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Working With Sparky

Bill Melendez looks back at working with Charles Schulz, or Sparky as his friends called him, and relays how they produced the classic Peanuts specials we all love.

Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez (left to right). Courtesy of Bill Melendez.

I am Bill Melendez, an animator. I started at Walt Disney Productions in January of 1937, where I learned the trade of "animating." I spent a happy four years at Disney then went to Warner Bros. After "the war," WWII, I went to a small studio, UPA where I unknowingly prepared for my future involvement with Charles M. Schulz, or "Sparky" as all who were close to him called him.

I was doing commercials then for J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. They were doing spots for the Ford Motor Company. In the middle Fifties the agency was looking for a spokesperson for a new car, the Ford Falcon, to be introduced later on. At a dinner meeting at the home of Norman Straus, the president of J. Walter Thompson, the talk was about selecting the proper character to represent the Ford Falcon. Norman's granddaughter was playing underfoot and she volunteered: "Why don't you use Peanuts, Grandpa?" A beat or two after hearing the suggestion, Mr. Straus turned to one of his employees, Harry Trelevan, and asked about what the child had said, "Peanuts." "What or who is this?" Harry answered, "I think she means a new comic strip named Peanuts..." and continued to explain what he thought or knew about the strip.

One of the early Fawcett collections of Peanuts' strips.

Animation Finds the Peanuts

Harry found out what he could. It seemed that the cartoonist was shy and very reluctant to commercialize his property, the syndicate, United Media, so informed him. Harry decided to ask the cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz, how he felt about saying something about Ford cars. To Harry's surprise, Schulz stated, "Of course I don't mind. The only car I've ever driven is a Ford. I like the cars!"

All this then led Harry to ask me if I minded auditioning for an animation job. I told him, "I'm an animator. I don't audition for jobs!" Harry said, "Well this is a job to animate Peanuts You've heard of Peanuts? The creator wants to know who the animator will be. He doesn't like or trust animators from New York or Hollywood!" I then said, "Well I know about the strip and it has a great story -- I'll audition for the job."

So I gathered together a sample reel of mainly beer spots and cereal commercials. Harry and I went to Sebastopol, California and found Schulz lived in a beautiful 28-acre redwood park called The Coffee Grounds. It was on a country lane named Coffee Lane.

We got along fine. Sparky was friendly and satisfied with my credentials. As for me, I suddenly had a property that had the challenge UPA had prepared me for; to animate cartoons that were not designed like Disney or Warner type drawings, as three-dimensional characters that could be turned and animated in a very realistic fashion. Sparky's characters in those early days -- the late '50s -- were definitely two-dimensional. I therefore could animate the characters in a very stylized way. I would try to give the impression of "full" animation in a limited way; create the illusion of complete mobility with a minimum of drawings. I was indeed pleased at the choice of Peanuts.

Schulz and Melendez went on from making commercials to creating some of the most beloved holiday television specials like It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

The first commercial we did was a minute spot, about 58 seconds long and in 35mm footage about eighty-seven feet long or about two thousand drawings.

By this time I was calling Mr. Schulz, "Sparky." An uncle gave him the nickname "Sparky" after the comic strip Barney Google wherein was a racehorse named Spark Plug. The name fitted Schulz to a "T." He was a one-man army and did everything in his comic strip: he wrote the story and dialogue, he drew (staged) the story in light pencil then inked the illustration. He then lettered all the dialogue. I once asked him if he had ever considered hiring some talent to help him in the mundane need to ink his drawings or even to rough the staging. At least, I said, "Get someone to do the lettering for you." He looked at me with cold blue eyes and asked, "Would Arnold Palmer ask his caddy to do his approach shot?" I never again questioned his work habits.

Schulz was truly a strip artist at heart. His comics have run in more newspapers and books than any other in history.

Although I often encouraged him to grab his ink bottle, his drawing pen, a stack of drawing paper and take a leisurely working vacation on a tramp steamer or whatever... Again that blue-eyed stare, then after a beat: "Why would I want to go anywhere? I am very happy here at my studio and my surroundings. What else is there away from here?

I learned not to meddle in his life, although I did have a lot of fun now and then trying to influence him to loosen up. I can still see those blue eyes calmly appraising me, then ignoring me and back to our story or whatever it was we were working on.

We did have a very good and sensible way of working on our projects. He once said to me, "Bill, I am a comic strip artist. I do the comic strip. I can't animate our shows. You're an animator. You animate the shows. That's a good division of work; I do my thing, you do yours and we'll get along famously!" And so we did.

Schulz's stories have penetrated the popular culture. When people see a mangy-looking Christmas tree, isn't it always called a Charlie Brown tree?

Our Development Process

When Lee Mendelson, our executive producer, needed the next show, he would call Sparky, who then formed up a premise. If Lee or I dared suggest the next premise for the show, Sparky would gently ignore us. He had to create his shows from the start and we certainly respected his decision and responsibility.

Once he was ready, he would call me and say, "Come on up, I have an idea. [For example] Let's do a story where Snoopy will be "The Pied Piper" in his little town and play the part of the Pied Piper, but, he will not play a pipe, he will play a concertina."

I would fly up to Santa Rosa with my small tape recorder, my pencil and my storyboard tablet to meet with Sparky.

We would start at 10:00 a.m. and talk, take notes, and where acceptable, tape our conversation. We would work for two hours until 12:00 noon. Then off to lunch at the Warm Puppy in his ice arena. After lunch we'd go back to his studio for another half to one hour then I'd go back to the airport to get my plane back to Hollywood.

The day after our meeting I would start drawing or visualizing the story, as far as we got. As I drew I would elaborate on our story telling and try to be as faithful as possible to Sparky's story. Once in a while I would sketch in continuity to explain a scene that I felt needed it. Later on he would wonder where this came from and I would say it came from my notes from the meeting. He never questioned my veracity.

Schulz has even lent his talent to print versions of other popular TV series like the original Kids Say the Darndest Things!

I would sketch the story on my storyboard pad as far as I had material, then I'd call Sparky and suggest another meeting.

I'd fly back to Santa Rosa; incidentally, Sparky usually picked me up at the airport. We'd go back to the studio where I would show him the storyboard. He would read it and give me corrections and changes. He would correct the language as he went and then continue the story where we had left off. I took notes and made drawings as we went along. As usual, we would work until noon and then take a lunch break. After which we would decide if there was enough material to complete the show. I would finish my notes and fly back to Hollywood.

I'd continue illustrating the story in my storyboard pad and when I had done 60 pages with six drawings per page...well, I have a rule of thumb that these 360 illustrations are a half-hour show. It would take me about two more weeks to finish the story. Then I had to hustle back to Santa Rosa and this time we would go over the story critically. Sparky would correct the language, informing me that we can't have the kids sound like they're Spanish! So he carefully tells me how the dialogue should be read. I, of course, ignore this kind of instruction.

There will never be another one like Sparky.

Glorious Interruptions

Now once in a while we'd have interruptions that are part and parcel of the show writing moment, such as once when we were working in the middle 1960s. We were interrupted by Craig and Monte, Sparky's boys. They burst into the studio to inform Sparky they had a kite and needed help to get it up. I said, "Great! I'm an expert kite flyer!"

We, the kids and I (Sparky was staked at his desk), rushed out. Soon I had that kite way up in the air, past the trees. From around the neighborhood in a clamor of excitement, kids rushed up at the site of a kite flying in the Coffee Grounds! The kids were jumping about cheerfully chattering. Sparky then showed up to watch us. I called him to take over the high-flying kite. Sparky came up to me and after my encouraging him to take the kite, he did. I explained how to react to a loss or easing up of the wind as I handed him the string. The kids were yelling excitedly. Sparky had the string when the wind completely died down. I yelled at Sparky as the kite fluttered. "Run, Sparky, run! Pull on the string, Sparky, pull!" The kite fluttered and settled over some trees. Sparky without a word went back to the studio, I followed him.

Sparky: "Well, that kite eating tree did it again. Couldn't stand to see the kite flying. The kite eating tree got our kite!"

We went back to work and finished our story. Sparky read it and handed it to me. He allowed: "Well, Bill, you have a good story there, it's up to you. Finish it!"

Bill Melendezis an animator and producer, who has long worked with Charles Schulz on many of the Peanuts animated television specials. He has been awarded 8 Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards and over 150 advertising awards. In addition, Bill was the first American to receive the Venice Cup for over-all animation excellence. After a seven-decade career in animation, Bill still animates, produces and directs out of his Hollywood, California-based studios, Bill Melendez Productions.