Dim the Lights
Lee Mendelson, a "Peanuts" producer who co-wrote the perennial holiday tune "Christmas Time Is Here," with Vince Guaraldi, died on Christmas Day at 86.
This is just very sad news in television history, and sad news for Peanuts fans.
Mendelson's death was announced by his sons, Jason and Glenn, who said he had struggled with lung cancer.
"It wasn’t great for us, but to have him pass on Christmas really ties into his history and legacy," they said.
He Gave Us All a Little Love
According to the Palo Alto Daily Post, Mendelson produced more than 50 Peanuts TV specials.
Viewers of those Peanuts cartoons like "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," would see Mendelson's name in the credits and know they were getting the gold standard.
A Part Of Our Hearts
Mendelson won 12 Emmys over his career; six of them were for Peanuts specials. The most recent was the 2015 show "It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!"
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" won an Emmy in 1966 for Outstanding Children's Program.
Besides that tremendous legacy, Mendelson also worked to bring comic book personalities Cathy and Garfield too television, so if you didn't like Peanuts, you were sure to like something else Mendelson created. The Post adds that Mendelson produced a documentary and animated special every year when he was in his 60s and 70s.
Baseball Was One Of the Catalysts
Mendelson's first production was a documentary about baseball player Willie Mays and his 1963 season.
According to the Daily Post, which cited Stanford Magazine, Mendelson was looking at a Peanuts comic strip in the newspaper, when he thought, “you’ve just done the world’s greatest baseball player, now you should do the world’s worst baseball player, Charlie Brown."
Makes perfect sense.
A Longtime Partnership Was Begun
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz liked Mendelson's Mays biography and agreed to be the subject for his documentary, though it never aired. Instead, Coca-Cola contacted Mendelson and asked if he had ever thought about working on a Christmas special. Mendelson then called Schulz, and that's how "A Charlie Brown Christmas" began.
Mendelson brought animator Bill Melendez with him, and hired composer Vince Guaraldi to write the music that we know and love. The three of them went on to create Peanuts specials like “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown,” “This is America, Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.”
The Magic Of 'Christmas Time Is Here'
Guaraldi wrote the song "Christmas Time Is Here" in a single three-hour session as an instrumental, and Mendelson later added the lyrics.
Mendelson spoke with Rolling Stone in 2015 about the tune:
“Guaraldi had written a very beautiful melody for the opening skating scene, but about two weeks before it was about to run on the air, I thought, ‘Maybe we could get a lyricist to put some words to this.'
I called a few lyricist friends of mine, and everyone was busy. So I sat down at my kitchen table and I wrote out a few words, and we rushed it to the choir that Vince Guaraldi had been working with in San Francisco. And he recorded it, and we got it into the show about a week before it went on the air.”
'We're Very Lucky'
Rolling Stone writes that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio was in the number 4 slot on the magazine's "25 Greatest Christmas Albums of All Time" list.
Mendelson told Rolling Stone that being part of the Peanuts legacy was "surreal":
“The whole thing from beginning to end has been surreal. The fact that it’s become such a permanent part of the holiday season is surreal.
And every time I hear it on the radio, or I hear it in a store, or someone says, ‘wah, wah, wah,’ I realize we’re very lucky to have been associated with Mr. Schulz and his characters. It all comes back to his characters, and his philosophy, and his humor.”