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Charles Schulz and the history of the Peanuts
Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang
The first ever Peanuts strip
Charlie Brown as he originally looked
The life and work of a great cartoonist
There have been many popular comic strips over the years, but few—if any—have attained the status of the beloved Peanuts strip, which has become a household name, spawning a multi-media empire of animated cartoons, (TV and theatrical) stage plays, songs and merchandising. The creative genius behind this iconic comic strip is Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz, the creator/writer/artist/letterer of the Peanuts.
Charles Schulz (Who got the nickname Sparky after the horse Spark Plug in the Barney Google comic strip) was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA,1922 and was a comic-strip fanatic ever since he learned to read. He loved them so much that as a child, he drew cartoons about his family dog Spike, who ate unusual things. He sent some of his drawings to Robert Ripley (Of Ripley’s Believe It or Not fame) and the artwork was published in Ripley’s syndicated column.
Schulz was shy, awkward and not overly popular as a kid (All traits that he would include in his Charlie Brown character years later.) He didn’t go to college but he took a correspondence course in art. After serving in World War 2 from 1943-45, he returned and got a job lettering a Catholic comic book called Timeless Topix, and also taught art at Art Instruction Incorporated.
He got his first job as a newspaper cartoonist doing a weekly comic strip for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The strip was called Lil’ Folks. There were no recurring characters; it was a weekly cartoon about kids doing funny things, based on real-life experiences that Schulz had had as a child. The strip ran from 1947-1949. (The first use of the name Charlie Brown appeared in this strip, but for a different character, unlike the one we’ve come to know.)
In 1950 came his big breakthrough! He sold a daily version of Lil’ Folks to United Features syndicate. Schulz had tweaked the strip to add a trio of regular characters and a dog. United Features liked the strip, but not the title Lil’ Folks, because they felt it was too close to Lil’ Abner. Schulz offered up a half-dozen alternate title suggestions and United Features said they’d picked one to use for the strip when it debuted.
Schulz’s comic strip debuted in Oct. 1951, syndicated in a dozen newspapers. Although it was a big moment for Schulz, he was dismayed to see that they didn’t use any of his title suggestions, and instead dubbed the strip the Peanuts, as an homage to the “Peanut Gallery” in the Howdy Doody TV series. Schulz *hated* the name and always would. He never grew to accept it. In an interview years later, Schulz said that the name Peanuts “had no meaning” in regards to his work and that it “Lacked dignity” and he always wanted his characters to have dignity, even if they were kids. (Later, whenever a collected volume or an animated Cartoon of his characters was done, Schulz forbade the use of the name Peanuts. He used Charlie Brown as the franchise name, not Peanuts.)
When the strip started out, there were three main characters. Shermy, Patty (Not Peppermint Patty. She came later) and a younger kid with a head shaped like a football, named Charlie Brown. Charlie had a white beagle, which was originally unnamed but soon came to be known as Snoopy. (Snoopy had none of the human-like characteristics at first that he would later develop. He was just a dog.)
Other characters started to be introduced. The first new addition was Violet, who was sometimes used as a romantic interest for Charlie Brown (although she would later come to look down on him condescendingly). Schroeder was introduced next. Schroeder started out as a baby in diapers who didn’t speak but was a piano prodigy. (Schroeder aged very quickly over the next year-and-a-half and somehow caught up with Charlie Brown in age.)
Lucy Van Pelt was the next to be introduced, in 1951. She was also younger than Charlie Brown at first; around toddler age, whereas Charlie was six at the beginning of the strip. Like Schroeder, she grew quickly after the first year and caught up in age. At first she seemed infatuated with Charlie Brown but soon developed her aggressive personality and started calling Charlie a “Block head”.She switched her affections to Schroeder. In 1952, her baby brother Linus Van Pelt appeared, and typically aged quickly to join the rest. Linus became Charlie Brown’s best friend. His precious security blanket became the character’s trademark.
The next major addition was Pig-Pen in 1954. Shermy and the original Patty were slowly phased out of the strip and have become basically forgotten. Violet’s part was reduced to an occasional supporting appearance as a friend of Lucy’s.
Charlie Brown was originally just one member of an ensemble cast of characters but as his personality developed (Schulz started putting more of his own personality and experiences into Charlie) he slowly took center stage, and by the mid-fifties, he was the main character of the strip.
Snoopy began to display more and more human-like qualities. At first, we got to 'hear' his thoughts in ‘thought balloons’, and gradually he started to become more anthropomorphic, doing things like writing and walking on his hind legs. In the sixties, as Snoopy became more popular, the strip started to focus more on him. Schulz added the Walter Mitty-like aspect to Snoopy, wherein he would fantasize about being someone else, such as the World War One flying ace, (perpetually battling the Red Baron) or Joe Cool.
The characters began to appear on television starting in 1961, when Schulz licensed them out to be used in commercials, and later, the print media. The very first Peanuts animated cartoon debuted at Christmas 1965. The animated special A Charlie Brown Christmas (Note that it isn’t called a Peanuts Christmas) debuted to great ratings and much praise. It has since become a TV standard and one of the most beloved and frequently watched Christmas specials ever made.
The success of a Charlie Brown Christmas lead a whole slew of Peanuts specials; the second one being It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (a story taken directly from the comic strip) and afterward came many others. In 1969 came the first of the Peanuts theatrical feature films (none of which used the name Peanuts, as mandated by Schulz) starting with A Boy named Charlie Brown. A weekly animated TV series called Charlie Brown and Snoopy ran from 1983-86. As for the comic strip, Schulz kept introducing new characters, such as Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally;The tomboy Peppermint Patty, who had a crush on Charlie Brown (who she called “Chuck”) and her nerdy, bookish best friend Marcie. Also debuting around the same time was Franklin, the first non-white character in the Strip’s history, and one of the few in comic strips in general at the time. The most popular of the later additions was the bird Woodstock (named in honor of the famous music festival) who became Snoopy’s pal and partner in mischief. (Other, less popular characters would appear for a long or short span of time.) No adults are ever seen (except for their legs) in any Peanuts strip or cartoon. We never hear their dialogue. (In the animated cartoons, the adult voices are muffled.)
Several stage versions of the characters were done, including You’re a Good man Charlie Brown which debuted in 1967 (Which starred a pre-MASH Gary Burghoff as Charlie Brown), Snoopy the Musical and the Ice-Capades show Snoopy on ice.
The Peanuts would be used in a lot of advertising campaigns over the years, most notably for Met Life. There are all types of shirts, toys and books using the characters. The Macy’s Thanksgiving parade frequently uses a large Snoopy balloon. The rock group The Royal Guardsmen had a hit single Snoopy and the Red Baron, which spawned two follow-up songs. An inspiration book called “Happiness is a warm puppy” used illustrations of Snoopy as life-lessons.
Schulz continued to make daily Peanuts strips continuously for 50 years, from 1950-2000, with only one 3-week hiatus to celebrate his 75th birthday. In 1999, the aging Schulz suffered a series of small strokes and was undergoing treatments for colon cancer. He could no longer guarantee a daily strip and he would not settle for doing it part-time, so he reluctantly decided to retire.
Interestingly, the very last Peanuts strip appeared on Sunday, February 13, 2000, the exact same weekend that Schulz passed away. It was as if his mission in life was accomplished. Many other cartoonist paid tribute to Schulz in their own strips when he died. He was respected by his peers, many of whom were inspired to enter the field because of their love of the Peanuts. Reprints of the Peanuts strip, now called “Classic Peanuts” still run in syndication today.
The Peanuts is considered one of the greatest comic strips ever made and was voted second greatest comic strip of the 20th Century by the Comic Journal in 1999, losing to Krazy Kat. (Schulz, who was a fan of Krazy Kat, graciously accepted being second to the popular strip.)
Little Known facts:
Charlie Brown’s father was a barber, just like Schulz’s father was.
Charlie Brown aged two years over the course of the 50 year strip, from age 6-8.
Charlie Brown and his friends lived in Hennepin County, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.