Like so many other animated, comedic shorts, written by Primetime Emmy winner and Peanuts creator, Charles M. Schulz (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving), “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” has gone onto achieve generational viewing status. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, can all watch the show together. There is no need on the part of the adults to cover up children’s ears or eyes during the broadcast. This is due to several factors: The show, like all Peanuts material, is devoid of foul language, sex, innuendo and in this particular case, with the exception of one dream sequence involving Snoopy as a World War I fighter ace, contains virtually no violence whatsoever.
First airing on CBS Television on October 27, 1966, the twenty-five minute short was directed by Primetime Emmy winner, Bill Melendez (A Boy Named Charlie Brown). Academy Award and Grammy Award nominee, Vince Guaraldi provides the perfect original score to match the on-screen antics of the Peanuts gang. The Halloween special marked the third television outing for Peanuts. CBS Television wanted another hit, and felt Peanuts could deliver, thanks to the phenomenal ratings success of the two shows that came before it, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” which aired on December 9, 1965, and “Charlie Brown’s All Stars!” which aired on June 8, 1966. Based on the success of the other two specials, Schulz and Melendez were given carte blanche as to what they wanted to do. The powers that be were not happy that Halloween was chosen as the Holiday to focus on, because they didn’t consider it a holiday worthy of doing a special on. The two creative executives were informed before the show even aired, that if the show was not a blockbuster in terms of the ratings, that no more Peanuts specials would be funded.
The show begins with Linus (Christopher Shea) and his sister Lucy (Sally Dryer) leaving their home and walking to a nearby patch to pick a pumpkin out for Halloween. The first two pumpkins Linus picks up are too small for Lucy’s liking, but the third one he lifts, which has some heft to it, meets with her approval. The scene transitions to the loveable loser, Charlie Brown’s backyard yard, where he has been raking leaves that he has formed into a rather large pile, only to be subsequently destroyed by one of his friends. His ever present, adorable, black and white beagle, Snoopy is watching the proceedings. Nothing has really happened yet to clue in a viewer as to what the particular show deals with, but within seconds that changes.
This particular special primarily focuses in on the normally grounded, Linus. He is under the impression that an entity known as “The Great Pumpkin” rises up out of a pumpkin patch on Halloween night and goes in search of what he dubs ‘sincere pumpkin patches.’ If a child is fortunate enough to be waiting for the “The Great Pumpkin” in just such a patch, the entity showers the child with all sorts of gifts. Charlie Brown, voiced by Paul Robbins – no relation – learns of his friend’s plan as Linus is writing his letter to “The Great Pumpkin,” much like a child would write a correspondence to Santa Claus. Charlie tells Linus he thinks he is crazy to believe in such nonsense. Linus retorts that he doesn’t consider it any different than when a youngster write a letters to Santa, it is just that Santa has had more exposure, gained greater popularity, and his validity is therefore largely unquestioned unlike the lesser known ” Great Pumpkin.”
In the meantime, the remainder of the Peanuts gang, having constructed their homemade Halloween costumes in order to reap goodies from trick or treating, have begun to do just that. The children all seem to be given the types of candies that are handed out on Halloween, except for Charlie Brown, who keeps receiving rocks in his Halloween sack. After the children are done getting their candy, the gang heads over to their friend Violet’s (Ann Altieri) house to attend a Halloween party: other familiar faces like Pigpen (Gail DeFaria) and Schroeder (Glenn Mendelson) make their presence known. Once at the party, the more traditional aspects associated with Halloween such as bobbing for apples and decorating a pumpkin take place. (As an aside: after the original airing of the show, children across America were upset that poor Charlie Brown received nothing but rocks in his Halloween sack, so they began sending candy to CBS studios, care of his character. Apparently, this was something that continued for years afterwards.)
Linus, and Sally (Kathy Steinberg), Charlie Brown’s sister, who is smitten with Linus, are the only two members of the Peanuts gang that have opted out of Trick-or-Treating and Violet’s party, to await the arrival of the “Great Pumpkin.” As the evening wears on, it becomes more and more apparent, that the mythical being is not going to be making an appearance. At one point the two believe that the creature has arrived to bestow all sorts of gifts on them, but it turns out to be nothing but a costumed Snoopy. I found it funny, at the moment of truth that Linus had been so desperately waiting for, that he fainted, leaving Sally do to deal with the “The Great Pumpkin.”
In-between the traditional behavior of most of the Peanuts gang and Linus and Lucy waiting for the arrival of the “Great Pumpkin” there are scenes, or more accurately dream sequences, that deal with Snoopy. Snoopy has decided to dress up as a World War I fighter pilot, his dog house is his airplane, and his nemesis is, the real life, Red Baron. There are several minutes of some innovative, psychedelic, scenes featuring the non-normal color palettes, used when bringing peanuts characters’ to life, that are employed during the fictitious aerial battle sequences; if one can even call them that. Never once is Snoopy shown firing anything that looks like a gun at another person or plane. The chase scene against the Red Baron, before Snoopy has to land his dog house, and his subsequent sneaking across occupied France, under the cover of darkness, making his way back to Charlie Brown and Company, at the party at Violet’s house, are some of my favorite scenes of the show. (As an aside: the idea for Snoopy to become a World War I flying ace was suggested by Monte Schulz, Charles son. Monte enjoyed building World War I model airplanes, and one day while working on a project, the idea of Snoopy becoming a fighter pilot came to him. At first Charles Schulz was not enthralled with the idea, but after testing it out in a few comic strips, the idea for Snoopy’s imaginary persona made its way into “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” special).
The animation department, which consisted of sixteen individuals, whose names are too numerous to list, did a fantastic job of bringing Schulz’s vision to life. The colors that are used are vivid, and the artwork on the DVD I watched, help tremendously in creating the perfect atmosphere for each particular scene. The autumnal look of the October day, the crispness of the evening scenes, with the ever present full moon, and the way the orange of the pumpkins pops through the screen, is all spot on. Even with it first being put out on VHS tape, and later both on DVD and Blu-ray, each year, when it is re-broadcast, the network airing of the Peanuts classic draws, on average, 10 million plus viewers. That is really something special for a show that can be watched at any time on other mediums, and is almost fifty years of age. The special is also a reminder that, at one point, Halloween also had a greater degree of innocence to it. The Peanuts special aired long before parents and guardians had to check each individual piece of candy, to make sure that some psycho hadn’t tampered with it, and inserted a razor blade, pill, or God knows what other devastating item into the candy. Older brothers and sisters, or kids from individual neighborhoods, would dress up as the traditional ghouls, goblins, and monsters from film, and give younger children a good scare, but there wasn’t any worry about some deranged individual pulling up in a van and taking off with an innocent child who was just out for a fun time, like there is these days. Sadly, we live in a much sicker world now than in the 1960s. I think it is great that, at least temporarily, children, and the adults in their lives, can be transported back to a more innocent time, when the only thing to fear was the appearance of a “Great Pumpkin.”