Christmas is the time we search for the perfect gift for those we love—a way to show them just how much they mean to us. And in America’s age of mass communication, some have tried to give a beloved gift to the entire country, and even the world. Television has allowed America’s most creative minds to share their vision of Christmas, but one such group feared that theirs just wasn’t good enough.
This is the Forgotten History of the Unloved Special.
James Aubrey hated Christmas specials. Hated them. He loved Christmas, of course, but he hated Christmas specials. The veteran CBS executive believed they distracted viewers from their usual viewing habits and had the effect of turning them off.
Besides, Aubrey was president of “The Tiffany Network,” the most prestigious of the Big Three, and under his leadership the network of Edward R. Murrow would not have its reputation sullied with silly cartoons like ABC’s “The Flintstones” or NBC’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
The idea that NBC a year earlier preempted its regular programming for a stop-motion cartoon about a deer was laughable to James Aubrey, but midway through 1965, Coca-Cola executives came to him looking to sponsor an animated Christmas special.
The venerable soda company was facing fierce competition from upstart Pepsi, and when the latter sponsored Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small World” at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, Coca-Cola was desperate to reclaim the younger audience and it was willing to pay top dollar to do so.
Aubrey was in the business of prestigious TV, but he was also in the business of making money. He grudgingly agreed. CBS would air an animated Christmas special that December.
But time was short; the special would air December 9th and it was already mid-summer. Coca-Cola’s ad agency already had an idea about the characters who would star in the special, but they needed someone who could secure the rights to them and put together a show in a hurry.
Producer Lee Mendelson agreed to sign on, and he and the characters’ creator came up with ideas for the special to pitch to Coca-Cola executives in less than a day. It would feature Christmas trees and snow and ice skating and, of course, soda, to be sure, but it would primarily be about the true meaning of Christmas.
With this rough outline, they got to work, and hired Disney’s Bill Melendez to animate it. From their very first meeting, however, Melendez and Mendelson realized they had a problem. The characters’ creator had very specific ideas about the show…and those ideas would never, ever, ever work on TV.
First, he wanted to cast actual children—not trained voice actors—to play the parts. Next, he insisted that the soundtrack feature not traditional Christmas carols, but music from some jazz musician that no one had ever heard of. And finally (and most devastatingly), he wanted the show to culminate with one of the characters reading the Bible.
Mendelson and Melendez just stared at each other with their jaws on the table.
“Well, there go our careers,” Mendelson said.
Not only would they be presenting James Aubrey—the man who hates Christmas specials—with a crudely drawn cartoon voiced by kids and scored by a nobody, they had to sell him on something deeply Christian in its theme.
They tried reasoning with their stubborn partner: Fewer than nine percent of shows on TV at the time even made reference to religion. There was no way they could make it the centerpiece of their special. But the creator was undeterred: It would be a hit. And he gave them an ultimatum—either do the show his way or find some new characters to use.
Together, they worked feverishly and, well, it showed. When an executive from the ad agency dropped by their studio in early October to see their progress, Mendelson made him promise not to tell Coca-Cola how it looked. The executive, perhaps fearing the reaction if the company saw how raw the work looked, agreed.
The voice sessions were a disaster. The child actors ran amok in the studio and had to be frequently reminded to keep quiet because Jefferson Airplane was recording an album on the next floor. Fortunately, the band had a good sense of humor and actually stopped downstairs to ask for the kids’ autographs.
That, however, might have been the one thing that went right. Delay after delay and snag after snag meant the special was finished just ten days before it was to premiere. CBS decided to show it to a test audience in a theater in New York, and Melendez hated every second of it. The audience seemed happy enough, but he was devastated.
“My golly, we’ve killed it,” he said.
But one of his animators, Ed Levitt, thought it was brilliant.
“Bill,” he told him, “This is the best special you’ll ever make. It’s going to run for a hundred years.”
Melendez was comforted, but still terrified of the audience’s reaction. A few days later, it premiered on CBS.
From the very first seconds, it was clear that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was a massive hit. Children across the country loved the animation style and the fact that the characters were voiced by kids like them. Adults were enamored with the jazz score by the previously unknown Vince Guaraldi and raced out to buy the special’s soundtrack album.
But most of all, kids and adults alike loved the special’s message—a rejection of the commercialization of Christmas and a warm, loving embrace of its true meaning. It was an unashamed, unabashed celebration of the Birth of Christ, and it was so universally loved, that it was watched by a staggering 45 percent of all Americans who had their TVs on that night.
CBS immediately ordered four more Charlie Brown specials. Even James Aubrey—the man who hated Christmas specials—became a believer and commissioned more of them from other animators for the following year.
And Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez, who were so afraid that they had destroyed their partner Charles Schulz’s beloved “Peanuts” characters, had to admit that Schulz was right all along: Including a Bible verse in the show’s climax was what made it so special, because when Linus rose to recite from the Book of Luke, he made them all believers.