Dec 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

¡Feliz Navidad, Charlie Brown!

A scene from "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
"A Charlie Brown Christmas." Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Tens of millions have watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas" every year since it first aired in 1965, but few realize the beloved special has a Mexican American godfather who transformed the popular newspaper comic strip "Peanuts" into a holiday classic.

The big picture: Bill Melendez directed the CBS special when few Hispanics worked in the entertainment business, and quietly broke barriers with a project associated with the U.S. pop culture for more than half a century.

Details: Born in Hermosillo, Mexico, and raised in Arizona and California, Melendez wowed Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz after seeing Melendez use some of the characters in an animated commercial for the Ford Falcon.

  • Melendez previously had worked for Disney, where he helped animate “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio.” Disney told him his birth name, Cuauhtémoc Melendez, was too long for credits, so he used "Bill."
  • In 1965, CBS agreed to gamble on a Peanuts Christmas special, and Schulz insisted Melendez direct the project. He and producer Lee Mendelson had only six months.
  • Melendez used children's voices and jazz musician Vince Guaraldi's piano playing for the soundtrack.

The intrigue: The half-hour animated color cartoon centered around Charlie Brown and his disgust with the commercialization of Christmas.

  • His dog, Snoopy, who Melendez voiced, even elaborately decorates his dog house to win an award.
  • Charlie Brown tries to direct a Christmas play but is clowned by others for picking a skinny tree.
  • It's not until Linus gives a King James version scripture reading from Luke 2: 8-14 about the birth of Jesus that Charlie Brown remembers the meaning of Christmas and comes out of his depression.
Producer Bill Melendez directs children who are recording the dialogue for the animated TV special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."
Producer Bill Melendez directs children recording the dialogue for "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" in 1967. Photo: Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

At first, CBS executives hated the finished product. They felt the dialogue was flat and the story was boring.

Yes, but: On Dec. 9, 1965, more than 15 million households tuned in to watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — more than nearly half of all television sets at the time, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

  • The next year, the show aired again on CBS. It won a Peabody and an Emmy for outstanding children’s programming,

What they said: “I thought ‘good Golly,’ I’m suddenly involved in something that’s big,” Melendez would say years later in the short documentary, "The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas."

  • Melendez would go on to direct other Peanut animated specials.

Between the lines: Because there were only three networks in the mid-1960s, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" transformed into a cultural phenomenon as Americans united in watching the special.

  • Mexican American civil rights leader John J. Herrera encouraged Mexican Americans to watch the special and praised Melendez for being part of such a new American tradition, his son, Mike Herrera, said.

One fun fact: Melendez would receive residual checks for voicing Snoopy with grunts and squawks — sounds he recorded, then sped up for effect, until he died in 2008 at the age of 91.

  • "A Charlie Brown Christmas" will air on most PBS stations this year on Dec. 19.
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