In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Life of Charles M. Schulz
By John Rabe
December 14, 1999
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the popular "Peanuts" comic strip, will retire on Jan. 4, 2000, after more than 50 years of drawing the cartoon. Schulz is quitting to concentrate on treating his newly-diagnosed case of colon cancer.Schulz was born and raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and drew inspiration from his life here.
A Humble Beginning
During the Great Depression, Schulz's father, Carl, struggled to keep both his family and his barber shop afloat. Carl Schulz not only managed to maintain two employees and to put pancakes on the dinner table, but also found the means to enroll his son in a correspondence course in cartooning at what is now the Art Instruction Schools, Inc. ("Draw Me"), in Minneapolis.

A shy and insecure student, Schulz struggled through the program, submitting his coursework by mail instead of in person and earning only a C+ in "Drawing of Children."

Source: United Media. For more information, see a biography of Charles Schulz at the United Media Web site.

IN A 1994 INTERVIEW with Minnesota Public Radio, Charles Schulz recalled the day he knew his comic strip was not just a commercial success, but an icon of popular culture.
Schulz: I know my secretary said that her boy came in from school one day, burst through he front door, threw his jacket onto the living room couch, and said, "Mom, I feel just like Charlie Brown." Well, she knew right away then what he felt like.
Peanuts grew from a weekly feature into a gold mine of a comic strip, read by 200 million in 2,400 newspapers in 68 countries. Schulz is estimated to gross $20 million a year from the strip, the movies, the musical, the endorsements, and the paraphernalia. And if he had a nickel for every time someone said, "Good grief!" he'd be even more successful.
Schulz: There would have been no way of knowing that someday Snoopy would actually go to the moon. Snoopy was the first comic character literally to go to the moon. Not just in a story or figuratively, but literally went to the moon. And then of course the play "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown" is the most-performed musical in the history of the American theatre. I could never have predicted that.

There are a lot of wonderful things that have happened that just would have been beyond my imagination.
Like Vince Guaraldi's classic score from the TV specials.

The cast of Peanuts is one of the largest in the daily comics, and is as familiar to us as, perhaps, our own families. Charlie Brown, with his big head and zigzag t-shirt, is the perennial loser; but, on occasion, he shows us the insight he's gained through suffering. Snoopy, his dog, plays World War One flying ace, hipster, novelist, or lawyer with equal delusional aplomb. There's the domineering and downright mean Lucy, the amateur analyst; her brother Linus with his security blanket; not to mention Schroeder, Pigpen, Franklin, Rerun, Marcie, the little red-haired girl, and Woodstock, the bird.

Adults appear, but only as a pair of legs, and when they speak on TV or in the movies, it's a blur. This is a world of kids.

It's easy to see how Charles Schulz himself was the model for Charlie Brown's character. Schulz didn't have the worst childhood in the world growing up in Saint Paul, but it was a hard life. His father was a barber, his mother died when he was 20. It was the Depression, they were poor, and he remembers many pancake dinners. He was skinny and quiet. His cartoon sketches were rejected by his own high school yearbook, and he made a living at an art correspondence school in Minneapolis.

But he did have friends, and they helped him more than they, or he, knew at the time.
Schulz: Charlie Brown was a good friend of mine. Linus was a wonderful friend who sat right near me there at the correspondence school, and, of course, Frieda who still lives in Minneapolis, was another friend of mine. So almost all of them have been friends or relatives whose names that I have used.

Add to that list "Peppermint" Patty Parker of Minneapolis, who remembers him as a shy and sometimes sad person.
Parker: I always felt that he had somewhat of an inferiority complex. He had a bad complexion and I think he was very shy because of that.
It's fun, she says, to have a famous namesake in the funny pages, but she's a little apprehensive about claiming to be the "Peppermint Patty".
Parker: In a way it's kind of embarrassing, because I've never got the okay from Charlie Schulz. But as you will probably be able to understand, he is trying to protect himself also, I would assume, I'm not sure of that. He doesn't have to worry about me because I don't care. But there are royalties involved.
What clinched the connection for her was when Charlie Brown - the Charlie Brown, who lived in Minneapolis - called her up on stage at an event and introduced her as the inspiration for Peppermint Patty. It's funny, though. Schulz seems to have taken only the names from his old friends; their comic strip personalities seem more extensions of the artist.

For instance, while Peppermint Patty is a sandal-wearing academic failure, and the fictional Charlie Brown is a loser; Patty Parker was an original Aquatennial Queen and Dayton's model, and Parker says the real Charlie Brown was the life of the party. Plus, the real Patty and Charlie had a much better relationship than their fictional counterparts.
MPR: You were very good friends with Charlie Brown?
Parker: Very, very good friends with Charlie Brown. I spoke to Charlie every day. He told me we were soul mates. But who knows, he might have said that to everyone.
MPR: You think?
Parker: Who knows, but he was my first boyfriend. When I was 15, and my mother said it was okay to go out with him. That didn't happen with everyone. My mother was very strict.
Parker got her first taste of Peanuts in 1947, when it was called "L'il Folks," and ran weekly in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. Three years later, it was running in seven U.S. newspapers with a new name, and a harder-hitting attitude than today's strips.

In the strip from October 2, 1950, a little boy and a little girl are sitting on a curb, watching Charlie Brown walk by, blithely unaware of their conversation. The boy says "Here comes Good Ol' Charlie Brown. Good ol' Charlie Brown, yes sir. Good ol' Charlie Brown, how I hate him!"
MPR: What did you guys think about the idea of someone making a living as a cartoonist? Did that ever strike you funny?
Parker: Not at all, I thought it was fascinating, absolutely fascinating. Golly, I knew somebody who was a cartoonist. It was phenomenal. I felt that he had a gift and he was special, a very special person.
The real Charlie Brown died a few years ago, but death never clouds the lives of the characters in Peanuts. Charles Schulz moved from Minnesota to California in 1958, and has been hand-drawing his strip ever since. In a letter announcing his retirement, Schulz thanks the public for giving him the constant motivation to keep drawing for half a century.