both Peppermint Patty and Marcy have sort of a friendly competition for the affection of Charlie Brown," Melendez said. "And so it made just a perfect setup to bring it to the head during this show."

After working with Schulz making "Peanuts" TV shows, Melendez said he has a good idea of what's appropriate and what isn't.

"Their characters are very well formulated and they're all so different that you can't confuse one to the other," he said.

The TV producers described Schulz, who went by the nickname Sparky, as a man of contradictions. He was extremely religious but rarely went to church and didn't belong to a specific denomination. He was humble but ultra-competitive and knew exactly what he did and did not want in TV shows based on his characters.

"We almost didn't do the [first] show because I suggested at one meeting that we have a laugh track," Mendelson said. "Schulz stood up and walked out of the room."

Mendelson also resisted quoting from the Bible in the first "Peanuts" special, 1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas," something Schulz insisted be part of the program.

He recalled no one except Schulz was pleased with the way that first show turned out.

"We thought we had ruined 'Peanuts.' Too slow. Too religious," Mendelson said. "What's the jazz music doing on there?"

They even suggested redoing that original program, but Schulz wanted it left alone.

During that first production, several precedents were set, including the voice of Snoopy and the voices of adults.

Schulz didn't want Snoopy to speak dialogue. Melendez searched and searched for an actor to create some sort of sound for Snoopy, but ultimately he recorded himself reading dialogue and then sped up the tape until it was unintelligible.

While recording dialogue and music, Melendez turned to a musician to solicit advice for the sound of offstage adults in the show.

"They can't speak, but they have to have a sound because they're talking," he said. The musician suggested using a trombone because it sounds similar to the human voice.

"So the trombonist went, 'Whomp, whomp whomp whomp, whomp,' and we recorded it," he said.

The next new "Peanuts" special will explore why Charlie Brown never wins a baseball game. It could have something to do with a lousy right fielder, hence the title, "Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown." A Snoopy holiday show is also in the works.

"[Schulz] said to us once that he always thought there would be a market for innocence in this country," Mendelson said. "And God knows that's true. If you look at all the great movies that are making money now - 'Monsters Inc.,' 'Harry Potter,' 'Lord of the Rings' - that's what is the best marketplace."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tvunder TV Forum.

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