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As we all know, there are many ways to celebrate the holiday season, but one of those ways for millions of people is to watch beloved holiday classics every year. A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of those holiday viewing staples for many, but now we know that one of the men who helped bring us the perennially popular animated special, Lee Mendelson, just died on Christmas Day.
Producer Lee Mendelson, who spearheaded the team which brought A Charlie Brown Christmas to television in 1965 (and included Peanuts writer Charles Schulz, the special's director Bill Melendez, and pianist / composer Vince Guaraldi) died this Christmas at the age of 86. According to what his son, Jason Mendelson, told The Associated Press (via Fox Business), his father died at his home in Hillsborough, California of congestive heart failure after a long battle with lung cancer.
If you're like most people, it might seem that A Charlie Brown Christmas is a necessary way to celebrate the holidays, and there's a good reason for that. The special has literally aired every year since 1965, meaning that many generations of children grew up watching it annually, and that many generations of adults have introduced their kids to the cartoon classic they enjoyed as youngsters. And, this isn't a case of audiences adoring something that critics or others in the industry don't understand, either, as the show earned an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program as well as a Peabody Award.
After graduating from Stanford in 1954, Lee Mendelson went into the Air Force, worked for his dad's produce company for a time, and then began working in television in California's Bay Area. Mendelson began his own production company in 1963, and after producing a hit documentary on baseball legend Willie Mays, he and Charles Schulz proposed a documentary on Peanuts, which had become a major comic strip by then. Advertisers didn't bite, but they were interested in an animated Christmas special, so A Charlie Brown Christmas was born.
While Schulz wrote the story for the show, and Vince Guaraldi carefully crafted the jazzy music that would go on to become as much of a classic as the cartoon itself, Mendelson couldn't find anyone to pen the lyrics for the tune that would go on to be played on the radio every holiday: opening theme "Christmas Time Is Here." With just a few weeks left until the special was set to air, Mendelson decided to write out the lyrics himself, which he told The Cincinnati Inquirer in 2000 only took "about 15 minutes," and then hired a choir from a church in Northern California to bring those words to life.
All of the hard work that Mendelson and everyone else put into A Charlie Brown Christmas has clearly paid off in the long run, but advertisers and executives were not happy with the final product they saw. They were unsure about many of the things that people love about the special, including the fact that actual children provided the voices and that religion was on full display, and Mendelson went on record saying that he believed they only decided to air it because there was just a week until the premiere.
Luckily for all of us, A Charlie Brown Christmas did air to great success, and led to many more animated specials featuring the Peanuts gang in the decades that followed. Lee Mendelson and his team (many of whom worked on the special) went on to produce 50 network specials, four feature films and several additional Peanuts projects. Plus, Mendelson also took other comic strips to the small screen, including Garfield, for which he created 12 TV specials over the years.
Lee Mendelson is survived by his wife Ploenta, his children Jason, Lynda, Glenn and Sean, his stepson Ken, and eight grandchildren. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, as well as our thanks for helping to create such an undisputed and beloved part of many Christmas celebrations.