Books about "the making of" one thing or another pretty much assume the merits of the work in question have been well established, and the author's job is to provide insider insight, give background information on the personalities and circumstances of the creation, and to share with fans in the celebration of that work.
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: The Making of a Television Classic, by the show's executive producer Lee Mendelson with input from animator Bill Melendez, does exactly that, beautifully. Mendelson commemorates the classic Halloween special's 40th anniversary with anecdotes, interviews, storyboards, scores, production documents, pictures and warm bios of the child actors (most notably the stalwart Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown and the brilliant Chris Shea as Linus), a touching appreciation of composer/pianist Vince Guaraldi, and best of all, the full script illustrated with lavish, sumptuously colorful animation stills from the show.
Mendelson briefly, fondly recounts the storied life and career of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz, saying, "For more than 110 years, comic strips have reflected changes in American culture, but no comic artist has ever done so with as much beauty or acuity as Charles Schulz."
Schulz, whom Mendelson reveals was called "Sparky" by his friends — chortle! — ended up the most popular cartoonist on the planet, with his Peanuts series running for 50 years and over 18,000 strips. By the time Schulz — a Minnesotan who spent most of his adult life in the San Francisco Bay area — announced his retirement in 1999, Peanuts ran in 2,600 papers around the world. He died at 77, February 12, 2000, the night before his final Sunday strip appeared in newspapers.
Pumpkin was the trio's third Peanuts special, following A Charlie Brown Christmas and the baseball-themed Charlie Brown's All Stars!, and Mendelson says in giving the okay for the show, CBS execs insisted upon a "blockbuster," even though the first two shows had done very well. He believes Pumpkin's success — it was the highest-rated Peanuts special ever, tying Bonanza for first place in the ratings period — secured the series as a television staple, eventually leading to an astonishing total of 50 prime time network specials over 38 years for the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez creative team.
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown originally aired October 27, 1966, and is second only to the sainted Christmas pageant in the great seasonal Peanuts pantheon. We open with the irresistible rolling left-hand piano bass line of Vince Guaraldi's indelible "Linus and Lucy" (Guaraldi's melodic, hooky, cool but rhythmically insistent music is the secret weapon of the entire Peanuts animated series), aptly named because as the tune unfolds, the title characters, an odd couple brother and sister (as are Charlie Brown and the precocious, litigious Sally) stroll through a gorgeous leaf-strewn autumnal landscape out to the pumpkin patch in pursuit of the perfect orange orb, a pumpkin Lucy decides must surpass their combined weight, and which Linus, under Lucy's direction, must navigate back home.
Lucy brandishes a butcher knife and impales the unfortunate vegetable savagely – Linus recoils in horror. A novel's worth of relationship between the pair is conveyed wordlessly in a few perfect animated moments before the credits even roll.
Linus and Lucy each then trouble poor Charlie Brown: Linus without malice aforethought by jumping onto his just-raked pile of leaves; Lucy with elaborate premeditation, inducing him to kick the phantom football one more time via the ruse of a "signed document," which, she informs him ex post facto as he lies flat on his back, wasn't notarized.
We shift to Linus — the spiritual and moral center of the Peanuts milieu, recall his nativity speech in the Christmas special — writing a letter to the Great Pumpkin, informing said Halloween apparition of his devotion and intention to wait patiently in the sacred patch, once again, for the Pumpkin's heretofore elusive affirmation in the form of gifts, or at least a visible manifestation.
Here is Faith — the vulnerable declaration of what we believe will be if we only commit fully and sincerely enough — at its most archetypal and poignant.
To his surprise and joy, Charlie Brown is invited, apparently accidentally, to the gang's Halloween party. After they trick or treat — Charlie's dignity is assaulted door after door as each of his companions squeal with confection-gifted glee and he sighs, "I got a rock" — and gather for the evening's gala, Linus and his alternately dubious and fiercely protective paramour Sally await the Great Pumpkin's arrival.
However, these two young believers are NOT rewarded — to Schultz's eternal credit, for such faith is almost never unambiguously confirmed in this world — and Sally wrathfully abandons Linus to his delusions and the cold, viney earth.
A beautiful, humanizing touch has Lucy awakening to an alarm in the middle of the night, trudging out to her brother's patch of sorrow, leading him without recrimination back to the welcoming warmth of home and hearth, and tucking him gently into bed, every inch the loving Big Sister.
This is not a world of 2-D stereotypes, but a small corner of living, breathing humanity rendered with genius, and that is why we cling to it so, even now.