Lee Mendelson: The Producer Behind “Peanuts”

Peanuts. As a child, it was the source of so much comfort to me, because like in my most favourite comics, the protagonist, Snoopy is a wisecracking troublemaker. The other characters Charlie Brown, WoodstockFranklin, and Peppermint Patty all group together and have very interesting camaraderie as a pack. Several Christmas specials and cartoon editions later, today it has gained cult status amongst comic lovers across the globe.

One person responsible for Peanuts’ success has been Lee Mandelson, the producer behind the animated show. The sketches have a nostalgic charm to them even when they are not being holiday specials, and it is surprising to discover that Mandelson initially thought that he had made a complete mess of the comic book classic on screen. Frozen ponds, children dressed in warm clothing skating upon it, instrumental music from Vince Guaraldi, and some 120mins worth of reel time hopefully of nothing but the adventures of Snoopy, would be the sort of treatment that legends such as these deserve.

This year will be the 50th year that A Charlie Brown Christmas gets aired on network television, even if it has long moved from CBS to ABC. Several translations, feature films, and specials aside, also produced by Mendelson, there are discussions going on of a CGI treatment offered to Charlie Brown. Earlier this year Mendelson was awarded the Winsor McCay Award for his longstanding contribution to animation, at the Annie Awards in Los Angeles. So, how has life been like for Mandelson, as the producer of one of the most loved comic-to-animation scripts, of all-time?

Lee began his career as a documentarian, and wanted to pursue this interest in the realm of “Snoopy” as well. Initially, when he came across the Peanuts comic strip, he looked up its creator Charles Schulz in the phonebook and rang him up in his California home, requesting for a documentary to be made on him. When Charles denied it, he then discussed about his previous projects: a documentary on retired professional basketball player, Willie Mays. Charles appreciated his approach to those documentaries and promptly gave the green signal for an animated documentary show, sort-of-a-thing, to be produced on the comic strip. The young San Francisco piano player, Vince Guaraldi, was signed to write the show’s music, promptly but the project eventually got shelved.

There was a lot of commotion behind producing Peanuts, even when it got on CBS, so this episode merely seemed to signal what was to come. The Christmas special that aired on CBS for the first time was criticised, both by the audience and the network: they found it hard to relate with the child actors voicing the roles, and wanted to have a much more adult approach to voice-casting, instead. After several distraught starts, the show started smooth sailing towards success, stopping on important and thought-provoking subjects, such as cartoon children reading off the Bible and about a young girl suffering from cancer.

It must have been really challenging to pull off these topics on air – almost as hard as pulling off the “mwa-mwa-mwa” sound by a group of trombone players, rather than adult actors, which ofcourse you cannot use because the comic strip is devoid of adults, to begin with. Schulz and Mendelson were good friends first and a good creative team, second, so it is heartwarming to see Mendelson win this award at the Annie Awards this year because any true lover of the comic strip, can never really have enough of those 50 shows the two did together. Period.

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