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Lee Mendelson Looks Back on “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown!”

Lee Mendelson
Lee Mendelson

In 1963, producer Lee Mendelson had formed his production company in San Francisco, CA, and produced the documentary A Man Named Mays. The documentary on famed baseball player Willie Mays had aired on NBC in the fall, and when Mendelson was looking around for his next project, he noticed a Peanuts comic strip about baseball in the San Francisco Chronicle. Thinking that, “You’ve just done the world’s greatest baseball player, now you should do the world’s worst baseball player, Charlie Brown,” Mendelson reached out to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz to see if he’d be interested in collaborating on a documentary about making the strip. Schulz’s skepticism was tempered by the fact that he and his son Monte had seen and enjoyed the Mays documentary.

The 1965 documentary Charlie Brown & Charles Schulz was the start of a collaboration between the two men that lasted 30 years, which soon added animator Bill Melendez and composer Vince Guaraldi to produce A Charlie Brown Christmas. The special was not well-received by the executives at CBS, but audiences reaction was positive enough to earn the special an Emmy and a Peabody award and launch a collaboration that would create more than 40 half-hour TV specials, an animated TV series, and four theatrical movies. The third of those movies, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, was just released by Paramount Home Video. In conjunction with that release, we were able to chat with Lee Mendelson via telephone, just after winning the Winsor McCay Award at the 42nd annual Annie Awards.

TOONZONE NEWS: I noticed that there’s about a gap of about 5 years between all the Peanuts movies. Is that really how long it took to make them?

LEE MENDELSON: No, there are a few reasons for that. Charles Schulz’s main thing in life was the comic strip. That always came first. Secondly, we were doing a heck of a lot of television shows. We ended up doing 50 prime-time specials, and it was just a matter of time or getting ideas, you know, so there was no particular reason. It just happened that way.

On Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, I said to him, “We’ve got to do research and go down the Rogue River.” He said, “Well, it rains a lot up in Oregon,” and I said, “I’m going to find out when the perfect time to go is.” They told me in July, it never rains in Oregon. So we spent three days on a raft in a thunderstorm. Rained the whole time. (laughter) That was the research we did for that movie.

Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown Lee Mendelson RainstormTOONZONE NEWS: So that pretty horrible rainstorm in the middle of the movie…

LEE MENDELSON: That’s right. That was us.

TOONZONE NEWS: Seems like a very Charlie Brown thing to happen to you.

LEE MENDELSON: Absolutely.

TOONZONE NEWS: I’ve always wondered about that era in the late 70’s, when you were pushing to newer areas that you hadn’t done before. This movie doesn’t have any real root in the comic strips, and there was also had the What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown special, which was Snoopy doing Call of the Wild.

LEE MENDELSON: Yeah, we were very lucky in that the networks and the movie studios let us do whatever we wanted. Nobody ever gets that freedom. And the Nightmare show came because Charles Schulz had a dream one night about Snoopy being a sled dog. He also wanted to do one on cancer, which became Why Charlie Brown, Why? And then we did one going back to his World War II experience, going back to France. So we did go off in other areas, and we had the freedom to do that that most people don’t have. Of course, it started with Linus reading from the Bible in the first show. Nobody had ever done that either. We all did have a freedom of expression that was unique in our business. Also, they couldn’t find Burlingame or Santa Rosa, California. They could only find Melendez in Hollywood. (laughter)

But you’re right that a lot of those TV shows were based on the comic strip in the beginning, and then we went in other directions. The whole Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown had nothing to do with the comic strip. It had a bigger theme where we could get in the outdoors and have some fun with it.

Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown Lee Mendelson Motorcycle Running of the BullsTOONZONE NEWS: The earlier specials which are heavily based on the strips sometimes even the comic timing would follow a four-panel strip, vs. some of the animated business that couldn’t do in the strip or was very much catered to animation.

LEE MENDELSON: That’s like…we were having a meeting one day, and Schulz had just drawn the strips of Snoopy on the doghouse and fighting the Red Baron, and he said, “You know, it’s such a shame that we can’t animate this. It’d make great animation.” And Bill Melendez took such umbrage at this and said, “What do you mean we can’t? That’s what I do!” That became one of the most famous scenes we ever did in The Great Pumpkin. But basically, Melendez said the strip is simple, I’m just going to move the characters from the comic strip to animation. I’m not going to cartoon them up. And that’s why the shows have the same look as the comic strip, whereas Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and the other movies broadened the landscape quite a bit.

TOONZONE NEWS: Who would you say is the most under-recognized member of the crew who worked on the specials and the movies?

LEE MENDELSON: Well, he’s not under-recognized, but Vince Guaraldi, who’s also from San Francisco. Without his music, I don’t think that we would have ever had the success we had with the specials. And he did the first movie, of course, before he passed away. So he may be the least heralded, but he’s still heralded. When I was at the Annies, I know when I mentioned his name that a big ovation came up.

TOONZONE NEWS: I think Bugs Bunny introduces a lot of people to classical music, but Peanuts and Vince Guaraldi introduces a lot of people to jazz.

LEE MENDELSON: Yeah, of course he passed away after our first 15 shows. Then we were lucky to have other people who were unheralded come along. Ed Bogas did the music for Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, and a bunch of our specials, and then David Benoit took over for the last 30 years for a bunch of our specials. They kept the great standards of music. So I guess the most unheralded would be Ed Bogas and David Benoit.

Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown Lee Mendelson Victory in SightTOONZONE NEWS: I know you are working on a number of different film projects. Can you discuss some of the things that are on your plate now?

LEE MENDELSON: We hope to do a 50th anniversary special. This December is the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas. And then the Charles Schulz family itself is creating a new movie that’s coming out in CGI in November. Everybody’s excited about Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown being remastered, and a new movie coming out, and about our anniversary show. So for the time being, the beat goes on.

TOONZONE NEWS: And hopefully for a long time. One of the joys I’ve had recently is being able to share the specials and now this movie with my son.

LEE MENDELSON: Oh, good. We always hear families like to get together at Christmas time and share the shows and that kind of thing. It’s very rewarding.

TOONZONE NEWS: Are you attached to the Fox movie coming up?

LEE MENDELSON: No, that’s a family enterprise and in CGI, which of course we haven’t done. It looks great, and I think it’s going to be great and get us a whole new audience for the old shows and the new ones.

Toonzone News would like to thank Lee Mendelson for taking the time to talk with us, and Alan Meier and the Paramount PR team for arranging the interview for us. Keep up with Lee Mendelson at Lee Mendelson Film Productions. Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown is now available on DVD from Paramount Home Video, as is A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Snoopy Come Home. Almost all of the TV specials are available on DVD and/or Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay