Charlie Brown mourned the loss of Christmas to commercialism in 1965, which is why he chose to buy a frail tree for his school’s Christmas pageant.
“I think it needs me,” he reasoned.
A real-life version of the little tree stands in the West Baton Rouge Museum’s exhibit, “50th Anniversary of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.’” The Baton Rouge Cartoonists Society’s Eddie Van Buren helped put together the show, which runs through Jan. 3, and celebrates five decades of Charles Schultz’s classic animated television special.
In the show, Charlie Brown is tasked with finding a Christmas tree for the class play.
His headstrong, adversarial friend Lucy Van Pelt instructs him to find something fancy, maybe an aluminum tree painted pink. But Charlie Brown opts for the smallest tree on the lot, sensing that it is more connected to the true meaning of Christmas.
Then Linus steps up and recites Luke 2:8-14, the Christmas story, in response to Charlie Brown’s question of “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” The scene is said to be the most famous from this special first aired by CBS on Dec. 9, 1965.
“All of the voices in the special were children’s,” says Lauren Hawthorne, museum registrar and guest curator for the show. “Charles Schultz didn’t want any adult voices in the film.”
And when there had to be an adult presence, the voice was always obscured.
“It was called the ‘wah-wah voice,’ ” Hawthorne says. “They used a trombone to create it. So, we have an iPad set up in our exhibit with a Wah-Wah App. Trombone Shorty has made the sounds on this app with his trombone, and you can type in names or words and hear how they sound as wah-wah.”
The app has been a popular component of this small exhibit in the museum’s Brick Gallery, as has the free, weekly Sunday afternoon screenings of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
And for those who can’t make the 2:30 p.m. Sunday shows, the 25-minute-long special is looped on a smaller screen in the exhibit.
Local residents have donated artifacts, including collectible Peanuts Christmas ornaments, an official “Charlie Brown Christmas” book that created a way for pre-YouTube kids to relive the special after it aired, and sheet music for the soundtrack’s original song, “Christmastime is Here.”
But the most fascinating part of this show is the museum’s documentation of the history behind this animated special and how CBS executives had reservations about airing it.
“When the finished show was finally presented to the top two executives at CBS, they were disappointed, saying it was flat and a little slow,” according to the museum’s information. “And they were extremely hesitant to use the scene involving Linus reciting the story of Christ’s birth. Schultz insisted it stay in and said, ‘If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?’ So it stayed.”
Thousands of letters poured into CBS thanking Schultz for keeping Christ in Christmas.
“Despite the executives’ reservations, it was a hit with viewers and reviewers,” the museum’s exhibit information states. “Seeing the success of the show, CBS ordered four more Peanuts specials.”
“A Charlie Brown Christmas” now stands as the longest-running cartoon special in television history.