"A Charlie Brown Christmas" may have been the debut for "Peanuts" characters on television, but it was the follow-up special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," which premiered 50 years ago this month, that stands as the breakaway visual achievement.
"Great Pumpkin," which airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, represented an open and inviting canvas for legendary animator Bill Melendez, who worked on classic Disney films and Looney Tunes shorts prior to coming to the world of "Peanuts."
Charles M. Schulz's beloved strip, which debuted in 1950, didn't indulge in extended fantastical panels in those early years. But come the next decade, Snoopy was ready to go airborne -- his World War I flying ace first appeared in an October 1965 strip -- and Melendez was an ideal collaborator to elevate Schulz's imagination on the screen.
Taking Schulz's wish list as a challenge, Melendez created the moments of Snoopy flying his doghouse, resulting in "one of the most memorable animated scenes ever," Emmy-winning "Peanuts" executive producer Lee Mendelson tells The Washington Post', noting that the iconic scene even spawned a postage stamp.
(Last year's CG-animated "The Peanuts Movie" even features eye-popping flying scenes that pay homage to Snoopy's fantasies of soaring atop a doghouse strafed by the Red Baron.)
The previous December, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" had been a sprint to the production finish, with CBS executives doubting the special's pacing and musical sequences right up to airtime -- before roughly half of all American TV sets in use tuned in to Linus and Lucy and the gang on that debut holiday night.
The following year, buoyed by their first success, Schulz, Melendez and Mendelson hashed out the new special's plot quickly -- including Linus's late-night vigil as he waits for the Great Pumpkin, even as others question where he places his faith. (Linus had delivered the iconic "meaning of Christmas" speech in the first special, quoting from Luke.)
Their swift narrative certainty for "Great Pumpkin" freed Melendez (who also voiced Snoopy) and his crew -- including gifted animator Bill Littlejohn -- to create stunning watercolor skies and rich autumn hues that provide every scene with its own mood, apart from the characters. Melendez brilliantly painted both motion and emotion.
"It is by far the most colorful of the shows," Mendelson says, "as Bill and his team captured the vibrancy of the fall season."
And the camera, often so static in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," zooms in for facial close-ups in the follow-up that provide the viewer with a poignant intimacy.
"Because of this, I think we as viewers are right there in the pumpkin patch with Linus and Sally," the Bay Area-based Mendelson says, "as she berates him for failing to produce the Great Pumpkin."
Mendelson also cites Melendez's influence in the trick-or-treat scenes, as poor Charlie Brown endures a stone-cold heartless Halloween.
"When Charles Schulz said Charlie Brown should get a rock at the first house in his treat bag, Bill suggested it be done three times at three houses," Mendelson recounts. "I mildly objected that is was too cruel, but I was vetoed, fortunately, as it is something that people still quote today." ("I got a rock," indeed.)
Melendez shines most, though, beneath Linus' bewitchingly liquid-violet skies and Snoopy's clouds of fantastical peril, as autumnal tints pop from the trees and leaves.
"Of the 50 prime-time specials we created with Charles Schulz," Mendelson says, "I believe 'It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown' is Bill Melendez's animation masterpiece."
Writer/artist/visual storyteller Michael Cavna is creator of the "Comic Riffs" column and graphic-novel reviewer for The Post's Book World. He relishes sharp-eyed satire in most any form.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Michael Cavna