It Was Only Yesterday L.A. Went Up in Flames

Langston Hughes’ proverbial California raisin in the sun exploded to a funky beat. I stared blankly past the familiar storefronts, into a world I could barely grasp. How civil a society was it that my daughter was about to join?

It literally rained on their parade for a bit, but that didn’t stop the show. Those of us without umbrellas scurried inside the stadium for cover, while the high school class of 2010 remained on the field, confined to their seats as a brief shower all but laid waste to those commencement hairdos. Fortunately, the rain stopped in time for school administrators to call the roll and hand out the diplomas, and I got to see my daughter stride triumphantly across the field to cap her high school career. When the event was complete and the skies finally sunny, the field was a happy hodgepodge of celebrating seniors, overjoyed families, and impromptu photo shoots.

Mom cried, as moms do. Dad beamed, as dads do. Moments like this naturally prompt a lot of looking back, and I’ve spent much of the last year remembering some of the major events and minor-key moments I’ve shared with my daughter over the years. Wince I also regularly consider the breadth and depth of black pop culture, taking in everything from James Welson Johnson to Zane, I couldn’t help wondering how many great moments in black pop history she’d lived through since she came to us in the spring of 1992. To hopeless old farts like me, for whom events like the debut of the TV show Good Times (1974) feel like they happened not too long ago, reflecting on 1992 is nothing. For my daughter, though, that's already waaay back, back in the day.

Actually, she wasn’t officially around for the first Seminal Black Pop Event of Her Lifetime Thus Far. Los Angeles erupted in racial discord shortly before she was born, in the wake of rioting after a jury found cops not guilty of the beating they were videotaped giving Rodney King (back when videos had to show more than a dancing cat to go worldwide). I had a planned day off work that ended up falling about a week after the worst of the riots.

I remember walking through a mall that day, not shopping but just trying to puzzle things out. Here was the dark and nasty conflagration rappers, N.W.A. in particular, had been warning us about, seemingly come to life. Powerless people of color pitted against each other, lashing out as best they could against a system designed to keep them that way: Langston Hughes’ proverbial California raisin in the sun, exploding to a funky beat. I stared blankly past the familiar storefronts, into a world I could barely grasp. How civil a society was it, indeed, that my daughter was about to join?

Of course, the riots came and went. Some speeches were given (King’s “Can’t we all just get along?” lament is the only one remembered), some storefronts were repaired, some fences were mended, and some things between the police and the policed never much changed. Ironically, the N.W.A. collective that foretold of the trouble brewing was no longer a force by the time that trouble went down: Ice Cube and Dr. Dre had become solo hip-hop brands; and many of the others would eventually be fodder for a where-are-they-now story in the local alt-rag (“Whatever Happened to N.W.A.’s Posse?,” Martin Cizmar, LA Weekly, 6 May 2010). My daughter soon came into the world, in the middle of: another championship run by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls; Jay Leno’s attempt to return jazz to late-night television by hiring Branford Marsalis as Tonight Show bandleader; and the windup of Bill Clinton’s triumphant presidential primary campaign.

My daughter was only two when O.J. Simpson surrendered, eventually, on murder charges in 1994; she was asleep during the infamous low-speed chase. I was glued to a TV one October afternoon the next year, watching the not-guilty verdict come down; she was glued to a different TV, watching some long-forgotten kids’ show on Nick Jr. In the years since, O.J. has come to register as little more than a standup comic’s punchline for her and her peers, who were all toddlers then, with little recognition of the dialogue the case sparked about race in America. The even surely reflected the world she’d grow up in, though, and she’s lived through more than enough examples of the ways race, media and criminal justice collide to make up for missing the O.J. episode.

There have been several black pop supernovas who’ve been part of our cultural mix her whole life: Oprah, Prince, Michael Jordan, and Halle Berry, to name but a few. The superstar whose work she’s most enjoyed over the years, however, might be Bill Cosby – not for his ‘60s comedy records or his ‘00s rants about black family values, but for his ‘80s The Cosby Show sitcom. I lived through the show’s network run, but never did I imagine that through the magic of syndication (and the explosion of cable TV), that years later my kid would become a Cos-aholic, watching just about all 201 episodes at least two or three times. We all knew the program was groundbreaking in its day, but it took our kids and grandkids to show us that Cosby’s humorous, loving depictions of a stable black family would turn out to be timeless, too. Remind me to ask her who her favorite Cosby kid is.

The overarching tone-setter of her cultural world these last 18 years has been hip-hop. My daughter’s relationship with hip-hop wasn’t the same that those of us engaged with the music from its formative years had. By the time she showed up, hip-hop had established itself as part of America’s (and increasingly the world’s) pop lingua franca. There was no shock-of-the-new rush that we experienced when we heard Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force or LL Cool J or Queen Latifah for the first time. For us, hip-hop was a departure for the norm. For my daughter’s generation, hip-hop was the norm.

Let’s look back at what that norm was. Among the iconic hip hop jams released in ’92 were Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s Mecca and the Soul Brother, Arrested Development’s 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of…, and Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411?. The Beastie Boys broke new ground for themselves with Check Your Head, and Eric B. and Rakim called it a day. A thousand flowers were still blooming within the hip-hop world, still rocking what we’ve since branded as its “golden age”, but that would change by the end of the year.

That’s when Dr. Dre released The Chronic, an amazingly successful and influential work. Dre put a pop sheen on old funk samples, taking West Coast gangsta in a brand new direction. The album’s lyrics weren’t about positive uplift or social commentary, but everyday life in the ‘hood as lived by the archetypical “G”. It also introduced the world to Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose laconic baritone proved the perfect counterpart to Dre’s sinewy beats (especially on his debut Doggystyle, released in 1993).

The Chronic established the West Coast, or at least Dre’s SoCal circle of friends and associates, as a regional force within rap music, counterbalancing East Coast hegemony dating back to the New York City parties Kool Herc deejayed in the mid-‘70s. Within a few years, the bi-coastal musical rivalry became something else, and then it became deadly, with the murders of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and The Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. Puff Daddy stepped into the resultant emotional chasm to bring the music into its “bling” era of celebrating excess – excess all the more abundant now that rappers were selling records by the truckload. By this time, Southern-based hip-hop had started blowing up, first with the self-made rise of Master P, then with the success of performers and loosely knit collectives in Atlanta, New Orleans (it was B.G.’s hit “Bling Bling” that gave the era its name) and Memphis.

Rap had indeed become ubiquitous big business -- except in our household, where my daughter was not exposed to most of the current stuff. Being the dutiful, responsible, and conscious rap-loving father, concerned about the effect that media and culture might have on my daughter’s self-esteem, I carefully calibrated the rap music I played within her earshot, avoiding the stuff that glamorized violence or denigrated women (which I didn’t much care for anyway).

I played it safe (while keeping her connected to the black pop world) by defaulting to the local R&B radio station, which by the late ‘90s started priding itself on not playing any rap music at all (in an attempt to secure the loyalty of middle-aged audiences, including my demographic peers, who started recoiling from rap’s new directions). When my daughter, all of four-years-old, started singing along with Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” from her car seat (“I like the way you work it / no diggity / got to back it up”), I knew it was time for a change.

That’s when we discovered Radio Disney, the presumably-safe-for-kids-in-the-car alternative to pop radio. This was, most definitely, a rap-free environment. For parents concerned about cultural values, though, it was hardly a neutral one. We got there around the same time that Britney Spears did, as Radio Disney became the on-air home of sexualized mallpop targeted to 12-year-old-and-younger girls.

I had problems with that imagery too, but at least I didn’t have to worry about hearing of guns and ‘hos while running errands with daughter in tow, so we put up with it for few years, learning to love *NSYNC in the process (and reveling in the odd moment I caught them playing the Ramones’ “Surfin’ Bird”). Eventually, my daughter discovered her own musical tastes as a ‘tween and we could safely switch the channel, which was a good thing because I’d had more than enough sugary Disney-fied playlists to last a lifetime by then.

Those tastes would become rather eclectic, taking in everything from goth to show tunes. Hip-hop, though, was always in her mix, mostly in the form of pop hits by the likes of Ludacris. It was also part of her environment, and when the discussion of that environment became heated and highly charged, even by hip-hop’s standards, I turned to my own in-house focus group to get an on-the-ground perspective.

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Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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