Of all the "Peanuts" television specials ever made, the first—"A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965)—was the Charlie Browniest. The 25-minute special was an underdog, just like its hapless protagonist, and barely made it on the air. CBS gave producer Lee Mendelson so minuscule a budget, we learn in Charles Solomon's "The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation," that he was forced to fund the rest out of his own pocket—even though Coca-Cola had already guaranteed sponsorship. When "A Charlie Brown Christmas" pulled in sensational ratings, CBS grudgingly asked for follow-ups. "We're going to order four more," a network executive told Mr. Mendelson, "though my aunt in New Jersey didn't like it either"—a line that Schulz might have written.
Bill Melendez, "A Charlie Brown Christmas's" director, did almost all of Charles' Schulz's "Peanuts" specials, commercials and episodics from the start of their partnership until Schulz's death. His studio was in Hollywood, fully contained in three homey bungalows on Larchmont. The place was small, easy-going and efficient.
Bill was a die-hard unionist. He walked out of Walt Disney Productions when the animation crew went on strike in 1941, and never worked at the Mouse House again. A decade later, he was President of the Screen Cartoonists Guild (TAG's predecessor, and the union that organized Disney in '41) when Walt had his revenge against that union and teamed with the IATSE to help form a rival union.
Bill didn't take the attack on the SCG lightly or kindly. When he formed his own studio, Bill Melendez Productions, in the 1960s, he made sure he signed a union contract, but it wasn't with the Animation Guild Local 839, it was with the Teamsters. It remained that way for the next forty-plus years.
I was always sorry about it, but I understood Mr. Melendez's reasons, and respected them. Sometimes old wounds go deep.