Few events in modern times have had the impact (culturally speaking) as the subject of Today’s History Lesson. When we looked at the passing of Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) a few days back, I wrote a little about the tremendous influence he’s had on young readers. But I think it pales in comparison to what Charles M. Schulz has achieved with the Peanuts and Charlie Brown behemoths.
The first Peanuts comic strip appeared on October 2, 1950 in seven different newspapers and, in 50 years of existence, became a cartoon empire. At its peak, Peanuts was published in more than 2,600 newspapers worldwide and, even after the strip ended in 2000 (with Schulz’s death), the existing strips continue in syndication. Numerous TV specials were created, and several have run every year for time out of mind (at Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), and they’ll continue to do so. A handful of full-length movies starring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the Peanuts gang, were also made, with varying degrees of success.
And then there’s the merchandise. The home videos, the lunchboxes, the books, the clothes, Christmas ornaments, Hallmark cards, even blimps were licensed. All of this stuff, including the strips themselves, earned Schulz in the neighborhood of $1 billion in his lifetime. And much of it continues to pay the Schulz estate millions of dollars every year.
But more than the money, the Peanuts gang has a fan following that numbers in the hundreds of millions. I don’t think there is any group of cartoon characters that are as firmly entrenched in American culture, and none that are so easily recognizable, both here and around the world. I didn’t read the actual comic strip all that much, simply because, as a kid, I didn’t read the newspaper (though I delivered it). But the bookshelves I shared with my younger brother were loaded with Peanuts books and I read them over and over. Even the lesser known aspects of the world Schulz created conjure up images, like the little red-haired girl, the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, and Spike (Snoopy’s cousin).
There are the things we know so well, too. Charlie Brown’s love of baseball (a love I share) coupled with his failure at the sport (which I, on occasion, also shared). There was Lucy’s “The Doctor Is In” stand where the characters paid a nickel (or was it a quarter?) to get mediocre advice. The attempts to kick the football. The blanket Linus carried, Schroeder’s love of Beethoven, the flittering Woodstock, and the cloud that followed Pigpen. And there was devastating fire which destroyed Snoopy’s doghouse (the pool table, the Van Gogh, the…).
But I think my favorite Peanuts “anything” is “A Charlie Brown Christmas“. The struggle of the characters to find the meaning of Christmas contrasted with Linus standing alone on the stage in the spotlight quoting the famous passage from the Bible reminds me, years after first watching it, of the importance of simple things. And maybe, at the end of the day, the beauty of Schulz’s creation isn’t the comedy (I don’t really think of the strip as “funny”), but the simplicity of it.
A boy, his dog, his sister, and his friends.
Recommended Viewing: A Charlie Brown Christmas – Watch the classic.