“All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn’t a dog.” Charles M. Schulz on his two most popular characters, Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
On February 12, 2000 Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, died in his sleep at the age of 77. The very next day the last strip featuring his beloved characters was published, bringing the Peanuts gang to a quiet, dignified conclusion.
The Peanuts gang marked their arrival in 1947 under the name Li’l Folks in regional newspapers in the Minnesota area, where Schulz was born. He had shopped the strip around as a one panel cartoon. The strip itself didn’t begin to blossom until Schulz expanded the comic to four panels. From there the astronomical success of the simple, yet prescient group of kids grew rapidly throughout the 1950s, reaching its creative peak in 1965 with A Charlie Brown Christmas television special.
The Christmas special brought together all the themes the strip espoused and then, with an eloquence rarely seen in an animated feature, achieved sublime grace with the Peanut’s resident philosopher Linus, alone on a stage. Linus, in an attempt to explain the true meaning of the holiday to his friends and ultimately us, gently quotes Luke, Chapter 2 from the Bible. It was a crowning achievement and the special won an Emmy and the prestigious Peabody award.
At its most popular, Peanuts was published daily in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and 21 different languages. A successful merchandising campaign ensured that put upon Charlie Brown, Linus, frequent bully Lucy and savant piano player and Beethoven obsessive Schroeder became part of our popular culture.
Other television specials followed, the most popular being It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Each successive generation found, and continues to find, comfort in the Peanuts world.
The strip came from Schulz’s heart and often reflected the goings on in his life. A shy person by nature, Schulz or Sparky as he was nicknamed, incorporated his daily frustrations into the lives of his characters. There really was a Little Red Haired Girl, who Charlie Brown pined for. Her name was Donna Mae Johnson. Schulz’s father was a barber, just like Charlie Brown’s dad. Snoopy was based on a family pet. Peppermint Patty was inspired by his cousin Patricia Swanson and Schulz’s love for sports, particularly hockey and figure skating all featured prominently in the comic. As for Linus, the wisest of them all, Schulz said the little boy with the blue security blanket represented his spiritual side.
While battling colon cancer in 1999 Schulz announced his retirement on December 14 of that year. He signed off on that last strip tinged with regret that he had never allowed Charlie Brown to finally kick the football Lucy always pulled away at the last moment, leaving the hapless Charlie flat on his back.
“All of a sudden I thought, ‘You know, that poor, poor kid. He never got to kick the football. What a dirty trick – he never had a chance to the kick the football.’”
But that perceived mistake on his part allowed Charlie Brown and the gang to end just as they had begun. The fact that there was no closure left open the door for the Peanuts to become cyclical – never ending.
On May 27, 2000 Schultz was honored by cartoonists of more than 100 strips. The artists paid homage to him by incorporating his characters into their strips. They were funny, reverential and often moving. So ingrained in the public consciousness had Peanuts become that the idea of not seeing it in the Sunday paper again left many feeling like the main character at his lowest.
But in Charlie Brown, Schulz had created an everyman character embodied by a little boy who refused to give up. His failures at nearly everything would have broken the most stable adult. But as a wide-eyed child, always ready to face the next adversity, this often sad character became inspiring.
On June 20, 2000 Schulz was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest civilian honor given by the US Legislature, signed by President Clinton. His wife Jean accepted the award on his behalf. It was a most befitting honor for a man who served his country in the US Army as a staff sergeant in the 20th Armored Division and gave to the world the gift of the Peanuts gang.
This coming Halloween will give viewers yet another chance to watch It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on Thursday night. With Snoopy’s tale of searching for the infamous World War I flying ace the Red Baron, Linus and Charlie Brown’s sister Sally in the pumpkin patch anticipating the arrival of a holiday myth residing only in Linus’s mind and Charlie Brown himself sadly intoning, “I got a rock,” after every trick-or-treat doorbell ring, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has become nearly as adored as the Christmas special.
And that’s the genius of Charles Monroe Schulz. A cartoonist, who did all his own illustrating and inking, created a world in which you can feel safe. And within the conversations, arguments, happiness and sadness of these cartoon children are universal truths that will never become dated. They resonate in their simplicity.
Schulz’s own philosophy on life could have come out of the mouth of Linus when he said, “Be yourself. No one can say you’re doing it wrong.”
And with that, you can almost hear Vince Guaraldi’s famous Peanuts jazz theme and see all those perpetual eight year olds dancing down the street.