In 1947, The Saint Paul Pioneer began publishing a weekly comic panel Charles M. Schulz (1922-2000) had created a comic strip called Li’l Folks. It was a flop. In 1950, Schulz sold Li’l Folks to the United Features Syndicate after being turned down by every other newspaper syndication company. Because of potential copyright infringement, United Features renamed Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts. Even after Peanuts was a big hit, Schulz claimed he never liked the name and always wanted to call the strip “Good Old Charlie Brown”.
Leave it to the guy who came up with Charlie Brown to experience disappointment with success. Schulz:
“I wanted a strip with dignity and significance. Peanuts made it sound too insignificant.”
The first Peanuts strip was published on October 2, 1950. It appeared in seven newspapers. In the strip, Charlie Brown walks by two friends, one of whom remarks, “Well! Here comes ‘ol Charlie Brown! Good ‘ol Charlie Brown … yes, sir! Good ‘ol Charlie Brown… how I hate him!” By the end of the decade, Peanuts was running in hundreds of newspapers.
Peanuts became even more popular during the 1960s. Charlie Brown and the gang even made the cover of Time magazine in 1965. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968, Schulz was pressed to include Black character, and Franklin made his debut later that year. Woodstock, Snoopy’s yellow, avian friend, got his name in 1970. When asked why he named the bird after the famous music festival, Schulz answered: “Why not?”
In 1966, Peppermint Patty, a sports-loving girl living in a single-parent household, made her entrance. She has long been speculated to be a lesbian, with her tomboy personality and her special relationship with Marcie, and despite an unrequited love for Charlie Brown. But, you know, they are only kids. Who knows? After all, Schulz identified as a secular humanist, plus he was good friends with Billy Jean King.
Peppermint Patty was still rather extraordinary for 1966; a character who was a proud and unapologetic tomboy, who wears pants and sandals instead of a dress, and who is apparently the biggest jock in town, male or female. And, the best thing about her, none of her friends seems to care or even notice as Peppermint Patty blows away accepted gender roles.
In 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on CBS, beginning a string of television specials. Network executives expected the Christmas show to be aired once and then disappear. The producers had cast children to do the voices of the characters, and most of them had not professional acting experience. The CBS brass thought the lack of a laugh track was a mistake and the show’s jazz infused soundtrack slowed down the storytelling. But, when the program premiered it drew big ratings and went on to win an Emmy Award.
50 more Peanuts specials followed, plus five films, and three television series. In 1967, the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown opened Off-Broadway and ran for four years. It was revived on Broadway in 1999 with openly gay Anthony Rapp as Charlie Brown, plus Kristin Chenoweth and Roger Bart as Sally and Snoopy (both won Tony Awards). It remains one of the most performed American musicals in history. A sequel, Snoopy: The Musical, was produced in 1975 and was also a hit.
In 1969, Charlie Brown and Snoopy went to the Moon. The Apollo 10 crew named their command and lunar modules after them.
By the 1990s, Schulz had acquired a massive personal fortune. He gave millions away to charity. He was often listed by Forbes magazine as one of the highest-paid entertainers, in a league with Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson. He remains the best-paid and most widely read cartoonist of all time. Peanuts made the Guinness Book Of World Records after being syndicated in 2,000 newspapers. It was read by 400 million people daily, plus there were book compilations, merchandising and endorsements.
In the late 1990s, Shulz’s hands developed a tremor that was noticeable in his drawings. He suffered a stroke in November 1999 that impaired his vision, memory and desire to draw. He retired at the end of 1999. On January 3, 2000, the last original Peanuts daily strip was published. Schulz was taken by cancer a few weeks later, just one day before his final Sunday strip was published. He was 78-years-old. Schulz had stipulated in his syndicate contract that no one else could take over the comic strip he had drawn for half a century. Schulz had produced 17,897 Peanuts strips.
“A cartoonist is someone who draws the same thing day after day without repeating himself.”
Forbes ranked Schulz as the sixth-highest earning dead person; he earned $35 million last year. Schulz’s income during his lifetime totaled more than $1.1 billion.
The home Schulz lived and worked in was destroyed in the California wildfires. All his personal Peanuts memorabilia was gone in the fire. Schulz and his wife had lived in their Santa Rosa home since the late 1970s. But, The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa was spared. The museum is now the home to many of the original Peanuts strips, as well as other artwork by Schulz. Plus there are two works by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani: a 3.5 ton wood sculpture depicting the evolution of Snoopy and a 22 ft. high ceramic mural made of 3,588 Peanuts strips which combine to form the image of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick it. Among the museum’s permanent exhibits are a work by Christo which depicts Snoopy’s doghouse wrapped, the museum has three galleries with exhibits that change every year.
Although Schulz was notoriously sparse in linework for Peanuts, he packed a lot into the space. One of my favorite graphic designers, Chip Kidd, wrote a book about it, in Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz And The Art Of Peanuts (2015). This terrific coffee-table book contains rare and never-before-seen work from Schulz, ranging from early efforts, unpublished strips, tie-in materials, and much more. It is one of the few Peanuts related books produced with the approval of Schulz’s family and the museum.