Saturday 8 June 2019

The Almost Forgotten All Stars

Who hasn’t seen A Charlie Brown Christmas? It was the first Peanuts TV special in 1965. Within a week of it airing, CBS announced it would broadcast two more half-hour specials sponsored by Coca-Cola, one about baseball, and perhaps one about the Great Pumpkin.

The Christmas cartoon and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown have been perennials for over 50 years, no doubt helped by a desire by TV stations to have special seasonal programming. But the baseball cartoon kind of drifted off into obscurity.

Charlie Brown’s All Stars debuted on June 8, 1966. If you were a kid who read the Peanuts strips like I did, some of the dialogue you’d recognise from the newspaper comics (the same holds true for the other two specials). I thought it was okay but I liked the Christmas cartoon a lot more.

Critics? Well, some gave it the old swing-and-a-miss. Jack Gould of the New York Times, noted for calling The Flintstones debut “an inked disaster”, wasn’t impressed. He seems more bothered by the limited animation than anything, not understanding that the Peanuts characters are never drawn with exaggeration in the newspapers.
Cartoons obviously are going to have a place in the future of television; they reproduce beautifully in color and are certain to be enjoyed by young viewers. But their quality and inspiration will have to be much sturdier than was the case in “Charlie Brown’s All Stars” on the Columbia Broadcasting System.
The drawings themselves lacked the all-important element of humor; surely a baseball game offers rich possibilities for nonsense. And the story line was virtually bereft of the engaging twists than [sic] can make such make-believe so enjoyable. On TV the members of the “Peanuts” gang need stronger individual personalities manipulated by someone who thinks young. Last night’s filmed half hour betrayed traces of the subtle ways of the grown up.
Percy Shain of the Boston Globe called it:
“[R]eally a pretty silly caper. There was an occasional smile in the droll, erudite dialogue and in the predictable reactions of Charlie’s special coterie—half grown-up, half-babyish.
Eventually, the jokes-for-jokes’-sake, leading to nowhere, just petered out. The situations were just too fanciful to give you any rooting interest. ...
This is one game that might have been played in kiddie time.
A few columns later, Shain printed letters from annoyed viewers who disagreed with his assessment.

Don Page of the Los Angeles Times gave it “half-a-hit,” adding “As a TV special, it loses something. It is difficult to define, but it doesn’t have the delicate punch-line payoff on the tube...But the message was prolonged. And make no mistake about it, Peanuts carries a message.”

Well, duh. Of course it carried a message. Wasn’t that to be expected? Didn’t A Charlie Brown Christmas carry a message, too?

In fact, the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor was quite pleased it did carry a message.
“Charlie Brown isn’t used to winning.”
Charles Schulz said that laughing last month when he went forward to receive an Emmy for the best children’s television program for 1965-66.
The cartoonist’s remark was never more evident than in the second animated “Peanuts” program brought to television Wednesday night over CBS-TV. The half-hour show was called “Charlie Brown’s All Stars,” but the story had no baseball heroes in it. Charlie Brown pitched his team’s 999th straight loss.
The program, however, was a triumph through defeat, because Mr. Schulz was able to get across some sobering thoughts while entertaining every moment. W.S. Gilbert was perhaps right when he said, “He who’d make his fellow creatures wise, should always gild the philosophic pill.”
Feels important
Charlie Brown’s defeat might have been exasperating to those who would prefer to believe that persistence and enthusiasm should rightly win laurels on the human battlefield. But Mr. Schulz is more concerned with qualities and feelings. He seems to be saying, among other things, that a man is not down and out until he admits it.
By exaggerating defeat, Mr. Schulz makes his point amusingly clear. In a critical moment, in which victory for his team becomes a sudden possibility, the exuberant blunderer dashes all hope by getting himself tagged out at home plate.
But baseball, as important as it is, isn’t all of life. What matters as much, the program implies, is that a man can keep his head when all about him are losing theirs—and so forth.
Victory in defeat
Charlie Brown does, after all, win the respect of his teammates through a noble gesture of sacrifice on his part; he won’t have the uniforms he wanted for the team if the dog Snoopy and the girls are not allowed to play in a uniformed league. They love him for that and make him a manager’s sweater out of Linus’s blanket.
The program was full of delightful bits of business, facial expressions, clever remarks. The children who read the parts enunciated clearly and got some energy and feeling into their voices.
We shall not soon forget Snoopy’s brilliant surfing in an inflated rubber raft filled with water, or Lucy and the other girls with their skateboards, or Pig Pen’s remark upon being criticized for his sordid exterior: “But I have clean thoughts.”
Mr. Schulz and staff have done it again.
Regardless of grumbling critics, the special was popular. Syndicated columnist Cecil Smith wrote in 1969 that All Stars grabbed nearly half the TV audience the night it aired that year.

Despite that, producer Lee Mendelson pulled the special from the air. An unbylined story in the Johnstown Leader-Herald of October 21, 1971 quoted Mendelson as saying “the time has come to create a new series of specials.” That meant Charlie Brown’s All Stars was being replaced with something new (Mendelson announced the same fate for It’s the Great Pumpkin, but I don’t believe it ever left the air.

The special didn’t stay off the air altogether. The CBC broadcast it in 1978 and again in 1980. It reappeared on American network television in 1982. The home video era was dawning and in 1981, the cartoon was one of a number of Charlie Browns available on RCA Selectavision Videodiscs. In 1984, Media Home Entertainment grabbed the rights to release All Stars on video cassettes (remember them?). Since then it had been available on more modern formats, including a 50th anniversary DVD in 2016 (it also aired that November on, for some reason, the Food Network), and on 4K disc in 2017.

It may not have the lustre or creativity of the Christmas or Hallowe’en specials, but Charlie Brown’s All Stars is, at least, now more easily accessible for Peanuts fans to make their own decision about it.


  1. It has the same off-model, "rush-job" look as the Christmas special, although I think that's part of its charm. But it has those great Schulz lines (from his peak years), and some stellar Snoopy animation (running the bases, and the aforementioned surfing sequence). And no mention of Vince Guaraldi's terrific score?

  2. I was a long-time reader and fan of the strip as it was being originally published. The big stumbling block for me with the animated specials are the voices. Naturally, tonality-wise, they sound like real kids, but they sound like real kids reciting words rather than real kids actually talking. Of course, real kids don't speak Charles Schulz dialog, but they do have the emotions of his characters: - excitement, joy, fear, disappointment, resignation, sarcasm - and they express them spontaneously. Though the amateur kid actors do manage to affect inflections in their readings, they only rarely sound natural in expressing those emotions. I'm not really sure how that could be overcome, to sound both plausibly youthful _and_ to emulate real childlike artless spontaneity. Perhaps with real teen or young adult actors.

  3. The fate of Linus' blanket in this special always seemed unbearably cruel to me. Nobody even bought him a new blanket! As with many of the Peanuts specials, there is a bittersweet quality in which the bitter is never completely overcome by the sweet. When I watched it as a child, I thought this special was funny. As an adult, I find it somewhat cynical and ironic. But that's the way Schulz operated, on all of those levels.

    By the way, I'm all for more posts about the Peanuts characters!!!

  4. I'm glad someone finally "resurrected" this cartoon. Sandwiched in between the famous Christmas and Halloween specials, it seems to have been unjustly forgotten. If I hadn't read the kiddie-book adaptation of the show when I was a child, I might have thought I had imagined this special. Nice job!

  5. Hey, it had Peter Robbins, Sally Dryer, and Chris Shea doing Charlie, Lucy and Linus. To me, they were the best. There was just something about the sound of actor Peter Robbins' voice, that had the sound of a kid who was constantly being dumped on. Kind of a " What's the use " type sound. Robbins and Chris Shea also appeared in front of the camera in a number of sitcoms around that time.

  6. Hans Christian Brando16 June 2019 at 16:19

    Particularly pertinent in the #MeToo era, since (spoiler alert) Chrlie Brown rejects sponsorship/uniforms rather than kick the girls off the team.