Working With Sparky

by Bill Melendez

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.

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!"

One of the early Fawcett collections of Peanuts' strips.

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 PeanutsYou'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.

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.

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