Today marks the 60th anniversary of Charles Schulz’s beloved comic strip “Peanuts.” The adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy (who was introduced to the strip two days later), Lucy, Pigpen and the rest of the gang began rather quietly — they appeared in only seven American newspapers. The Minnesota native had introduced the strip in the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1947 as “Li’l Folks” but it was renamed in 1950 when Schulz sold it to the United Features Syndicate. The characters evolved in personality and visage, and eventually became familiar to millions through syndication, the celebrated television specials, toys and clothes, advertising, parade floats, stage shows and countless licensing ventures. Schulz died 10 years ago in Santa Rosa, Calif., but the strip appears (in reprint form) far and wide. A lavish new coffee table book, “The Peanuts Collection” by Nat Gertler, has just hits stores, and the Smithsonian Institution has a special observation of the anniversary that was highlighted Friday by the National Portrait Gallery’s unveiling of a painting of Schulz (who was known to loved ones by his lifelong nickname, Sparky). Susan King, who covers Hollywood history for the Hero Complex, recently spoke to the youngest of the cartoonist’s adult children, Jill Schulz of Santa Barbara, who oversees Woodstock Ice Productions, which produces all the Snoopy ice-skating shows at Knott’s Berry Farm.
SK: I can’t believe Snoopy is going to be 253 years old — in dog years — on Monday.
JS: That’s really old. He’s looking good!
SK: When you look at the very first “Peanuts” comic strip from Oct. 2, 1950 [which is shown above], and then the first featuring Snoopy that appeared two days after that, it’s amazing to see how different the characters looked.
JS: It is amazing. Especially the original Snoopy. It doesn’t look like the same dog at all. I always asked [my father], ‘Why a beagle?’ and he said, ‘Beagle is a funny word.’ It wasn’t that he was trying to draw a dog that looked like a beagle. I think Snoopy stood out for the first time in 1958 when he stood up on his hind legs and starting doing more. That is when the strip took off. My father always wanted to improve on his artwork. It just kind of evolved. Towards the end before he passed away and wasn’t doing well people were talking about why don’t we just put in reruns. Because he was so passionate, always trying to do better at what he drew, he didn’t want them to go back and publish stuff past the late ’70s because of how different it looked. He didn’t want reruns published. We ended up doing it because there was just such a demand to know everything after his death.
SK: Would you talk a bit about the 60th birthday celebration.
JS: I didn’t know until yesterday that in Germany there is an airplane that has ‘Peanuts’ characters all on the outside and inside they have Peanuts characters on the napkins, the pillows, blankets and coloring book. There is so much out there now. The biggest thing is on Friday [Oct. 1] at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, they are unveiling a portrait of my dad, so a few family members and my dad’s wife are going to be there. Over in the history museum there is an exhibit of some of my dad’s ink pens and original strips and a few artifacts. I think that’s going to be up for a while.
SK: Is there any country where “Peanuts” isn’t known?
JS: It is pretty much “Peanuts” and Coca Cola in every country you could possibly think of. Asia is one of our biggest markets for the Snoopy licensed products.
SK: Why do you think its appeal is so strong internationally?
JS: The strip is based on his observations and experiences and memories of childhood and that is one of the things that has made it so timeless. No matter what type of generation or what country you’re living in, everybody experiences being the kid who nobody eats lunch with, the unrequited love, the losing of the baseball game, the sister and brother fighting with each other…It’s a timeless subject. It doesn’t matter whether it happened 50 years ago.
SK: What type of a father was he?
JS: He was a really great dad. He was pretty even-keeled. He was never one to ever yell. He was a fun parent. It was fun to be able to pop in and watch him drawing the strip. He would push his chair back and — there would always be a few laid out on the table, the ones he had finished — and he would always ask me, “So do you think they are funny enough?” Of course I wasn’t going to say, “No”! He was always ready to stop and have us come in whenever we wanted. He instilled a good sense of values and a work ethic in all of us. He would tell me too many people want to get into acting or singing because they want the fame and wealth thing. He said you shouldn’t be doing stuff if you are in it for the end product. It has got to be about you enjoying the process. You should have something you get up every day you are going to do that you enjoy and need to have a place to go. He would get up and go to his office. He somehow knew when he was 5 or 6 that he wanted to be a cartoonist and draw. Nobody ever inked it or gave him an idea. He did every single piece of every cartoon strip, which he was really proud of. His friends would say, “Sparky, you have been drawing this for 40 years and you’ve got wealth. You could do anything you want.” And he used to tell me, “I don’t know why people say that to me. Why would I be so lucky as to get to do what I love — and the only thing I know how to do well – and not do it.”