My earliest Christmas memories involve decorating the tree, gingerbread houses, and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. It is no secret that I grew up loving everything “Charlie Brown.” The first book I remember purchasing for myself was a Charlie Brown comic compilation. I brought that book with me everywhere, tucking it inside my schoolbag as I left the house for my first day of Kindergarten.
Now, I have my very own Linus and Lucie, which makes watching A Charlie Brown Christmas even more special.
This year, Peanuts is kicking of a year-long celebration of 50 years of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and I am extremely honored to have been asked to be a Brand Ambassador. December 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the first time this beloved special aired. Last week, I was invited to sit in on an interview with Jill Schulz, 56, the youngest of Charles M. Schulz's five children. Jill shared special memories of her dad and personal stories growing up with her siblings, Meredith, Amy, Monte, and Craig.
What was it like to celebrate Christmas in the Schulz family?
Jill: I always had great memories of it, but to us, that’s just how our Christmas was. Back then, there was not as much merchandise, publicity, worldwide status for Peanuts and Snoopy.We had a pretty typical Christmas, except that we opened our gifts on Christmas Eve. Typically, we’d have neighborhood friends and kids coming over and my mom cooked a great big dinner. Then we’d wait for Santa Claus, I’d always sneak back down and open a window because I thought there was no way he could fit down the chimney.
In the morning, we’d get a special present. One year I got a puppy, but it was a little disconcerting because I thought I was getting an Old English Sheepdog like the one from Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, but my puppy wasn’t furry and didn’t have a tail.
Once the TV show came out, that became a tradition: both Christmas and Halloween, they became something we’d gather around TV to watch. But to me, it just seemed like a normal family Christmas.
Was there anything in the special that was similar to your childhood?
Jill: There are elements that are supposed to come from my family. Like Lucy’s crabbiness came from Meredith. I’m told that Linus has a blanket because I always had a blanket. But I can’t say there’s anything specific in the special. Dad was active in Sunday school when we were much younger, he taught there on Sundays for many years. So the Linus speech was something very important to him. Lee Mendelson tells the story of meeting with the top guys at CBS—they said they loved the special, ‘But you need to take the Linus’ speech out.’ When Lee told Dad that he said, "Tell them to just forget it then." Now it’s become the most iconic part of the entire TV special. It’s one of my favorite parts because I know how important it was to my father.
When producing the Christmas ice show at Knott’s Berry Farm, Jill suggested building a show around the special, and having the Linus character come to the center of ice, putting a spotlight on him and having him give the speech.The people at the theme park were kind of nervous, just like long ago. "Maybe we need to edit it." Because it was so important to my dad, I said, "We need to do it exactly as it happened in the TV special." Now the ice performance has a huge following, and one of guests’ favorite parts is seeing that performed live by the Linus character.
Why do you suppose after 50 years, it’s still resonating with people?
Jill: Because the characters, the experiences they have, in the strip and the TV show are things that every generation has, does, and will continue to experience in life. Football with Charlie Brown. Everyone experiences losing. Everyone comments on commercialism. It’s been happening for years, will continue to happen. Siblings teasing each other, fighting, even if they love each other. All of these things are extensions of his own personality or things he would observe in others. He was always observing everybody, whether in the coffee shop at the ice rink, or on trips. He was a great observer of human nature. Like many of us, he hung onto and had a clear vision of his feelings as a child. That comes across in the strip and the special.
What is Christmas like for your family today?
Jill: After those big Christmases as a kid, I had to get adjusted to having Christmases with just my husband and my two kids. It felt so small. I tried to do the same traditions, watch the special, do the presents. For a while would go to Utah with my sister Amy. Amy and Monte are more sentimental about the past. She has nine kids, she tried to and successfully created the same kind of big family meal, friends coming over. It was great to do that for a while.Now we invite good friends and go to Utah to go skiing, have snow, make snowmen, do all of those traditional Christmas things we’ve heard of, even though we live in California. One tradition I didn’t keep: My parents always put an orange in Christmas stockings, I switched that to chocolate.
Tell me about ice skating and Snoopy.
Jill: Way back when I was 9 or 10 and ice skating, they decided to build a Snoopy costume to have him in the ice show. My mom made the first Snoopy costume. Someone else was supposed to be in it, and he didn’t show up. So I was the first skating Snoopy, skating to Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. It was hard to see—I remember falling over on the ice, but I got up and waved. I’m too claustrophobic now, so can’t do it anymore. Now we just need to get an Extreme Beagle out there. Get Snoopy dropping on the mega ramp.
Jill's parents built an ice rink in Santa Rosa because they both grew up skating in Minnesota. For about 20 years, Charles Schulz used to produce big ice shows – with Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton – in Santa Rosa at Christmastime. Jill would skate in the show.
Jill: We’d do an entire month of dinner theater-style productions that my dad produced. He’d invite his cartoonist friends, have a special table by the ice, invite friends to be at his table. That was a special memory and you can’t repeat it.
The TV special is the one thing that continues to stay with us, which makes it even more amazing. People say, "I want my kids to know it." Even with all the other media out there for kids, parents are surprised how much it means to them
Wondering if any other parts of your life showed up in the comics or in your dad’s shows?
Jill: One of my favorite things that showed up in the strip and in a Broadway show was when my brother Craig was in high school, he had to do an art sculpture made from a coat hanger. He came home 2 days later with his grade, and it was a C. My dad said, "How can you grade a coat hanger sculpture?" That became a funny scene in the show and the strip.
My sister Amy always talked too loud, so she had some Lucy qualities. One time she was told to be quiet, and she started buttering toast, and looked up and said, "Am I buttering too loud? I said, "If you pray with your hands upside down, you’ll get the opposite of what you pray for."
Did your Dad think the special would be around 50 years later?
Jill: He wasn’t one to predict. The most important thing to him was drawing the comic strip. He’d always say, "I’m just a cartoonist." He was not setting out to make his cartoon famous, or sell merchandise. Those were everyone else’s ideas.
One thing he never understood was when people would say to him, "Mr. Schulz, you’re so successful now, why don’t you retire?" He’d say, "Why would I spend my whole life to become successful at doing the thing I love to do, and then not do it?" He passed away immediately after he decided he could no longer draw the strip. To him, it was all about drawing the comic strip.
What’s your earliest memory of Camp Snoopy?
Jill: I remember when it first opened and walking around thinking it was like a theme park in miniature. And I remember thinking that these are rides I’m not afraid to go on! After my kids were born (son 12, daughter 16), I had so much fun being able to take them on rides and seeing Snoopy and introducing them to Snoopy.
Where do you see the franchise in 10 years?
Jill: We’d like to see it grow, to continue the legacy of my dad and keep the characters out there. But there’s a careful line between keeping the integrity of my dad’s characters and creating enough new material to keep it fresh for new generations.
The new movie will be released in the fall of 2015. Jill's brother, Craig Schulz, and his son worked on the script with Fox Studios and director Steve Martino.
Jill: This movie, with the new technology of 4D, mixed with 3D and 2D, is fun and new, done with a lot of class. Hoping it will generate interest from new generations. We have to keep up with where the kids are today—social media, apps, movies. You can’t expect to introduce kids to it without all that.”
Who’s your favorite Peanuts character and why?
Jill: My absolute favorite is Snoopy because I like his imagination and his free spirit, how he imagines whatever he wants to be. I had a pretend friend as a kid that everyone teased me about. And because he’s a dog and I love rescue animals. Then it would be Linus, because I like how calm he remains, how philosophical he is.
When was the first time you realized who your dad was, did it affect you? Aha moment?
Jill: He was my dad first, but I can’t deny there were lots of opportunities that have come out of the fact that Charles Schulz was my dad. Things I’ve learned. He was successful with what he did, but I never wanted to feel like I wanted to use that, or that I’m any more special than anyone else because my dad was well-known. I’ve always wanted to carve my own path – such as the shows I produce that have nothing to do with Snoopy. It helps that none of us could draw at all!
Once I became a teenager and in my 20s, I did get a greater awareness of the difference between people who are your real friends and those who just want to be your friend because of that. But everybody’s life has an advantage and a disadvantage, no matter who they are.
There are too many people who do things because they want to be famous. My dad always said, "The joy is in the process, not the end result." I’ve always kept that in my back pocket.
Favorite merchandise item?
Jill: There was a board game called the Pursuit of Happiness – don’t know if it’s still out there. And I probably have 200 stuffed animals at home; the 5-foot stuffed Snoopy is one of my favorites. I did get a new sno-cone machine. And the Happiness Is a Warm Blanket book series. Those were great.
Do you want to win A Charlie Brown Christmas Prize Pack? Enter below.
I was provided with the information, video, and images as a Peanuts 50 Years on TV Brand Ambassador.