Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were the Peanuts animated shows, inspired by Charles M. Schulz’s long-running comic strip.
But when it came to outlining the entire concept for “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” which first aired in 1966, it was all hashed out by lunchtime, save a few scenes that were added after Schulz, director-producer Bill Melendez (also the voice of Snoopy) and executive producer Lee Mendelson finished their sandwiches.
“The reason we were able to do it in one day is that the main theme of the show had been in the comic strips for years,” Mendelson said during an interview with TheWrap in 2016.
Indeed, Schulz had already featured Linus in the pumpkin patch with Sally in his newspaper strip. “We just added a Halloween party, a trick-or-treat passage of the kids and Snoopy flying the doghouse,” Mendelson revealed about the day the popular television special was first conceived.
Snoopy first assumed the guise of the World War I Flying Ace in a Peanuts comic strip from October 1965, donning vintage aviator hat, scarf, and goggles to take on the Red Baron from atop his doghouse.
The concept came to Schulz after a discussion he had with his son, Monte, about the Red Baron. “They both had ideas about who influenced that,” Jill Schulz said of her older brother and father, referencing the fact that they both took credit for inventing flying Snoopy.
It was a year later when the beagle’s alter ego made its television debut in “It’s the Great Pumpkin.”
“As we were developing the script, Mr. Schulz lamented almost as an aside, ‘Too bad we can’t have Snoopy fly,’” Mendelson recalled. “Melendez, pretending to be offended, said, ‘Hey, I’m an animator. I can do anything, including a dog flying a doghouse.’ We all laughed and that’s how Melendez and [animator] Bill LittleJohn created that scene.”
Snoopy steering his doghouse through the air is now an iconic image. It appeared in subsequent animations, including last year’s feature “The Peanuts Movie,” and even became a postage stamp.
“I would ask my dad, ‘Why is Snoopy a beagle? Why not a lab or a poodle?’” recalled Jill Schulz. “He said, ‘Because beagle is a funny word.’” She added, “Sometimes people want to find complicated reason for why he made choices. I’m always amazed at his simple answers.”
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” was the third-ever Peanuts animated show and the second-ever Peanuts holiday special.
Animators were told by CBS to create “another blockbuster,” recalled Mendelson.
Ultimately, they met their goal — and then some.
“We got a tremendous audience with half the country tuning in,” the executive producer said, recalling what was possible back in 1966, when “there were only three networks.”
The animated special has aired every year to stellar ratings since.