‘Peanuts’ museum marks its fifth anniversary

[21 August 2007]

By Dixie Reid

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SANTA ROSA, Calif.—Sparky said he would end “Peanuts” when he finally wore a hole in the drawing board he used for 50 years. Sadly, that day never came.

The famous piece of hardwood now resides in a re-creation of his working studio at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which kicked off its yearlong fifth-anniversary celebration the week before last. Schulz’s old drawing table stands at a permanent tilt in front of his favorite leather swivel chair.

“Peanuts” fans who never set foot in his longtime studio down the road at One Snoopy Place can linger here and imagine. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Pigpen, Peppermint Patty, Woodstock and the smartest beagle ever, Snoopy, came to life on this table, born out of the mind of a shy, funny, bespectacled man known since age 2 as “Sparky.”

Here, too, are old studio wall paneling and draperies, along with some of Schulz’s favorite books and knickknacks. A 1963 documentary with rare footage of him drawing “Peanuts” characters plays in a continuous loop on a small TV set.

Shulz’s widow, Jeannie, was surprised when the museum’s staff proposed celebrating the anniversary. Her husband won his first Reuben Award, the top honor given by the National Cartoonists Society, in 1955, five years into the five-decade run of “Peanuts.”

“That was pretty amazing and a great vote of confidence for the comic strip,” she says, “but he had to keep working at it, to keep ahead of the competition. So I’m like Sparky: When the museum is 50 years old, we’ll consider it a success.”

Schulz died at age 77 on Feb. 12, 2000, the day before the last original “Peanuts” appeared in Sunday newspapers. A fresh “Peanuts” had been in the funny pages every day since Oct. 2, 1950, and those closest to Schulz believed he simply couldn’t bear to see it all end.

He was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 1999 and announced his retirement a few weeks later. He had drawn enough dailies (Mondays-Saturdays) to run through Jan. 3, 2000. On Jan. 4, strips pulled from the “Peanuts” archives—which number 18,000 Sundays and dailies—started running in 2,600 subscriber newspapers.

Seven years later, “Classic `Peanuts’” still appears in 2,400 newspapers worldwide.

A large sculpture of “Peanuts” characters ‘Snoopy’ and ‘Woodstock’ can be seen outside the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, on July 18, 2007. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

“We all continue to see ourselves in the strip, in how we connect to the world and how we relate to other people,” says museum director Karen Johnson. “And we see our own hopes, dreams, wishes and fears. `Peanuts’ is decent and it’s funny and it’s whimsical and it’s everlasting, because it’s just about being human.”

“There are so many themes and expressions and emotions in `Peanuts’ that we can all relate to. It’s timeless,” says Melissa Menta, an executive with United Media, the licensing and syndication agency for “Peanuts,” and a member of the Schulz Museum’s board of directors.

The museum’s mission from the beginning has been to preserve, display and interpret Schulz’s artwork and to support cartooning in general. Since opening on Aug. 17, 2002, a quarter-million visitors have gazed upon and pondered original “Peanuts” strips, and some of them spend a little extra time at Sparky’s studio, where his drawing board sits, retired.

The museum is at once classy and whimsical. It’s a modern-looking building made of slate, glass and rich-looking woods with more than 6,000 square feet of gallery space and a 2,000-square-foot Great Hall dominated by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani’s two large “Peanuts”-inspired art installations. One is a layered-wood wall sculpture depicting Snoopy as he morphs from looking like Schulz’s childhood pet, Spike, to the beagle he is today. The other is a mammoth mural showing mischievous Lucy holding the football for good ol’ Charlie Brown. The surprise is that, on closer inspection, the mural is composed of 3,588 ceramic tiles, each a miniature “Peanuts” strip.

Also part of the museum are smaller exhibit spaces on two floors, a research library, a 100-seat theater and a room where kids create their own art. Among the outside attractions are a labyrinth that looks like Snoopy’s head and a “kite-eating” tree.

This tribute to a comic strip stands a few blocks west of Highway 101 in a neighborhood that should, by all rights, be called Schulz Acres. Across the street is the Swiss-themed Redwood Empire Ice Arena that Schulz built for this community in 1969. He competed in a Tuesday night hockey league and in the annual Senior World Hockey Tournament, which he founded. The hockey tournament goes on every summer, but the elaborate, professional ice show he put on every Christmas doesn’t.

Schulz’s properties were so close together that he could walk in a matter of minutes from his studio to the ice arena (where he dined twice a day at the Warm Puppy Cafe), his indoor tennis court and the baseball field he built for neighborhood kids.

The idea for the museum originated with two friends of the Schulzes, cartoon collector Mark Cohen and longtime attorney Ed Anderson. It took the couple a while to embrace the notion, though.

“Ed began to think about Sparky’s legacy and how we were going to preserve it,” says Jeannie Schulz, who was married to the cartoonist for 26 years. “He and Mark said to Sparky, `We need to do something, to have a museum.’ And I thought, `What do you mean, a museum? Sparky is here.’ I don’t think I ever thought (the comic strip) would end, but finally I began hearing what they were saying and thinking how it could really happen.”

The Schulzes financed the $8 million museum, which operates as a non-profit. Early plans show that architect C. David Robinson created an office space with an adjoining bathroom for Schulz, who just wanted another place to spend a little time when he wasn’t drawing.

Schulz, reluctant at first, warmed to the idea of the museum as a place where “Peanuts” fans could see his original artwork. He loved his drawings and thought it a waste for people not to enjoy them.

As much a part of popular culture as “Peanuts” has been for more than a half-century, Jeannie Schulz thinks scholars will someday study her late husband’s work. And they can do that in the museum’s vast research center.

Henri Dark-Fleury, 9, examines some of the original “Peanuts” comic strips at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, on July 18, 2007. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

“I think `Peanuts’ is going to have a revival among people who are going to come at it from a different point of view, not as a popular thing people read every day and forgot about, or that was in the back of their brain,” she says. “I think they’re going to come at it from the point of view of its humanity and how, despite the way the world changed, it always tapped into basic human philosophy, fears, feelings and needs.”

Schulz, the son of a Minneapolis barber, introduced the phrases “happiness is a warm puppy,” “security blanket” and “good grief!” into the languages of 64 countries. The images of Snoopy on his doghouse roof, Linus and his blanket, and Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown at the last moment are forever fixed in the minds of fans. The comic strip and its characters are nothing if not enduring.

“Peanuts” licensing—the plush Snoopys and all—is a $1.2 billion international business, according to Menta. One example of its merchandising success is retailer Urban Outfitters, which sold out of its “Charlie Brown Christmas tree” the last two years, along with the Linus blanket it introduced for the 2006 holiday season. This year, Urban Outfitters will sell “an exclusive Snoopy plush,” with a portion of profits going to the U.S. Humane Society.

The characters also live on with young fans who every year watch the animated specials “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which premiered on television in 1965; “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966); and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” (1973). Every season, these beloved shows still draw millions of viewers.

And now Snoopy is about to rock the Big Apple.

Top fashion designers, such as Betsey Johnson and Isaac Mizrahi, have created “Peanuts”-inspired frocks for the “Snoopy in Fashion” runway show during next month’s Fashion Week in New York City. Afterward, the clothes will be sold on eBay, with proceeds going to Dress for Success.

“It’s another sign that `Peanuts’ remains relevant to people, and now it’s reaching the hip fashionistas,” says Menta.

Schulz Museum director Johnson believes the “Peanuts” gang will live on for many, many years because of the man Charles Schulz was.

“Sparky had this Everyman humanity, this ability to really home in on what it meant to be alive, to be human and have angst and be hopeful. He had this discipline that every day he could deliver that through his characters,” she says. “People talk about his genius and human connection, but it’s important to talk about his daily discipline to his art and to his fans and to the characters that made `Peanuts’ live for 50 years.”

I think the “Peanuts” is going to have a revival among people who are going to come at it from….the point of view of its humanity says Jeannie Schulz, the wife of “Peanuts” comic strip creator Charles Schulz, at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, on July 18, 2007. (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

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‘PEANUTS’ PARTIES

The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa kicked off its fifth-anniversary celebration Aug. 9.

Upcoming anniversary exhibits and events:

On display through Nov. 19: “The Museum Building” is an exhibit of early concept drawings and models of the Charles M. Schulz Museum, with notes by architect C. David Robinson.

Through Jan. 28: “`Peanuts’ Lives: A Tribute,” an exhibit of other cartoonists’ work, celebrating Schulz’s posthumous lifetime achievement award from the National Cartoonists Society.

Sept. 19-Jan. 14: “His Life in Peanuts,” an exhibit of 70 original “Peanuts” strips that tell Schulz’s life story.

2 p.m. Sept. 22: Guest artist Tom Everhart talks about his friendship with Schulz and his oil paintings that feature the “Peanuts” gang.

2 p.m. Sept. 29: Guest cartoonist Tom Tomorrow (“This Modern World”)

1-3 p.m. Oct. 20: Guest cartoonist Jerry Van Amerongen (“Ballard Street”)

1-3 p.m. Oct. 27: Guest cartoonist Patrick McDonnell (“Mutts”)

Nov. 14-March 17: “In Love and Friendship: Schulz Originals From the Community,” an exhibit of drawings, letters and cards from Schulz to friends and acquaintances.

Noon-3 p.m. Nov. 12-18: Special “Inside the Comic Strip” tours to celebrate Schulz’s birthday.

Nov. 18: Free admission to Charles Schulz’s 85th birthday celebration. (His actual birth date is Nov. 26.)

Feb. 2-Aug. 11, 2008: “Non-Verbal Language of Comic Arts,” an exhibit exploring the visual shorthand of comic art and its meaning in “Peanuts” and other comic strips.

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CHARLES M. SCHULZ MUSEUM AND RESEARCH CENTER

WHERE: 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa, Calif.

HOURS: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends. Winter hours start Labor Day (Sept. 3), when the museum is open noon-5 p.m. weekdays (closed Tuesdays) and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends. Also closed major holidays.

ADMISSION: $8 general, $5 ages 4-18, 62-plus and college students with valid ID

INFORMATION: (707) 579-4452, www.schulzmuseum.org.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/peanuts-museum-marks-its-fifth-anniversary/