A Charlie Brown Christmas is an American classic which has been shown on television every year since its premiere in 1965. The special finds Charlie depressed despite the Christmas season. Lucy suggests her brother snap out of it by directing a school play, but that winds up a mistake, as his peers mock him. The melancholy continues until Linus explains the real meaning of Christmas.
The show is a staple of Christmas specials in large part because of its haunting score, by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. The special’s iconic status is even more impressive considering that the TV producers and CBS thought the project would be a disaster because of its non-celebratory tone.
Guaraldi’s soundtrack is unusual, since it combines traditional Christmas themes and music with jazz. Producer Lee Mendelson, who was an avid jazz fan, became familiar with the Vince Guaraldi Trio after hearing the group’s music on the radio. At first, Mendelson wanted to hire Dave Brubeck, but the jazz great passed. He contacted Guaraldi about producing music for a few Peanuts specials he was shopping. Guaraldi first composed the music for a documentary Mendelson was working on, called Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz, including a track called “Linus and Lucy” as the main theme.
Despite the popularity of Peanuts, no network bit on the documentary. Then Mendelson got a call from McCann Erickson, a New York advertising firm. They had a client – Coca Cola – who was interested in underwriting a Peanuts-themed Christmas special. The only problem was that Coke wanted an outline for the special in just one week, including the music.
When Coke decided to pay for the Charlie Brown Christmas special, Guaraldi returned to writ the music, which started by reusing the “Linus and Lucy” theme. Guaraldi also completed two originals for the special, “Christmas Time Is Here and “Skating.” Mendleson himself wrote the lyrics for “Christmas Time Is Here” after struggling to find a lyricist for the original jazz tune.
The choir singing that song, as well as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was comprised of St. Paul’s episcopal Church in San Rafael, California.
The familiar soundtrack also included covers of the songs “The Christmas Song” and “Greensleeves.” Despite the presence of season jazz musicians during the recording sessions, the album credited Guaraldi alone.
The album has become so beloved it was voted into the prestigious Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007. The Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry added it to its list of culturally, historically, or aesthetically important American recordings in 2012.
The soundtrack eventually sold 4 million copies and its success ensured that Guaraldi would be a longtime collaborator with the Peanuts’ producers. He then composed scores for seventeen Peanuts TV specials.
The network never expected the show to be a hit. They had contemplated canceling it after the first screening, but decided it was too late in the process not to air it. Fantasy, a record distributor, released the soundtrack the first week of December. A promotional single was also issued. The single featured “Christmas Time Is Here” on the A-side, and Gualardi’s arrangement of “What Child Is This” on the B-side. It was an instant hit.
The animated show also surprised CBS by ranking as the second most-watched show of the week (after Bonanza), with a 45 percent ratings share, which mean that almost half of the people who watched TV during that hour tuned in to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
This year Gershwin Entertainment is recreating the animated special in a live, one-night-only presentation at the Craterian Theater in Medford, Oregon on November 28. This is the first time a production has taken on the animated special, which will feature actors playing the Peanuts characters. Musicians will perform the score, posing as Schroeder’s band.