We’re near the end of a year. So I suppose it’s fitting that we’re at the end of an era, too.
Lee Mendelson died on Christmas Day.
In a way, the timing is weirdly appropriate. Mendelson, a television producer, was part of the power trio that created “A Charlie Brown Christmas” along with creator Charles Schulz and director Bill Meléndez. With its unexpected success, the three would continue to make special after special for years, taking the already beloved Peanuts gang into the stratosphere.
Schulz died in 2000, Meléndez in 2008. And now, with Mendelson’s passing, I’m left a little speechless. So let’s take a moment of silence – maybe accompanied by a talking trombone – and reflect on failure.
After all, Charlie Brown is the most famous failure in the world. He never kicks the football, never wins the baseball game, never gets the little red-haired girl. But for one brief moment, the “Peanuts trio” was at risk of surpassing him.
Schulz, Mendelson, and Meléndez easily could have gone into history as the men who broke Charlie Brown.
That sounds like hyperbole. But Mendelson already knew that producing a Charlie Brown piece was not a guaranteed success – he’d been shopping around a documentary on the little round-headed kid for months without a single bite before getting the opportunity to do a holiday special on an insanely fast turn-around time. And the choices that the three men in creating that special – well, if it had fallen flat, you could have pointed to any of those decisions, or all of them, and said “Good grief! What were they thinking?”
Things like using real child actors and no laugh track.
Or hiring a jazz composer to do the soundtrack.
Or giving the most popular character, Snoopy, no lines whatsoever.
Or making the climax of the entire show a reading from the book of Luke.
Production finished just 10 days before air time – which Mendelson would later say was the only thing that kept it from being canceled by the network executives, since it had already been scheduled. It seemed as weak and spindly as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.
You know – the tree that just needed a little love?
Today, of course, the whole thing shines as bright as Snoopy’s doghouse. It’s mandatory viewing, year after year. It had been taken to the breaking point – and held.
My brother-in-law understands that sort of thing very well. Once, while helping with a home repair, he explained his basic philosophy: “You can’t fix something if you’re afraid to break it.”
That’s a vital lesson. And a hard one.
Because boy, do we love to play it safe.
It’s easy to do what you know. After all, a lot of risks fail – that’s why they’re risks. Nobody wants to be the one who gets burned, gets laughed at, gets left with nothing but empty hands and painful memories. It’s tempting to keep your head down, do nothing, believe in nothing, risk nothing.
And of course, that’s a path that leaves you with nothing.
Everything worth doing involves some kind of risk, whether it’s as spectacular as a television program or as personal as falling in love. (C.S. Lewis famously said that “To love at all is to be vulnerable.”) It doesn’t have to be a stupid risk, mind you; there’s no medals given for playing in traffic. But when the stake is worth the gamble – when you’re not afraid to break it – that’s when lives can be transformed. That’s when the song gets written, or the job gets taken, or the family begun.
That’s when memories get made.
Thank you, Mr. Mendelson, for making some of our own.
For you, and for all of us, it was a lucky break indeed.