Lee Mendelson, producer of ‘Charlie Brown Christmas,’ dies on Christmas day

FILE – In this promotional image provided by ABC TV, Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas, which ABC will air Dec. 6 and Dec. 16 to commemorate the classic animated cartoon’s 40th anniversary. The animated special was created by late cartoonist Charles M. Schulz in 1965. (AP Photo/ABC, 1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc.,File)
This 2015 photo provided by Jason Mendelson shows Lee Mendelson in Hillsborough, Calif. Lee Mendelson, the producer who changed the face of the holidays when he brought “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to television in 1965 and wrote the lyrics to its signature song, “Christmas Time Is Here,” died on Christmas day, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019. (Jason Mendelson via AP)

Lee Mendelson, the producer who changed the face of the holidays when he brought “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to television in 1965 and wrote the lyrics to its signature song, “Christmas Time Is Here,” died on Christmas day, his son said.

Mendelson, who won a dozen Emmys in his long career, died at his home in Hillsborough, California, of congestive heart failure at age 86 after a long struggle with lung cancer, son Jason Mendelson told The Associated Press.

Lee Mendelson headed a team that included “Peanuts” author Charles Schulz, director Bill Melendez, and pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi, whose music for the show, including the opening “Christmas Time Is Here,” has become as much a Christmas staple as the show itself.

Mendelson told The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2000 that he was short on time in finding a lyricist for the song, so he sketched out the six verses himself in “about 15 minutes on the backside of an envelope.”

He found a choir from a church in his native Northern California to sing the song that sets the show’s unforgettable tone, beginning with Mendelson’s words:

“Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer, fun for all that children call, their favourite time of year.”

The show won an Emmy and a Peabody Award and has aired on TV annually ever since. The team that made it would go on to create more than 50 network specials, four feature films and many other “Peanuts” projects.

Mendelson also took other comic strips from newspapers to animated TV, including “Garfield,” for which he produced a dozen television specials.

His death was first reported by The Daily Post of Palo Alto.

Born in San Francisco in 1933, Mendelson’s family moved to nearby San Mateo when he was a boy, and later to nearby Hillsborough, where he went to high school.

He graduated from Stanford in 1954, served in the Air Force and worked for his father’s fruit-and-vegetable company before going into TV for the Bay Area’s KPIX-TV.

In 1963 he started his own production company and made a documentary on San Francisco Giants legend Willie Mays, “A Man Named Mays,” that became a hit television special on NBC.

Mendelson liked to say that he decided to turn from the world’s greatest baseball player to the world’s worst: Charlie Brown.

He and Schulz originally worked on a “Peanuts” documentary that proved a hard sell for TV, but midway through 1965 a sponsor asked them if they could create the first comic strip’s first animated special in time for Christmas.

Schulz wrote the now-familiar story of a depressed Charlie Brown seeking the meaning of Christmas, a school Christmas play with intractable actors including his dog Snoopy, a limp and unappreciated Christmas tree, and a recitation of the nativity story from his best friend Linus.

Mendelson hired Guaraldi to provide the music after hearing the jazz artist’s song “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mendelson said the team showed the special to executives at CBS a week before it was slated to air, and they hated it, with its hyper-simplicity, dour tone, biblical themes, lack of laugh track and actual children’s voices instead of adults mimicking them, as was common.

“I really believed, if it hadn’t been scheduled for the following week, there’s no way they were gonna broadcast that show,” Mendelson said on a 2004 documentary for the DVD of the special.

Instead, it went on to become perhaps the biggest holiday classic in television.

“It became part of everybody’s Christmas holidays,” Mendelson told The Los Angeles Times in 2015. “It was just passed on from generation to generation. … We got this huge initial audience and never lost them.”

Mendelson is survived by his wife, Ploenta, his children Lynda, Glenn, Jason and Sean, his stepson Ken and eight grandchildren.

Andrew Dalton, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Bob Rypma, left, and Jim Tiviotdale, former and current Kitimat Flying Club presidents, respectively, standing on the moss-covered runway at the Kitimat Air Park, which will be redone in the coming year thanks to a grant approved by the BC Airports Access Program. (Clare Rayment photo)
Kitimat Air Park to get major refurbishment, helipad

The club has been in the process of applying for the grant for two years, including two applications

WorkSafeBC is investigating after a death at a Kitimat concrete plant last Friday (Oct. 23) (Black Press file photo)
BC Coroners Service, WorkSafeBC investigating after death at Kitimat worksite

The fatality occurred last Friday (Oct. 23) and investigations into the incident are underway

Louise Avery is the longest serving Curator and Director at the Kitimat Museum. Here, she’s standing in front of the new Haisla Heritage Section, which they worked hard on with Haisla members and organizations to ensure it was an accurate and respectful display of artifacts.
In Our Valley: Louise Avery

Louise Avery has been the Director and Curator at the Kitimat Museum for over 24 years

Nechako Toastmasters member Eleanor Kendall performing a speech as Mrs. Claus at a meeting when they were still meeting in person, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Wanda Shaw photo)
Turning fears into confidence: Kitimat Toastmasters go online amidst COVID-19

Nechako Toastmasters have moved virtual amidst COVID-19 restrictions

<em>Black Press file photo </em>
Clare’s Corner: Yes, love is strange — and an addiction

A little bit of love to help get you through those Monday blues

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives for briefing on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020 (B.C. government)
B.C. records 217 more COVID-19 cases, mask use urged

Infection spike continues, 21 senior facilities affected

Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 to win the baseball World Series in Game 6 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
L.A. Dodgers beat Rays 3-1 to win 1st World Series title since 1988

National League champs claim crown in six games

Seven-year-old Aaliyah Rosa was found dead in an apartment in Langley in July. (Langley Advance Times files)
Child’s body cold, no pulse: Off-duty cop testifies in Langley mother’s murder trial

The seven-year-old girl’s mother faces a first-degree murder charge

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Tyrell Giroux was arrested by Williams Lake RCMP on Sunday, Oct. 25. (Facebook video screenshot)
Tsilhqot’in leaders call for suspension of officers seen in controversial Williams Lake arrest

Disturbing video demands an immediate, independent investigation, says TNG

People march during a climate strike in Montreal, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Judge rejects 15 youths’ climate change lawsuit against Canadian government

Justice Michael Manson has granted the government’s motion to strike the plaintiffs’ claim

A woman walks through check in at WestJet at Pearson International airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Strong support for pre-flight COVID testing ahead of upcoming WestJet trial: YVR

Airport is partnering with UBC, which is helping choose the method of pre-flight testing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau says pandemic ‘really sucks,’ and that Christmas gatherings are up in the air

The prime minister encouraged residents to continue to follow the advice of local health authorities

The Williams Lake Indian Band is stipulating no-go zones for mushroom picking in areas burned by last summer’s wildfires. 100 Mile Free Press photo
Who controls mushroom harvesting on Indigenous lands?

‘We don’t necessarily know where the mushrooms grow, how old the stands need to be, those types of things.’

Most Read