72 years later, we're still talking about Charles Schultz's 'Peanuts'

Charles Schulz's Linus and Sally
Charles Schulz's Linus and Sally from his classic comic stric 'Peanuts' in the Landmark Plaza area of downtown St. Paul.
Nate Minor | MPR News

Comics are big business these days – Marvel and DC Comics rake in billions at the box office. Guest host Tim Nelson talked about a different type of comic today though that also made it to the screen, the Peanuts!

On Oct. 2, the comic featuring Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy and the crew turns 72 years old. The strip was the creation of St. Paul cartoonist Charles Schulz. Benjamin Clark, the curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California, joined us.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

TIM NELSON: It's Minnesota Now, and I'm Tim Nelson. Comics are a big business these days with Marvel and DC comics raking in billions at the box office, but we're going to spend a few minutes talking about a different comic that also made it to the screen, Peanuts.

This Sunday, the comic featuring Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy, and the crew turns 72 years old. This strip was the creation of Saint Paul cartoonist Charles Schulz. You know, we love history on this show, so we're diving into the Peanuts comics for another edition of Minnesota Now and then. Joining us to talk about the comic and its legacy is Benjamin Clark. He's the curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California. Hello, Benjamin, welcome to Minnesota Now.

BENJAMIN CLARK: Thank you. Good morning.

TIM NELSON: So, all these years later, why are we still talking about Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown.

BENJAMIN CLARK: Oh, I mean, Peanuts is-- reaches out and touches so many of us and has for a long, long time. So, it's really become very deeply ingrained in American culture, and frankly, in world culture.

TIM NELSON: And how did that happen? Why did this become such a success?

BENJAMIN CLARK: Well, I think, it's because of Charles Schulz, he was a person who could mine his own life and rummage around in his own mind for these-- some of these big questions that come to all of us about what is the meaning of life, does life even have a meaning, and he's able to still distill that down into these funny and often, just, really reflective moments. So, it just, we just get Peanuts for a couple seconds a day, but every single day that really adds up.

TIM NELSON: And, I mean, there's-- you can feel the midwestern roots there of Peanuts. How is Saint Paul, his hometown, represented?

BENJAMIN CLARK: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I'm a midwesterner, myself, and yes, absolutely. It snows in Peanuts, which it doesn't do very often at all, ever, and here in Sonoma County, California, where Schulz lived the last half of his life. And, there's lots of things that are like that, where it's in Peanuts, and in his life, and in him.

TIM NELSON: Well, let's talk a little bit more about him. Charles Schulz graduated from Central High School in Saint Paul, served in World War II, and comes back and takes a job at Art Instruction schools in Minneapolis. What did he do there?

BENJAMIN CLARK: He was a-- he actually did the course as a student, and then when he came back after the war, as you said, yeah, he was hired as an instructor. So, he was one of the instructors to check the correspondence courses that he himself had taken.

TIM NELSON: And, I guess, he drew some Peanuts characters from people he met at the school, right?

BENJAMIN CLARK: Right. Yeah. He borrowed some names, certainly, including good old Charlie Brown, who was a colleague of his there.

TIM NELSON: And, the first Peanuts strip sort of started rather modestly, just, I think, seven newspapers. How did it catch on?

BENJAMIN CLARK: Well, it was slow, it built gradually. Of those first seven, a couple of them canceled within the first year. But, it was originally sold by his syndicate as a space saver. It was meant to be printed smaller than the typical comics of the day, so that an editor could run it almost anywhere in the paper. It wouldn't have to be in the comic section, it could appear in the classifieds, and it could run vertically or horizontally or in a square. It's why it's always four perfect square panels for the largest run of Peanuts, it doesn't break that format until 1988. So, 1950 to 1988, it's four square equal panels, every day. And that helped sell it to newspapers around the country.

TIM NELSON: And for decades, I mean, how did he turn this thing out just day after day plus a Sunday strip, often in color, all those years. Must have been working weeks ahead.

BENJAMIN CLARK: Absolutely. Yeah, he would run about 6 to 8 weeks ahead for dailies, and he had to do 8 to even 10 weeks for Sundays. So, comic strip artists, today, do that. They have to work pretty far ahead.

TIM NELSON: And, as I mentioned in the intro, the comic was turned into television specials, beloved by many of us. I remember the voice of the teacher was all this weird noise. Here's what it sounded like.

MISS HALVERSON: (DISTORTED VOICE)

CHARLIE BROWN: Yes, ma'am. We were playing Hangman.

MISS HALVERSON: (DISTORTED VOICE)

CHARLIE BROWN: Studying? Oh, yes, ma'am. You're, absolutely, right. We should have been studying, but you'd-- may I say something ma'am? You seem to forget that you haven't given us any assignments yet.

LINUS VAN PELT: (WHISPERING) Now you've done it. Here comes a stupid assignment.

CHARLIE BROWN: Write a 500-word theme on what we did this summer. How do you teachers keep coming up with these great new ideas?

TIM NELSON: Now, we are more familiar these days with the, Marvel movies, but he was really a pioneer in multimedia.

BENJAMIN CLARK: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely, yeah.

TIM NELSON: Now, the last Peanuts strip appeared in February of 2000, a day after Charles Schulz died at the age of 77. Was there any talk of having someone take this over and keep it going?

BENJAMIN CLARK: It was something that was discussed, but far, far before, so by 1979, he actually had a contract in place that nobody would take it over. It was something that Schulz had, thought about. But, he consulted with his family and asked them, and his children all agreed. They're like, yeah, the strip should end whenever you retire or can no longer do it. And, so, that was the decision. So, that decision was made long before.

TIM NELSON: I remember the day.

BENJAMIN CLARK: Yeah, me too, yeah.

TIM NELSON: Well, thanks so much Benjamin. Benjamin Clark is curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California. You can find more information at schulzmuseum.org

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