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Five For The Record: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Animated prime-time special featuring the characters from the “Peanuts” cartoon strip. First aired Nov. 20, 1973, two days before Thanksgiving, and has been shown annually since. The 10th “Peanuts” prime-time special and the last of the Holy Trinity of “Peanuts” holiday specials (the others being 1966’s It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas).

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And here’s why I like it:

1. A quick death. Thanksgiving is lousy with football — from high-school rivalries to embarrassing Detroit Lions losses — so it’s appropriate that this one opens with the Lucy-holds-the-football gag. Offered the chance to kick the football, Charlie Brown responds:

“Hold it. HA! You’ll pull it away and I’ll land flat on my back and kill myself.”

So, thirty-one seconds into the show, the Everyman lead character with whom we are all supposed to identify is already contemplating his own death.

Yes, I know he is speaking metaphorically. But he picks the ugliest, bleakest possible metaphor — he doesn’t say, “I’ll land flat on my back and hit my head.” When you’re as put-upon as Charlie Brown, why not take every situation straight into the crapper from the get-go?

I love “Peanuts.”

2. The theme. Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas is rightfully celebrated, but it’s not his only memorable music.

I’ve long liked the theme song to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The main theme reminds me of a Moebius strip; its return to the home chord makes perfect sense, and yet the path it takes to get there never fails to surprise me. And the gentle, drifting middle section reminds me of leaves falling, or even early snow.

(Guaraldi also gets extra points for some tasty, desolate Fender Rhodes-ing elsewhere in the show, as well as for the clavinet-driven “martial” music that accompanies Snoopy and Woodstock’s pilgrim scene.)

3. With friends like these. We all know how Lucy and Peppermint Patty, ostensibly Charlie Brown’s friends, dump or impose on him at various points in the show.

But it is Linus, the one character reliably on Charlie Brown’s side, who gets him deeper into trouble by suggesting the idea of holding a special dinner just for Peppermint Patty and her self-invited guests.

Better answers might have included: “No, Charlie Brown. Call her back and make yourself heard if you ever want to stop getting stepped on,” or, “Tell you what. I’ll talk to her and get her off your back, and you can owe me a box of Zingers for my trouble.”

But nooooooo, for all his book-learnin’, the middle Van Pelt sibling can’t provide the necessary backbone when his friend needs it.

In that same conversation, Linus also gets off one of the best diss lines in the televised “Peanuts” canon:

Charlie Brown: I can’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner! All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.
Linus: (thoughtfully) That’s right, I’ve seen you make toast. You can’t butter it. But maybe we can help you!

4. The (first) supper. There are all kinds of ponderables here:

  • Even in the suspend-your-disbelief world of “Peanuts,” I love that they said: “Cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner? We’ll have the dog do that.”
  • The dog who’s human enough to cook knows what humans eat for Thanksgiving dinner. He cooks himself a nice turkey at the end of the show. But, pressed into service to cater to his master’s guests, he serves toast and junk food. (Charlie Brown and Linus make no effort to redirect him.)
  • What’s in the cherry-topped cups at the table? I don’t believe we see the kitchen crew assemble those, and they tend to get left out when people recall the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving menu. Wiki would have us believe it’s vanilla ice cream, and perhaps it is.
  • We don’t actually see the mystery ice-cream cups arrive at the table; they simply appear while everyone is blinking at each other, trying to come up with a suitable grace to say.
  • Snoopy is awfully quick to cower when Peppermint Patty berates him about his cooking. A more delightfully puckish, yet still totally characteristic, response would be for him to shrug and start eating her unwanted jellybeans.
  • A station wagon that seats six kids comfortably in the wayback is my kind of car. But where’s Lucy?

icecream5. Skies of America. One of the great things about Great Pumpkin is the backgrounds — wild, lurid autumn skies of orange and red and lavender and star-streaked dark gray. Most of the outdoor scenes in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving can’t compare, with the skies the same uniform color of washed-out blue-gray.

At the end, though, Snoopy and Woodstock enjoy their own holiday meal al fresco, under a gorgeous salmon-pink sky gently shot through with clouds. (In a nice if probably unintentional touch, the sky gets gently darker when the turkey is served and stays that color throughout the closing credits.)

For the last two-and-a-half minutes of the show, there is no human speech — just a small-group arrangement of that wonderful theme, while two best friends enjoy a meal in an autumnal wonderland.

With no disrespect meant to Charlie Brown’s grandma, I know which dinner I would have wanted to attend.

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Stock characters.

I saw a couple old friends at my son’s elementary school the other day.

They looked happy enough, but I had to wonder if they weren’t frolicking on borrowed time.

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“Peanuts” may be a remarkably successful ghost franchise … but it’s still a ghost franchise.

The sight of Charlie Brown and Linus and their compatriots made me imagine a time when elementary school kids have no idea who they are. And it can’t be that far in the future, can it?

The kids certainly aren’t going to discover the strip in the paper, because they won’t read newspapers.

Their parents might not introduce them to it, either. In a few more years, we’ll start to approach a point where the parents of elementary school kids are too young to have established their own childhood connections with “Peanuts,” which was already declining in humor and relevance when I was a kid.

If they didn’t bond with the strip and its characters, they won’t make it part of their kids’ lives. They won’t sit down with them to watch shows like “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” which marks its 40th anniversary this year.

(The holiday airwaves are pretty crowded these days, and there are a lot more channels than there were in 1973, which makes it less likely the kids will stumble across the shows on their own. If they do, they might well be put off by the simplicity of the animation and the period details: What’s that big black thing Charlie Brown picks up to talk to his grandma?)

Charlie Brown and company are not necessarily on the fast track to oblivion. There are always grandparents to introduce their grandkids to “Peanuts.”

Also, Charlie Brown and Snoopy are familiar enough characters to remain popular in plush toyland, even without the power of a daily comic strip to sustain their identities. Kids will probably be getting stuffed white dogs with long ears and black gumball noses for decades to come.

Elementary schools aren’t havens for the cutting edge, either. So the “Peanuts” gang is likely to have a place over the water fountain for at least 10 years after they begin to significantly fade from the public consciousness. And if no other characters come along with their mass familiarity, maybe they’ll hang around even longer, just ’cause they’re there and they’re friendly enough.

It won’t be a bad thing when they disappear. Every cultural touchstone has its day, and Charles Schulz’s characters have lasted remarkably longer than most.

I wonder what will replace them in America’s childhood consciousness when they finally fade.

Hopefully, the new cartoon overlords will be as nuanced as Schulz’s characters were at their best, and won’t be one-dimensional Elmo-ish caricatures.

America’s children deserve better than that over their water fountains.

The moving finger.

24 TV specials/book titles created by slicing, dicing and recombining titles of “Peanuts” TV specials and titles of Agatha Christie novels.

At Bertram’s Hotel, There’s No Time for Love

He’s Your Nemesis, Charlie Brown

Flashbeagle Among the Pigeons

You’re a Good Man, Passenger to Frankfurt

Destination Lucy

Is This a Dead Man’s Folly, Charlie Brown?

It’s an Adventure, Third Girl

The Mysterious Affair at Snoopy’s Reunion

You’re The Body in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown

Death Comes as the End of a Short Summer

Lucy Must Be Evil Under The Sun

Elephants Can Remember Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown

By The Pricking of My Valentine

Life Is An Endless Night, Charlie Brown

Mrs. McGinty’s Good and Dead, Charlie Brown

Happiness Is a Three Act Tragedy

Lord Edgware Dies in the Red Truck

It’s Christmastime Again On The Orient Express

It’s a Secret Adversary Thanksgiving

It Was My Best Death On The Nile Ever, Charlie Brown

The Pale All-Stars

One, Two, Play It Again, Charlie Brown

After The Funeral, Snoopy’s Getting Married

The Clocks At The Super Bowl Are Dead

Doin’ it to death.

30 song titles (or maybe TV specials) created by slicing, dicing and recombining the titles of “Peanuts” TV specials with the titles of James Brown songs.

A Lowdown Popcorn Thanksgiving

The Great Pumpkin Won’t Change You

It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s Arbor Day

Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Flashbeagle (People It’s Bad)

You’re Not Elected, Funky President

She’s Offa That Thing, Charlie Brown

Someday You’ll Bring It Up (Hipster’s Avenue), Charlie Brown

It Was A Short Cold Sweat, Charlie Brown

I Can’t Stand Myself (When You’re in the Super Bowl, Charlie Brown)

Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn in Spring Training

It Was My Best Birthday Ever (Take A Look at Those Cakes)

Is This Goodbye, Mother Popcorn?

You’re a Super Bad Sport, Charlie Brown (Parts 1 and 2)

Happiness is Hot Pants, Charlie Brown

Talking Loud and Saying Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales

It Was a Sexy, Sexy, Sexy Summer, Charlie Brown

Snoopy Don’t Take No Mess

You’re Not Involved, Lucy

It’s Your First Spank, Charlie Brown

Someday You’ll Be Loved, Loved, Loved, Charles Schulz

Love Payback Nightmare (Part 1)

Be My Valentine or Turnit a Loose, Charlie Brown

Your Dog’s Stoned to the Bone, Charlie Brown

Try Me, Best Boy

It’s a Brand New Mystery Valentine Bag

I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me a Warm Blanket (Open Up The Door, I’ll Have My Best Birthday Ever)

Shout and Shimmy for Love, Charlie Brown

Get Up, Get Into It, Get Married, Charlie Brown

Sex Machine Easter Celebration ’76

What Have We Learned, Superslick?

Shlabotnik, not stirred.

21 imaginary TV specials or movies, created by slicing, dicing and recombining the titles of “Peanuts” TV specials with the titles of James Bond movies.

Die Another Arbor Day

You’re Not Elected, Octopussy

There’s No Time to Live and Let Die, Charlie Brown

A Goldfinger Thanksgiving

It’s Your First View to a Kill, Charlie Brown

The Man with the Golden First Kiss

He’s Your Spy Who Loved Me, Charlie Brown

Moonraker!!! The Musical

From The Great Pumpkin with Love

What a Nightmare For Your Eyes Only, Charlie Brown

It Was A Short Summer On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Casino Flashbeagle

You’re a Go0d Man, Dr. No

The Living Arbor Daylights

I Want a Dog Licence to Kill, Charlie Brown

A Warm Blanket is Not Enough

A Charlie Brown Christmas Never Dies

The Girl in the Red Truck Loved Me

Never Say It’s The Easter Beagle Again, Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown’s Thunderball-Stars

Quantum of Lucy

America’s choice.

Doing the research for yesterday’s epic “Peanuts” post hipped me to a severe injustice — one that I fear will never be remedied.

Even though Linus Van Pelt was the coolest character in “Peanuts” for close to 50 years, his name never appeared in the title of a single TV special or movie based on the comic strip.

For context, here’s a breakdown of how many times each character was identified by name in the title of a “Peanuts” special or feature film:

Charlie Brown: 55 times

Snoopy: Four times

Lucy: One time

Linus, Woodstock, Sally, Peppermint Patty, 5 95472, Jose Peterson, Crybaby Boobie, Miss Othmar, Miss Halverson, Miss Tenure and everybody else: Zero times, combined.

(This count includes movies, TV specials and anniversary specials, but not the “Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show” ’80s TV series or Snoopy’s various Ice Capades specials.)

It was not until 1985 that any character besides Charlie Brown was mentioned by name in the title of a “Peanuts” TV special, and not until 1990 that a TV special was produced without Charlie Brown’s name in the title.

That’s distinctly unfair to Linus, the longest-lasting, most interesting and most nuanced supporting character on the strip’s roster. If I were treated that poorly, I’d turn to a blanket and a thumb for solace too.

Presumably, Charles Schulz feared top billing would go to Linus’ head, and the middle Van Pelt child would leave the strip for a solo career if he ever tasted real stardom.

Linus’ lack of recognition is worth bringing up now because we’ve just recently passed the 40th anniversary of one of his closest calls with top billing.

During the 1972 election season, Schulz and his animation cohorts worked up a show based around Linus’ decision to run for class president. (I won’t spoil the outcome, except to say he did better than George McGovern.)

Perversely, they titled the show “You’re Elected, Charlie Brown.” And it originally aired under that name on October 29, 1972.

According to Wiki (which means it could be total krap), someone later pointed out to Schulz and Co. that Charlie Brown isn’t elected to anything in the show. In fact, he isn’t even a candidate.

So the show was renamed for subsequent airings, as well as VHS and DVD repackagings.

But did they call it “You’re Elected, Linus”? Nope. They called it “You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown.”

Just what the hell kind of weaksauce is that? That’s like someone making a documentary movie about the 2012 presidential election and calling it, “You’re Not Elected, Karl Rove.”

(I take some solace in noting that — when the plotline was redone in a new animated short on iTunes a few years ago — it was titled “Linus for President.” Still seems like too little, too late, though. iTunes is one thing; pre-Internet network television is another.)

Linus’ big moment can still be seen on YouTube … except it’s dubbed into Italian. Just another indignity against the gentle, canny, precocious little kid with the zealot’s eyes and the heartwarming smile.

I didn’t care; I watched it anyway.

Zingers.

Here we have 31 imaginary “Peanuts” TV specials or movies, created by slicing, dicing and recombining the titles of real “Peanuts” TV specials or movies.

# # # # #

It’s Not a Race to Love, Snoopy

It’s a Nightmare Getting Married, Charlie Brown

You’re in a Warm Circus Mystery, Charlie Brown

I Want a Good Short First Kiss, Charlie Brown

There’s No Time for Getting Learned, Charlie Brown

Why Find Adventure, Charlie Brown?

Flashbeagle, a Musical Nightmare

Dog Day Valentine

Red Truck Super Bowl Celebration

There’s No First Time for a Good Girl, Charlie Brown

Snoopy’s Nightmare Arbor Day Skate

Is This Girl a Boy, Charlie Brown?

Don’t Look in the Arbor, Charlie Brown

Come Home, Love Bully

Happiness is Goodbye, Charlie Brown

You’re Traded in Spring Training, Charlie Brown

A Tribute To The Greatest Love Man

It’s a Good Play, Charlie Brown. Why?

A Boy Named Pumpkin Christmas

Making a Girl Is a Magic Adventure, Charlie Brown

What Have We Learned in the Brown Circus?

Be a Good Sport, Married Man

The Summer Love All-Stars

You’re Not the Best Blanket, Charlie Brown

Happy Easter, Good Christmas, Nightmare 20th Anniversary, Goodbye

You’re Not Getting My Best, Lucy

Don’t You Short Your Man, Charlie Brown

Happiness Is Getting Elected Pied Piper

It Was A Short Life

The First Best Greatest Arbor Day

I Want to Be Your Dog

Mundane Moments: Dead leaves crackle.

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My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

It happens in Charlie Brown’s universe, and only there.

In the cloudless sunshine of fall, young children rake up piles of leaves — and then disrupt them — while wearing T-shirts and knee shorts. Come to think of it, they wear the same outfits outdoors in late November to eat Thanksgiving dinner as well.

There is no biting wind in a “Peanuts” autumn, nor any of the cold rain that makes raking and bagging leaves such a clammy experience a day later.

(While we’re on the subject, Charlie Brown probably lived in one of those pampered communities where they only had to rake their leaves to the edge of the road and wait for some sort of municipal super-sucker to come inhale them. I bet he never filled two dozen black yard-bags in a single day and then dragged them all to the curb.)

The boys in this picture probably don’t see it as such, but they have been granted a 24-hour pass into Charlie Brown’s world.

The front yard where this snapshot was taken is maybe eight miles away, as the crow flies, from the shore of a Great Lake.

Judging from the leaves, which are turning color but only just starting to fall, it is probably the end of September or even early October. This is apple season. Sweatshirt season. Jacket season. Jack Frost season.

The kids seem perfectly comfortable in their short shirt-sleeves, though.

And — while the picture suffers from Seventies cheap-camera craplitude — if you blow it up to maximum size, you see something that looks a whole lot like a bare foot sticking out of the bigger boy’s right pants leg.

What we have here is a last unseasonal burst of summer — a final day or two to laugh in the face of the wind, and frolic as if it were June.

It is a rare and limited treat in this front yard to walk barefoot through autumn leaves.

These children, one imagines, have stopped savoring the opportunity for thirty quick seconds so some adult can capture their glorious moment for the ages. Then they will burst forth again to laugh and gambol.

And yet, if you blow the picture up again, the older boy appears to wear only the dimmest of smiles, if that. (The younger boy has a prankish Ulysses Macaulay kind of look about him.)

The older boy leans gently to one side, as though the tree is holding him up. To me he looks pensive or wistful, or even worried, or perhaps like he is thinking hard about something off in the distance.

The same sorts of emotions, in short, that one might associate with Charlie Brown.

Perhaps the older boy, like ol’ Chuck, has discovered that there is a psychic price to pay in exchange for living in the magic autumnland where dead leaves crackle between the toes. Maybe he is learning that it only looks like fun.

He is lucky: In a day or two, he will be back in the soothing, familiar chill of an upstate fall, and standard emotional service will be restored.

Charlie Brown and his friends, meanwhile, are fated to do time until the snow falls and the pond freezes, stuck in their monotonous non-autumn.

It is an OK place to visit but a better place to leave … if you can.

Penfield, New York, September/October 1975.

Encore Performances: Bleu, blanc et rouge.

I used to have a quiet blog where I would hold forth on anything and everything. It’s gone now, but I still have the content, and every so often I’ll repost something that holds up over time.

The following post, written in June 2008, is presented in slightly updated form in memory of Gary Carter and the equipe for which he shone.

 

I totally shoulda bought this T-shirt.

I found it in the racks of the gift shop at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., while mucking around waiting for the museum to open.

I took a pass because it was much too small for me, and I’m moving past the point in my life (I think) where I accumulate essentially useless stuff just because it’s cool.

What we have here is Charlie Brown — wearing the “MANAGER” T-shirt that occasionally replaced his familiar zig-zag getup — voicing his support for the Montreal Expos.

What makes this great, for my baseball-illiterate readers, is that the Expos were one of baseball’s all-time snakebitten teams.
They scraped into the postseason once, in 1981, only to lose on a ninth-inning home run in the deciding game of their playoff series.
They racked up baseball’s best record in 1994, then lost their best shot at a World Series title to the players’ strike.
And in 2003, with the Expos in an unlikely playoff hunt, Major League Baseball — which owned the financially struggling team — decided to save money and not call up players from the minor leagues for the traditional end-of-season push.

That pretty much killed the city’s remaining interest in its team, which was already playing one-quarter of its home games in Puerto Rico as a marketing move.
The Expos left Montreal for Washington, D.C., after the 2004 season.

MLB’s choice to manage the Expos during their ward-of-the-state final years was Frank Robinson. He was, in most respects, the right man for the job — a hard-nosed baseball veteran with little to lose.

But this T-shirt made me think:
Maybe a better choice for manager would have been someone who was used to being kicked in the junk again and again.
Someone who had learned years before to get nothing and like it.

Someone who would have seen the bright side — the tiny glimmer of hope — in the fifth pitching change of the day in a temporary home stadium in a foreign country.

Someone who would have been perfectly used to 95 losses a year, and for whom 67 wins would have been an unimaginable carnival of joy.

Someone who would have welcomed the chance to manage in a sterile, dimly-lit dome, because it meant his players could not embarrass him by planting trees and shrubs all over the field.

Someone who would not have been afraid to give Joe Shlabotnik regular work in right.

In fact, I think this would have been a wonderful plot line for Charles Schulz, had he lived long enough. The Expos call to request permission to talk to Charlie Brown about their managing job … but Snoopy, concerned about going unfed while his master is out of town, rebuffs them.

Schulz is gone, of course; as are Charlie Brown, Snoopy, the Expos, and now even some of the Expos’ star players. (Charlie Lea and Gary Carter have both died within the past year.)

I hope, at least, that some kid is wearing the hell out of that Charlie Brown Expos T-shirt.