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Talking turkey and "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" with Lee Mendelson

By Elliott Serrano, @ElliottSerrano

For RedEye

November 25, 2013

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With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, there's going to be a lot going on in kitchens around the country. But once the turkey has been eaten, and the football has been played, families will be gathering around the television set to watch Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang enjoying their own brand of holiday fun.

"A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" is celebrating it's 40th anniversary, airing on ABC Thanksgiving Day and getting a special DVD release. (It will be followed by "The Mayflower Voyagers" which is also included on the DVD.)

To mark the special occasion, the good folks of Peanuts Worldwide and Warner Bros. gave me another opportunity to speak with legendary Peanuts features producer Lee Mendelson. Mendelson shared his experiences producing the special, and tells about the one thing in the feature that has always bothered him.

I also have some Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Gift Packs to give away! So check out the interview, then catch up with me at the bottom of the post to learn how to win a holiday gift pack!:

Geek To Me: And how are you today sir?

Lee Mendelson: Very good. And how are you?

G2M: I’m doing well. I’m very delighted to speak with you about “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.” It’s a little bit of a conversation that goes on these days, when it comes to the Thanksgiving holiday, where it seems like Thanksgiving itself is getting lost between Halloween and Christmas. What do you think about that?

LM: Well, in terms of our show, our Thanksgiving show, it got the highest rating ever last Thanksgiving. Well, not ever but for the last five years. So interest in the program, which I translate into interest in Thanksgiving, may be on the rise.

One of the reasons that the second show, that goes with our Thanksgiving show, is “The Mayflower Voyagers”, to remind people of the first Thanksgiving. And in a sense, this is the 40th Anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” but it’s 200 and whatever years (laughs) from the first Thanksgiving. It’s kinda fun that we put it together. Maybe 400 years, I don’t have the calendar-

Me: (laughs) It’s very much a tradition. It seems like the Peanuts characters have been going through a real revival here. A lot of interest, again, in experiencing these holiday specials; whether it the Halloween special - which is one of my favorites; of course the Christmas special which is a family tradition for generations and generations; why do you think these characters resonate so much with people, especially around the holidays?

LM: I think it’s been around 65 years now in the comic strip. In fact, I think I should mention in passing that Charles Schulz did 18,000 comic strips over 50 years which is a staggering number when you think about it. Never had any help with the drawing, lettering or anything else. (In that time) these characters have become part of the culture.

Last year the Library of Congress set aside 25 recordings that had the most cultural impact in America, and we went in with Prince and Donna Summer. And I mention that only because Charlie Brown, although fictional, has become part of the American fabric, just as any movie star or television star or politician,

And I think that people identify with Charlie Brown because no matter how many times he gets knocked down, he gets back up and tries again. I think it’s the resiliency he shows that appeals to people. And I think Linus, with the security blanket, appeals to people. And then of course the not-all sweet Sally takes it out on Linus, and Lucy certainly on everybody else.

So I think it’s just a repertory company, the Charlie Brown characters, much like Jack Benny was in radio, or any of the great radio shows. Where it’s a group of people, that become real even though they’re fictional.

They’re so much a part of the fabric that a day doesn’t go by where you don’t hear a reference to it, whether it’s on television or in a movie, in a book or on the street where people go “whah-whah-whah.”

And it’s become a part of our daily life. It wasn’t a passing fancy like the hula hoop.

G2M: The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special has been remastered; the picture has been improved, audio has been improved. Was that a challenge getting it through the process? Was it difficult finding source materials?

LM: No, it was remarkably easy as a matter of fact.  The transformation in color and sound has been astounding to us. And it was a fairly routine operation and we were thrilled we were able to do it, whether it was for television or DVD or new media, or whatever. It was no problem.

One of the reasons is we upgraded every five or ten years. So it’s not like we had to start from scratch. No pun intended.

G2M: (laughs)

LM: But no, it really was no problem.

G2M: Do you have any recollections from the original production, when you were working on this special, that you feel encapsulate what you feel putting the special together was like?

LM: The funny thing about the Thanksgiving show was that there was a scene at the end where Charles Schulz decided that Woodstock would join the party and eat some of the turkey.

And for some reason - I can’t remember why, this was 40 years ago - at the time it bothered me. And I said “I really don’t think we should have the bird eating the turkey.”

And of course the more I said I think wasn’t a good idea the more he wanted to do it. So finally it got in the original show. 

And it was 25 minutes long originally. Well, when we were on CBS later on, as you know the half hours go to 22 minutes now, I was delighted when we had to cut 3 minutes that I could cut out the scene of Woodstock eating the turkey.

G2M: (laughs)

LM: But when we went back on ABC, and they said “we wanna do all the holiday shows at the original length”, we had to go back to 25 minutes and I had to put the scene back in. So that’s the story of that minor controversy.

G2M: It’s almost like cannibalism when you think about it, if Woodstock is eating another bird.

LM: Yeah. Right. In fact, there was some blog yesterday where they were asking if Woodstock was carnivorous. It was a whole big thing, I couldn’t believe it.

G2M: (Laughs)

LM: So it’s still going on. The whole point of the Thanksgiving special is that it’s a time when people get together, it’s done in an entertaining way, because of all the confusion putting it together.

Thanksgiving is so centered around cooking, I think for Charles Schulz it was a funny idea to go and show all the things that could go wrong with the cooking with people like Peppermint Patty and Snoopy in the kitchen. And that was really the whole point of the thing.

Also in the Thanksgiving show was one of the few times we did the Disney-like thing where Snoopy gets into a big fight with the lawn chair. We hadn’t done that too many times before, or since, but it was kind of Sparky Schulz’ and (Bob) Bachman who was the animator, tribute to Disney animaton and do one like that.

G2M: I remember that’s how I learned to make egg drop soup, when Peppermint Patty was trying to boil the eggs and she didn’t realize you’re not supposed to crack them before putting them in the water.

LM: (laughs) And of course Snoopy with popcorn. Or maybe because of our show that’s become part of the tradition. I don’t know.

I’m so glad we’re able to put Charlie Brown on the Mayflower, for the second feature ("The Mayflower Voyagers") after the Thanksgiving special, because again it does remind people about what the holiday is all about.  And we get as many people to watch that show as the Thanksgiving show.

G2M: And finally, I know we always conclude talking about which character we relate to the most. Around this time of the holidays, which character do you relate to the most?

LM: Well, Charles Schulz always said that when the kids grew up Linus would be the most faithful of the group. For some reason I’m attracted to Linus because of all the problems he has in the Great Pumpkin patch with Sally, and then the beautiful speech he does in the Christmas show, and he’s one of the stable people in the Thanksgiving show, so I think I most identify with Linus.

But I asked Charles Shulz who he identified with and he said Snoopy was the way he’d like to be, and Charlie Brown was like the way he was.

I just think for me that Linus is a very appealing character with his security blanket.

G2M: Thanks for taking the time to talk about the special!

LM: And thank you to Chicago and the Midwest for the great ratings!

******

To win a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Gift pack, including the DVD, Thanksgiving card and book, all you have to do is send me an e-mail (redeyegeek [at]gmail.com) with your name and address, along with the answer to this trivia question: When did "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" first air?

All correct entries will be entered into a random drawing for 1 of 5 gift packs. Winners will be notified via e-mail. Gift pack to be sent to winner by Peanuts Worldwide LLC.

Contest deadline is Wednesday, November 27th, 2013.

This contest is not sponsored by Redeye or the Chicago Tribune.