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RELAX, NOBODY'S LEAVING TOWN
Dec. 15, 1999
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
CANCER FIGHT FORCES ABRUPT END TO 50-YEAR-OLD STRIP
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
" '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.'"
CHARLIE BROWN SHARED PAIN OF BEING A KID
Dec. 15, 1999
By Meg McConahey
Santa Rosa Press Democrat Staff Writer
He was among the first to openly contemplate his
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
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
"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
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
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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All PEANUTS characters pictured are copyrighted © by United Feature Syndicate, Inc. They are used here with permission. They may not be reproduced by any means in any form.