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Interview Exclusive HTF Interview with Producer Lee Mendelson (Race for your Life, Charlie Brown) (1 Viewer)

Neil Middlemiss

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On Tuesday, February 10, Paramount Home Entertainment released a digitally remastered edition of the classic Race for your Life, Charlie Brown on DVD. Home Theater Forum had the opportunity to speak with producer, writer and documentarian Lee Mendelson, who helped bring Charlie Brown to our screens through the years, starting with 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.


Paramount’s Race for your Life, Charlie Brown, remastered to look better than ever, marks the DVD debut of this film.

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HTF: Having grown up in England – and I'll be 40 this year - I grew up watching the Peanuts specials which of course had made their way around the world and made their way to England. It connected with me, and my brother and sister, becoming fans, and I always considered the Peanuts specials to be hold universal themes but something that was told in a very unique American way. Is that how you see them?


Lee Mendelson: England was the first stop in the late '60s, and yes, you are absolutely right that’s how I see it. Charles Schulz had one basic theme, if you wanted to boil it all down to one thing, which in my opinion is overcoming failure, standing up to failure and standing up to bulliness. He chose baseball because you fail three out of four times in baseball, and he chose unrequited love between all the different little couples because you so often fail in love. And then all the bullying and failing, suffering initially, but then overcoming in the end, are themes that are eternal. They were good in 1965 and they're good in 2015. It'll be good in 2070. There was this underlying thinking that bullying is not a good thing but you can challenge it and you can survive it. And sometimes Charlie would even win.

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HTF: One of the things that's always fascinated me about family-oriented television and film is, is how they deal with failure. And the perspective I gained from the Peanuts Specials, and especially watching Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, is that there can be victory, but it’s never complete. It’s not 100% - there’s always a little bit of failure mixed in, and that's okay.


Lee Mendelson: It's bittersweet victory. Just like in the Christmas show, there's a victory for Linus but there, it's not really Charlie Brown's victory. Until he gets his little tree.


HTF: And is that why Charlie Brown never got to kick a football? To keep that element of failure present?

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Lee Mendelson: Yes. In fact, Charles Schulz drew over 18,000 comic strips if you can believe it – a staggering number – and everybody, including myself, thought when he drew the last strip that he maybe would finally have Charlie Brown kick the football. But he did not do that and he said to me that if he had done that, it would make all of the previous years irrelevant. So he decided that he wouldn't kick the football.


HTF: You’ve said previously that part of the draw to the Peanuts characters to you is a draw to innocence itself. And when we watch as adults, we can be surprised there's rarely an adults around, especially in Race for Your Life where the kids are all rafting down rivers and camping outside. And I wonder if it's because when we are children and we view the world around us, there is a very innocent view of everything that we get ourselves into and sometimes we're in this bubble of living and having adventure and fun, and while there may be parents around, we just don't notice them. Is that how the Peanuts world was?

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Lee Mendelson: Oh yes. And there's a couple of aspects to that. There were never any adults in the comic strip itself. You only had the off-stage voice of the teacher. So that's why we used the trombone to be the teacher, and the “wah-wah-wah” became really very famous in the television shows. And I think it's because we felt maybe when kids hear their parents or their teachers, a lot of it sounds like “wah-wah-wah-wah.” So that's one way we handled that. And then later on, when we did the minis-series This is America, Charlie Brown, we did have adults because we were dealing with historical figures, but that's why we could do that. And so the trombone, the wah-wah-wah saved us (laughs.) We get asked one questions more than any other and that’s “why the wah-wah-wah?” and the answer was “to take the teacher's spot.”


HTF: The Peanuts Specials came about because you had approached Charles originally to do a documentary about him, and were later approached to do a Christmas special and you immediately thought of the Peanuts strip. Charles had been very interested in your documentary because of the very first documentary you had produced on Willie Mays. Do you ever think about the confluence of random events that came about that would shape a good deal of your professional life? How do you consider that serendipity?

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Lee Mendelson: I think it's absolutely 120 percent serendipity. In 1958, two things happened that shouldn't have happened. Willie Mays and the Giants came to San Francisco when they were supposed to go to San Diego. And Charles Schulz came to San Francisco from Saint Paul, Minnesota when he was supposed to be living in San Barbara. But they both came to San Francisco and five years later, I met them and did the two documentaries. And if that's not serendipity, I don't know what is. But ironically, the documentary never sold in true Charlie Brown fashion. About two years later, Coca Cola had seen the documentary, and called up and asked if we had a Christmas show, and I said absolutely. Then everything else got to be pretty good. And even more serendipity, Vince Guaraldi also lived in San Francisco and the music of Vince Guaraldi was as important to our success as anything


HTF: So when you look over the continuing love and fondness that audiences still have for the Peanuts Special, I mean CBS still re-airs Peanuts every year and it's always flocked to by families, so new people are finding them, how does that make you feel about its enduring legacy?


Lee Mendelson: Oh yes, they play ten of our specials every year and will do so through 2020, but it all goes back to the philosophy of Schulz which is as exciting and important today as it was 50 years ago - he deals with eternal truths. I'm excited about the fact that Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown is coming out digitally remastered because it's not just for television shows now, but these movies, so a way to reintroduce the characters, and share with new audiences.

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HTF: Did you have a hand in, in that, uh, digital remastering of Race for Your Life? Such as approving the work?


Lee Mendelson: Yes. My two sons, Jason and Glenn suggested it to Paramount, and Paramount thought it was a great idea and that's how it all came about.


HTF: So can we to expect more digital remasterings down the road?

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Lee Mendelson: Oh, yes, I hope!


HTF: So as a documentarian, what do you see in the documentary landscape today that catches your eye? Do you still get the opportunity to keep up with the latest documentaries?


Lee Mendelson: All the time. Of course we were very lucky. When we did our documentaries, and we did 50 of them, musical variety shows and documentaries, there were only three networks. And we had huge audiences. Now audience are split, splintered, but there are a lot of good documentaries still coming out and, so many subject to explore, like immigration reform, that that could make for fabulous documentaries.

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HTF: One last question, and this is about the A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Lucy and Schroeder didn't get to go over to Charlie Brown's grandma's house, do you know why now?


Lee Mendelson: (Laughs) That's the first time I had found out they didn't get to go. It was certainly not done on purpose. Not much I can do about it now (laughs).


HTF: Thank you for speaking with me today.


Lee Mendelson: Thanks for the call, Neil.

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