Good grief, there’s just no way to sugar-coat it or dance around it: When it comes to Peanuts creator Charles Shulz’s and CBS Network’s middle entry in its Holiday Trilogy featuring Good Old Charlie Brown and his merry band of friends and family, 1973’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, the magic just wasn’t there in the way it had been in the two prior entries. Or, to quote Charlie Brown, “I got a rock.”
It had all started out so promising when, in 1965, Schulz and director Bill Melendez had unleashed upon the world the sublime (and yes, melancholy) holiday special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. The ratings for CBS who had taken a huge gamble to bring the world of Peanuts to a national primetime audience were huge and through the roof. Who could resist Charlie Brown’s morose yet salient ruminations of Christmas and all of the blatant commercialism that the latter-half of the 20th century had bestowed upon that most sacred of days while Vince Guaraldi’s bittersweet ditty Christmas Time Is Here played poignantly in the background? A psychiatric leaning Lucy, a well-meaning Linus and a beatnik Christmas decorating Snoopy were all the cherry on top of this brilliantly understated gem that actually had the cojones to make a statement about religion versus consumerism. The special is doubly poignant because of this latter point in fact and the knowledge that in our hyper-politically correct world of 2019 A Charlie Brown Christmas as it was released to a staggering-sized audience of 15,490,000 in ‘65 probably would never have even left the drawing board without being obliterated by the PC-police today.
A sequel was quickly put in production and in 1966 the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy (or The Godfather Part Two if that’s more your speed), It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown dazzled audiences anew. Clearly a third entry was needed to turn this holiday saga into a trilogy; which brings us to the topic at hand in this article, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
It should have been huge. All of the elements seemed to be in place: Charles Schulz naturally returned to write the story and he was joined by his partner in television magic, Bill Melendez. Composer Vince Guaraldi was also back to ensure that musically the story had a solid ground to rest its football kicking and kite flying feet on. Plus, it centered on Thanksgiving, a time of taking stock in all of the blessings bestowed upon us over the last twelve months. A Peanuts fan and prognosticator could be forgiven then for jumping to the conclusion that, if anything, this third holiday celebration should be even better than the 1966 Halloween special. One could almost picture Charlie Brown winding up and speeding towards the football in his path, anticipating a game-winning field goal in the world of animation and heartwarming holiday specials. Except, in typical Charlie Brown fashion, the proverbial football was seemingly yanked away at the last moment before our hero could revel in good fortune. In other words, the capper entry to eight years of Peanuts primetime specials seemed to lack the magic of its two predecessors. So what happened?
America had changed seismically by November 20, 1973 when A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving finally aired. A wistful nostalgia mingled with growing cynicism over the war in Vietnam had united into a cocktail which had produced the landscape that saw birth to the Christmas and Halloween specials. The old ways were fighting with the new in 1965 and 1966 and we weren’t yet so jaded and too far away from the world of idealized Norman Rockwell illustrations and Leave It to Beaver that we couldn’t accept the simpler and sometimes complicated world of Peanuts as presented in daily strips and television specials. Even as we dealt with the still fresh wound of losing JFK and a growing counterculture movement that would change everything from the way we thought, the way we dressed and the way in which we interacted and dealt with our fellow man, hope and faith in a simpler time that might still return to us persisted and it was perhaps these two dueling ideologies married together that made Snoopy’s World War One Flying Ace, religious philosophizing and the general angst of Charles Schulz’s comic strip alter-ego a possibility in the first place.
By 1973, America had turned several sharp corners with the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the ever-growing Watergate scandal. The culture had changed and marched on since the two earlier Peanuts specials and, intentionally or not, the malaise America had found itself in by ’73 had filtered into almost every form of popular culture, including A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The holiday special didn’t seem very special after all and to many viewers it felt as if CBS and company were merely going through the paces, counting down the days until they could deliver us the ultimate turkey of all Peanuts holiday specials, It’s the Easter Beagle Charlie Brown and no longer interested in subversive (or not so) religious commentary. The air seemed to have been let out of the sails of this once fast moving ship and the result was bland, at best.
Continuity, too, was a problem. Peter Robbins who had essayed the voice of Charlie Brown to pitch perfection in the first two holiday specials had, by 1973, aged out of the role and been replaced by Todd Barbee for the Thanksgiving special. Ditto the other stellar voice talents from those 1965-’66 specials, too. Suddenly, most of the voices giving life to the Peanuts gang in 1973 seemed dull and lifeless, as if they lacked the conviction of the words that read from in their scripts. And then there was the introduction of new Peanuts characters Patricia “Peppermint Patty” Reichardt (ironically voiced by a male actor, Christopher DeFaria), Marcie, Woodstock and Franklin. As a kid watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving after having been introduced to the majestic world of the characters in the ’65 and ’66 specials, I felt cranky when the “new guys” ambled onto the scene. ‘Who were these three usurpers anyways,’ I raged to my noontime nap partner in kindergarten as I savagely tore into my juice box. ‘They weren’t in the earlier specials and now they just show up out of nowhere with no intro’s at all? And who gave Peppermint Patty the right to call my old pal Charlie Brown “Chuck” for cripes sake?’
One thing that I couldn’t quite successfully articulate at a young age, but that I felt more than I could verbalize, was the absence of that wonderful sense of holiday melancholia that had been almost like an unbilled character in the earlier holiday specials. Tonally, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving just felt…off.
And so it is every year as I waltz out my uber-tricked out blu-ray editions of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas that the completist in me reluctantly gives A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving a quick spin on the television set, all the while apologizing to my wife who can never quite figure out where my apoplexy with this particular special comes from. Perhaps I’m alone in my attitude about this third entry: It was thought highly enough of to win an Emmy Award in 1974 and to this day it is routinely aired by ABC every November, a true holiday staple. So, much like a mournful Charlie Brown gloomily walking alone against a dark Autumn or Winter’s landscape, I’m left to ponder the meaning of this twenty five minute holiday anomaly; as my old pal used to utter in incredulous disbelief, “Good grief.”
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.