Looking at It’s a Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
47 years ago, on October 31, 1966, one of the most iconic television specials in the history of animation first aired, It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. The third in a long line of Peanuts specials created by animator Bill Melendez, producer Lee Mendelson, and comic strip creator Charles Schulz, it would prove to be one of the most memorable. Its predecessors were A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and Charlie Brown’s All-Stars (1966). Let’s take a quick look at some details on the special.
When the CBS network asked for another “holiday blockbuster,” Schulz (known as Sparky among friends), Melendez, and Mendelson decided on the Great Pumpkin was fine subject matter. First referred to in October of 1959, it had become an annual tradition for the strip each time Halloween came around. Originally meant as a parody of Santa Claus, Linus was always the one to invest his faith that the Great Pumpkin would appear on Halloween night. He never got his chance though, and the Great Pumpkin was never actually seen in any Peanuts strip or special.
Arguably the most memorable moment in the special is Charlie Brown’s receiving of the rock. The line, “I got a rock,” has entered the cultural psyche. “Sparky said that maybe we ought to have Charlie Brown get a rock,” recalled Lee Mendelson. “I said, ‘Oh, come on, that’s a little too harsh and cruel.’ But the more I protested, the more he wanted it. And after I protested more, Sparky said: ‘Okay, he’ll get three rocks!’” In reaction to Charlie Brown’s woes, many children across the country ended up sending packages of candy to Schulz’s studio in northern California, and continued doing so for many years.
The special featured one of the most recognizable and imaginative of Peanuts images, Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace. Producer Lee Mendelson remembered Schulz saying, “’Wouldn’t it be great if we could animate Snoopy flying?’ Bill stood up, faking umbrage, and said, ‘Well, of course we could make him fly! That’s what I do! I’m an animator!” But Snoopy wouldn’t be flying any Sopwith Camel in the sequence. Instead he stays on his red doghouse, fully enmeshed in his own imagination.
When Snoopy crash-lands however, his imagination fully takes over, and we are visually transplanted to the war torn landscape of France. What resulted were some of the most stunning images created for any Peanuts special. Disney art director Paul Felix speaks on the backgrounds, “In Great Pumpkin, there are some amazing combinations of color, especially after Snoopy has crash landed. There’s a sunset behind a field of trees, which is one of the only times you see linear perspective in the show. It’s striking because it’s flat and implies dimensionality at the same time.”
The special’s background artist, Dean Spille, told historian Charles Solomon, “I had been to Europe, so I was familiar with the landscape Snoopy explored in the World War I segment. Bill and Sparky were great in allowing me to do anything in terms of colorful skies and clouds and so forth. And it seemed to work.”
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Another iconic Peanuts image would see its animated debut on the special: that of Charlie Brown’s attempts to kick the football held by Lucy. She first played this gag on Charlie Brown in the Peanuts strip from November 16, 1952. Great Pumpkin was the first, but certainly not the last time that Lucy would pull this most iconic of Peanuts gags on the television series.
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Musician and composer Vince Guaraldi expanded his usual trio to a sextet for the score of Great Pumpkin. He reprised his then famous song “Linus and Lucy” which debuted with A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. For this special he composed “The Great Pumpkin Waltz,” which is used throughout.
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When the special originally aired in 1966 on CBS, Coca-Cola and Dolly Madison Cakes sponsored it. The logos of the respective companies were featured in both the opening and closing credits.
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It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown proved to be one of the best Peanuts specials ever produced, if not the best, rivaled only by the other holiday giants, A Charlie Brown Christmas and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Sparky liked the Christmas show, but he really liked Great Pumpkin,” Mendelson recalled. “It was the culmination of better animation and adapting the comic in the best possible way.” The special started new traditions for the animated series that would echo through the rest of its run. And it still stands today as one of the greatest animated achievements of the television venue.
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-Cavna, Michael. "‘IT’S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN’: 7 Things You Don’t Know About Thursday’s ‘Peanuts’ Special." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 28 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/comic-riffs/post/its-the-great-pumpkin-charlie-brown-7-things-you-dont-know-about-thursdays-peanuts-special/2013/10/28/abb92e4c-4023-11e3-9c8b-e8deeb3c755b_blog.html>.
-"Football Gag." Peanuts Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://peanuts.wikia.com/wiki/Football_gag>.
-"It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." Peanuts Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://peanuts.wikia.com/wiki/It's_the_Great_Pumpkin,_Charlie_Brown>.
-Solomon, Charles. The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 2012. Print.