Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Charles Schulz owning a Ford indirectly led to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
In an earlier edition of TV Urban Legends Revealed, I have written about how the original airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was a commentary on how Christmas had become too commercialized, had a Coca-Cola ad interwoven into the special itself. However, even more interestingly, A Charlie Brown Christmas (and in fact, all Peanuts animated specials since) owe their origins to the world of commercials, as the very first appearance by Peanuts characters in the world of animation came in the form of television commercials. How the creator of Peanuts, Charles Schulz, came to agree to do these commercials is an interesting story in its own right and as it turns out, it likely came down to Schulz’s own personal connection to the Ford Motor Company.
Right off the bat, let’s disabuse the notion that Charles Schulz was some anti-commercialism dynamo. He wasn’t. He might have felt that the holiday of Christmas had gotten too commercialized, but in general, he was fine with the idea of licensing his characters. In his awesome 1997 interview with Schulz, Gary Groth asked about licensing and here is what Schulz had to say:
Now the licensing thing has always been around. Percy Crosby [who I featured in a fascinating Comic Book Legends Revealed years ago here] did all sorts of licensing. Buster Brown was licensed like mad, you know. It’s always been just traditional. Lil’ Abner, Al Capp did a lot of licensing. But it comes upon you so slowly, you’re not even realizing that it’s happening. And also you’re young, you have a family to raise, you don’t know how long this is going to last. Larry Rutman was very anxious to try and promote something that would guarantee me some kind of a reasonable income for the rest of my life. The first licensing we did almost came along by accident. I was in New York one day and he said some chocolate company wnated me to draw a special strip with some kids drinking their chocolate. And they didn’t want the Peanuts characters, but just some other little kids. So I did it. And that was our first licensing. And then the Eastman-Kodak company came and they wanted me to do a special little booklet showing the characters using the new Brownie camera. Which I did. Didn’t make a lot of money, and it was hard work, but these just came along little by little by little.
However, these various print items were a far cry from the offer that Schulz received in 1959. The Ford Motor Company was debuting a new car, the Ford Falcon, and they wanted to use Schulz’s Peanuts characters in a wide variety of ads, both print and on television as well in the form of animated commercials. This would be a huge commitment on the part of Schulz and many wondered if he would actually go for it. The animator who would be doing the commercials, Bill Melendez, recalled the situation to Michael Mallory a while back:
They said, ‘You have to go meet Schulz because he doesn’t like people from Hollywood.’ When they asked the syndicate about it, they said, ‘Oh, he’ll never do it, he hates commercialism.’ But these guys were insistent and they went to see Schulz, and it turned out that the only car he’d ever driven was a Ford [Schulz's father also drove a Ford when Schulz was a boy]! He said, ‘Oh, of course I don’t mind saying some nice things about Ford.’ So we met and I told him what I did, and he’d seen some of them on TV. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to take away his property and misuse it or change it, but I was not going to be creative with somebody else’s drawing. He finally realized our intentions were good and let us do it.”
The ad campaign debuted in 1959 with an ad based directly off a then-recent Peanuts comic strip with Charlie Brown giving out chocolate cigars to his friends to celebrate the birth of his baby sister, Sally.
The characters also served as introductions to the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, sponsored by Ford.
The TV and print ads ran for a number of years and were very popular.
Years later, a producer named Lee Mendelson wanted to do a documentary about Schulz. Schulz agreed. While Mendelson was shopping the documentary, though, Coca-Cola approached him about sponsoring an animated special with Schulz’s characters. Mendelson checked and Schulz agreed, but only if the animation was by Melendez, who Schulz now saw as the only man he wanted animating his characters.
The rest, as they say, is animation history.
Interestingly enough, the Peanuts characters are now most famous for their long-running association with Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Schulz also happened to be a MetLife policy holder for decades before they approached him about using his characters. Talk about brand loyalty!
The legend is…
STATUS: Basically True (I suspect that Ford’s offer might have enticed Schulz even if he was not a Ford fan, but I guess we’ll never know for sure)
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.