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Dec. 15, 1999

Gaye LeBaron
Santa Rosa Press-Democrat

The first thing we have to remember is that Sparky Schulz is very much among us. He's just giving up his day job, not leaving town. He's recovering nicely from his recent surgery. He's out and around, hitting golf balls, visiting with friends, checking in at his studio.

At this writing, I have not -- couldn't possibly have -- seen the finished product, but I hope that today's edition of this newspaper doesn't read like an obituary for Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the Peanuts gang.

They, too, are still among us. They've just retired from the dailies.

OKAY, CONFESSION TIME. I'm a kind of a fizzle as a tough, hard-hitting journalist. I was not surprised by yesterday's news. Two years ago, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, Schulz told me he had no intention of retiring "as long as I feel well," he said.

It's not a secret that he hasn't been feeling well. And he suggested to me last week that he might be ready to give up the daily strip. He's 77 years old, he reminded me. And he doesn't want to work that hard anymore.

I didn't report this startling news. I figured that the timing of the announcement, which I knew would occasion a media blitz, was up to him and his syndicate.

As it turned out, they never had a chance at a formal announcement. His office staff was in the process of drafting a press release yesterday morning when the phones began ringing.

There had been a leak, in New York, possibly somebody from the syndicate. Who knows -- maybe a sales rep who dropped the word to the Daily News, or a secretary on coffee break overheard by a TV reporter buying tooth whitener at the next counter.

As has become the media custom in the waning years of the 20th century, a frantic scramble began to recap a 49-year career that made our friend Sparky the most successful comic strip artist in history. And, when you put it that way, I guess you can hardly blame the media, huh?

IT'S GOING to be a whole new life for Sparky. Drawing the daily adventures of those round-headed kids and that off-the-wall dog has been more than a job. His identity is wrapped up in those characters.

Most writers like to say that Sparky is Charlie Brown, or vice versa. I've always thought that Snoopy was as much his creator as Charlie Brown. Sparky espouses the Charlie Brown persona, even to telling a disbelieving interviewer (me) a couple of years ago that he sees himself as "nonentity" who just happens to be able to draw.

But there's another side to Schulz -- the side that could have been a fighter pilot, might have been a world-famous trial lawyer, might have written the Great American Novel, the side that's come a long way from Needles.

He surprises himself, I think. I know that Snoopy has surprised him, taking on a life of his own as the strip evolved. "I never dreamed Snoopy would do all the things he does," he once told me.

So who has really run that comic strip? Charlie Brown or that swashbuckling adventurer from the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm?

I remember what Schulz had to say about that, too. He said it's Charlie Brown. "There has to be one straight character in the center of a successful cast," he said.

But the balance has long threatened to tip in Snoopy's favor. "I have to keep him down," Schulz said of his beagle two years ago, "or he'd take over the strip."

Maybe, yesterday, with the announcement that the strip will not continue, Snoopy has taken over. Maybe good old Charlie Brown who went to the studio every day has lost out to the adventurer, who might try something different for the first time in his life.

EVEN WITHOUT the daily grind, Schulz doesn't have to worry about having nothing to do. There are many facets to the Peanuts empire -- television shows, which will continue; so many books that those suffering from withdrawal can read a strip a day for the next 25 years, maybe more, without repeating.

There's the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, the ice shows. There will be a Peanuts Museum, planned and soon to rise on a site near the ice arena where it will undoubtedly become Santa Rosa's premiere tourist attraction.

Move it on over, Luther Burbank. Who needs Robert Ripley? Snoopy and the gang are going to live forever. Believe it!

SPARKY MAY not like the comparison, but there IS the example of Mickey Mouse, you know. I haven't seen a Mickey Mouse comic strip in years, in decades even. But Mickey and Minnie are still out there, representing the U.S. all over the world.

And Snoopy's bigger than Mickey. I joked with Sparky last week, suggesting that, in that silly beagle, he has given shape and form to the life force. Snoopy is way beyond universal.

Anyone who has ever had an exchange student here knows the excitement that comes with the information that they are "living in the same town as Peanuts." There were Snoopy and Linus toys in the refugee camps of Kosovo. We all know stories like the one told to me by a young woman who spent part of her college years in Spain.

It was in the poorest part of that then-poor country, in a village where there was no running water and not enough food, that she saw the little girl, walking with her mother. She was pitifully thin, barefoot and ragged. Under one arm she carried a small Snoopy.

NOTHING, not the Y2K bug, not the passage of time, is going to erase the devotion that Peanuts fans feel for those kids and that dog, who are not really kids and dogs at all but short and furry philosophers.

So mourn not for Peanuts. It's been a great run. And don't worry about Sparky. It'll be tough, but he's tough, too. You don't hang in there, every day of every week of every year for 49 years without a certain tenacity.

Cartoonist says, "I have no choice"

Dec. 15, 1999

By Meg McConahey
Santa Rosa Press Democrat Staff Writer

"Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz, acknowledging he can't battle cancer and keep up the professional demands of a daily comic strip, announced Tuesday he's retiring from cartooning but promised to keep the gang alive through TV and video.

"Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus...I'll never forget them," the 77-year-old cartoonist said, frail but in a fighting spirit as he recovers at his Santa Rosa home from emergency surgery last month. "But it's a shame to end the whole thing without Charlie Brown ever kicking the ball. It's not fair."

The 77-year-old cartoonist's voice wavered between tears and laughter as he contemplated an abrupt end to a nearly 50-year career. The final daily column will run Jan. 3 and the last Sunday strip on Feb. 13, without the ever-hopeful Charlie Brown finding a mailbox brimming with Valentines.

"All of a sudden, I'm in an ambulance, going to town and here I am," Schulz said, recalling Nov. 16 when he was taken ill. "It's all over. I didn't mean for it to end like this, but it is. I have no choice, no choice whatsoever. I don't know what to do. So I decided I might as well call it now."

The saddened cartoonist said he will use the space in his final daily strip to bid farewell to the friends and readers, whose unconditional love for the luckless Charlie Brown, his delusional beagle Snoopy and a schoolyard full of friends, made "Peanuts" not only one of the most followed comic strips of all time, but one of the most recognized images of 20th-Century pop culture, right up there with Elvis Presley, Mickey Mouse and the Golden Arches.

"They've got to know that this is it," said Schulz, who has always insisted, and had written into his contract, that "Peanuts" will come from his pencil alone and that the strip will end with his death. The last chapter will be in words, with a single drawing of Snoopy at his typewriter in the final panel.

But "Peanuts" will not vanish from the comics page. On Jan. 3, United Media will begin rerunning old "Peanuts," starting with strips that first ran in 1974, and continuing indefinitely. The Press Democrat will carry the reprints.

The year 1974 was chosen because, by that time, all the familiar characters had been introduced. And yet the style is different enough, that "it will be obvious to readers that Sparky is not doing the strip," said Paige Braddock, senior vice president for Charles Schulz Creative Associates, who oversees how his characters are rendered commercially.

"Every artist loves his most recent work and tends to want to put away the earlier stuff. But this is a man who is head and shoulders above the rest," said Amy Lago, Schulz's editor at United Media, which licenses and distributes "Peanuts" to 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries. "His body of work is absolutely incredible and if people haven't seen it, they need to. And if they've seen it, they need to see it again."

Schulz lamented that he blithely figured he had another 10 years to contemplate the end of his creation. Fate dictated a different timetable when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and last month underwent emergency surgery for a blocked aorta, at the same time suffering a series of small strokes from which he is slowly recovering.

He still looks like the old Sparky, with a full shock of gray hair. But his vision behind the familiar glasses has been compromised. His mind is as engaged as ever, but he struggles sometimes to find the right word to finish a thought. And beneath the yellow Polo shirt and red sweater that have been his trademark work uniform, a box and tube provides a continuous drip of chemotherapy.

Schulz was under the gun to make a decision. His final packet of strips, which he completed before he was stricken Nov. 16 at his studio near his Redwood Empire Ice Arena, are slated to go out this week.

When he finally made up his mind Monday to call it quits and placed a call to his editor, he had to quickly come up with the words that could bring a close to a comic strip of iconic proportions that has provided an unbroken line of storytelling since it debuted Oct. 2, 1950.

For the strong-willed, workaholic Schulz, who in 50 years took off only one month -- a "vacation" he called "a disaster" -- the decision was inevitable. He did not have the physical stamina for the grueling schedule of putting out a comic strip seven days a week.

And while Lago said the syndicate leaves the door open for Schulz to return, the cartoonist feels certain there will be no revival, at least not in the daily newspaper format.

"I can't start it over. It's just too hard. After all, I'll be 78, and do I want to start all over again?...Why don't I just go down to Santa Barbara and take a walk on the beach?"

Schulz is now contemplating the unfamiliar prospect of filling his days in other ways, keenly aware that he can't take his time for granted. "Good grief. I've got 18 grandchildren. I should see them."

He said this sitting in a room comfortably lived in, with papers scattered about. A Snoopy pull toy was parked by the kitchen table. Outside, the yard of his ridgetop home is his playground, with a treehouse and climbing bars.

The job for Schulz has always been all-consuming. He does play on a senior hockey league and unwinds with tennis and golf but producing "Peanuts" has proven not just a seven-day-a-week job. It's really a 24-hour preoccupation. He said his imagination is always spinning story lines, from the time he drives to work in the morning, to the time he goes to bed at night.

And yet, he said, since his hospitalization, for the first time his mind has been strangely silent.

"All the time it never stops. Now, all of a sudden," he said, "It stopped."

Schulz said all he's thinking about now is tomorrow.

"I don't care anything about the cartoon or anything like that. All I want is to get better."

Schulz may be retiring the daily strip, but he said there's juice left in the exploits of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy and Schroeder. He plans to continue working with animator Bill Melendez and producer Charlie Lee Mendelson, with whom he has collaborated on more than 50 TV specials and four films, to keep "Peanuts," fresh through animation.

Schulz's association with comic strips began in infancy when he was nicknamed "Sparky" after Sparkplug, the horse in the Barney Google cartoon. The name stuck, Schulz was called "Sparky" by friends and family throughout his life.

Schulz grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the son of a barber. He graduated from Central High School there in 1940. And the news drew wistful reactions from those who remember him from his early life in Minnesota.

"He deserves to have a rest," said Donna Wold, Schulz's teen-age love who was the inspiration for the Little Red-Haired Girl who keeps popping up in the musings and dreams of the strip's main character, Charlie Brown.

Although Schulz always said none of the "Peanuts" characters was based on himself or acquaintances, he did acknowledge that Charlie Brown was named after a very good friend from St. Paul.

"We worked together for five years after World War II at an artist correspondence school. He died several years ago in his mid- or late 50s, and I miss him very much," Schulz told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in a mid-1990s interview.

Minneapolis artist Frieda Mae Rich, who worked with Schulz at the same art school and was the inspiration for the curly-haired Frieda character introduced in the strip in 1961, died in November 1994.

Schulz moved to Sonoma County in 1958, eight years after United Feature Syndicate acquired his 3-year-old strip called "Li l Folks" and renamed it "Peanuts" -- a name Schulz forever despised for its lack of dignity.

The dean of daily comics said Tuesday he takes the most satisfaction in having helped elevate the art form of the comic and in being the first comic strip to portray kids in philosophical contemplation, to portray the "almost human dog" and to introduce what over half a century have become archetypal phrases and images, from the security blanket to the now poignantly benign curse, "Good Grief!"

In 1967, Snoopy and Charlie Brown were on the cover of Life magazine; in 1969, the "Peanuts" stars became NASA mascots, and astronauts wore Snoopy pins into space.

The Comics Journal rated "Peanuts" No. 2 strip, second only to George Herriman's "Krazy Kat," in the top 100 comics of all time.

Schulz, whose "Peanuts" is the most widely syndicated strip in history, doesn't mind. The comic genius whose signature character, Charlie Brown, was never a winner, said he's in good company.

" 'Casablanca' came in second to 'Citizen Kane,'" he said with a laugh. "And somebody said to Willie Mays, 'Well, you came in second to Babe Ruth.' That's not so bad. So I don't mind coming in second.'"


Dec. 15, 1999

By Meg McConahey
Santa Rosa Press Democrat Staff Writer

He was among the first to openly contemplate his internal angst.

The nerdy Charlie Brown gave voice to the unnoticed, long before Woody Allen made human anxieties routine entertainment fodder.

Back when the words "self-esteem" meant conceit, the round-headed boy spoke for those kids on the bus whose pictures rarely show up in the yearbook outside their routine class photo, the kids whose clothes are never cool, who get attention only when picked on.

The beleaguered schoolyard characters first introduced by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz in 1950 in some ways were ahead of their time, presaging the Age of Aquarius and talk therapy.

Schulz, who announced his retirement Tuesday from his "Peanuts" comic strip, effectively explored the human psyche in the space of a tiny bubble, for half a century.

At the same time, "Peanuts," from a pure economic standpoint, has become one of the greatest marketing triumphs of all time, one of the first huge mass merchandising vehicles, spinning off a dizzying array of TV shows, books, toys and other collectibles still on the shelves, 30 years after the hit song "Snoopy and the Red Baron" topped the music charts, and "Happiness is a Warm Puppy" was on every kid's bookcase.

On the short list of significant characters in postwar pop culture, Charlie Brown is right up there with Elvis Presley, said Robert Thompson, president of the Popular Culture Association and a professor of film and television at Syracuse University in New York.

"The very fact that you have an antihero like Charlie Brown -- a loser -- was way ahead of its time," he said. "With comic strips, you think Superman, or Spider-Man. He was as far away from that as you could get. There was a sense that a 'Peanuts' comic strip could be like a good session on the couch with a therapist. Charlie Brown was doing 'Thirtysomething' 30 years before 'Thirtysomething.'"

Thompson said "Peanuts" is so popular, so forever young, because it still resonates. School violence, teen sex and drug abuse may grab headlines, but kids still suffer over classroom crushes or dropping the ball in the big game. And Charlie Brown still speaks for the midlifers who never, in their minds, get over the awkwardness of preadolescence.

"Charlie Brown was one of the only spokesmen for this experience of childhood that millions of kids are going through. He became the patron saint for the losers, the clumsy guys," he said. While other pop figures reflect our fantasies, Thompson said, Charlie Brown reflects who we really are.

And as the world gets increasingly menacing -- or at least feels that way -- Schulz, through "Peanuts," has served up small universal truths, while offering the almost quaint hope of redemption and a happy ending. For that, readers remain loyal, said M. Thomas Inge, a humanities professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and an authority on comics in popular culture.

Inge, who is working on an anthology of interviews with Schulz for the University of Mississippi Press, said "Peanuts" remains popular because people still want to believe that tragedies, such as the Columbine High School shootings, are not typical.

"We want to believe that the innocence and faith that Schulz instills is still part of the American tradition," he said.

"Many speak of comedy as being the saving grace, the psychological release in the face of tension that enables us to survive. That daily dose of 'Peanuts' sends us off every morning with some confidence that things will get better," Inge said. Staff researcher Michele Van Hoeck contributed to this story.

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