Wednesday 27 October 2021

Is the Great Pumpkin All That Great?

55 years ago today, Charles Schulz didn’t put on the small screen a character he didn’t put in the Peanuts comic strip. The character is the Great Pumpkin.

I guess I should qualify this. The beneficent vegetable isn’t seen in the strip. Is there a Great Pumpkin at all? The fact Linus continues to believe there is, despite no proof and annual no-shows, would make for a deeper discussion viz-a-viz religious faith than a mere comic strip would attempt. And certainly we won’t do it here. We shall, instead, discuss the TV special born after annual Hallowe’en seasonal plot-lines Schulz wrote and drew starting in 1959.

Schulz explained how the Great Pumpkin came to be in what looks like a network PR release that papers picked up before the special first aired on October 27, 1966.

The Great Pumpkin Now 'Real' Legend
Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz had never heard of the Great Pumpkin until Linus brought it to his attention.
Neither had anybody else.
But now largely because of the faith and loyalty of the little blanket-toting philosopher of the "Peanuts” comic strip the Great Pumpkin is fast becoming a legend in his (or its) own time.
Schulz, creator and artist-author of the “Peanuts” syndicated cartoon strip, also writes the stories for the Charlie Brown animated holiday specials, the third of which—“It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”—will be broadcast in color Thursday on CBS-TV as a salute to Halloween and a tribute to the mysteries of the Pumpkin.
Who Is He (It)?
Who (or what) is the Great Pumpkin and where did he (or it) come from?
"It all came about," Schulz recalls, “when I was trying to write a sequence for the strip involving Linus's confusion between Halloween and Christmas. The holidays run together so quickly at the end of the year — Labor Day, Columbus Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s— that it all becomes kind of a jumble to little children.
"Linus is a youngster to whom everything must have significance nothing is unimportant Christmas is a big holiday and it has Santa Claus as one of its symbols. Halloween is also a special kind of day so it ought to have some sort of Santa Claus, too. That’s what bothered Linus. And it bothered me. So between us we came up with the Great Pumpkin.”
Linus’s Definition
According to Linus's definition the Great Pumpkin rises out of its pumpkin patch on Halloween night and flies through the air with its bag of toys for all the good children everywhere.
“It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” tells the story of how Linus, in spite of the jeers of his fellow "Peanuts,” takes up his vigil in the pumpkin patch to await the appearance of the magic Pumpkin.
Each year Schulz receives hundreds of letters from readers all over the world inquiring into the legend of the Great Pumpkin.
"A number of professional scholars have written me about the origin of the legend they insist that it must be based on SOMETHING,” the artist says.
"I can't prove that there is a Great Pumpkin but then again — I can't prove that there isn't.”

What did the critics think? Ben Gross of the New York Daily News said it was “marked by whimsy and some touch of subtlety,” taking a shot at Saturday morning action-adventure cartoons. John Heisner of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle called it “a half-hour of good, clean fun,” concluding with “it was an enjoyable show.”

The Associated Press’ TV columnist had her review printed in papers across the country, mentioning a TV appearance I’ve never heard of before.

‘Charlie Brown’ Charming, Witty

AP TV-Radio Writer
NEW YORK (AP) – Charlie Brown and his little friends celebrated Halloween on CBS Thursday night and demonstrated that faith and an optimistic attitude triumph in the end.
The worried little cartoon character, Charlie, continues to have a hard time. He was invited to his first Halloween party but hard-hearted Lucy immediately chopped him down by telling him that it was a mistake. When he went out trick-or-treat tag, the other kids wound up with the money and the candy: He got a bag of rocks. But in the end, he was certain he had been having fun.
Chief protagonist of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," was his friend, Linus, the boy with the blanket. Linus, although jeered by his pals, shivered all night in a pumpkin patch awaiting the arrival of "The Great Pumpkin Who Flies Through the Air and Brings Toys to All the Children in the World."
As in two past specials about Charlie, the half-hour animated show had charm, adult wit and wisdom.
- - -
One of the contestants on Thursday afternoon, "To Tell the Truth" on CBS just happened to be the director of CBS, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," and not only was the evening special plugged repeatedly but a bit of it was previewed for the home audience. The whole segment, including the plug occupied close to one-third of the half-hour program.

But you know there had to be a least one sour pumpkin in the critic crowd. In this case, it was the man who called The Flintstones “an inked disaster.” Jack Gould of the New York Times proclaimed the special was for fans only.

Charlie and Friends
To the admirers of Charlie Brown and his little friends it is axiomatic that their creator, Charles Schulz, can do no wrong. Accordingly last night’s Halloween cartoon special on the Columbia Broadcasting System undoubtedly satisfied its intended audience. Linus sadly learned that no Great Pumpkin would appear in his patch of innocent sincerity.
Charlie was invited to his first party and Snoppy [sic] survived an aerial dog fight.
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” was for aficionados of the “Peanuts” comic strip. One suspects their imaginations and fond recollections may have supplied the humor and charm that to the unaddicted seemed notably missing from the TV variation.

We’ll leave the last word to Clay Gowran of the Chicago Tribune. He accurately predicted the future, pointing out Linus told Charlie Brown at the end of the special he would try to attract the Great Pumpkin “again next year”:
We hope he does, and that he brings the whole gang back with him, because these little animated specials have become a high point of the video season.
Attempts to shove it onto pay cable notwithstanding, the “little animated special” is still with us.


  1. What was the exchange between Linus and Charlie Brown?( Charlie) When are you gonna stop believing in something that isn't true? ( Linus) When you stop believing in that fellow with the red suit and white beard that goes Ho, Ho, Ho!! ( Charlie) We are obviously separated by denominational differences. Lots of great lines in that special.

  2. My niece and nephew enjoyed the show, but getting them to watch it was a tough sell. They don't know the characters or the comic strip. Never thought I'd see the day when kids didn't know Charlie Brown and Snoopy and "Peanuts." The major complaint they had was over Charlie Brown being treated so badly by, well, just about everybody.

  3. It's been gratifying and heartwarming to see the major fuss that was kicked up last year and currently by the removal of the Peanuts holiday specials from network broadcast to Apple TV (which, by the way, is a streaming service, not pay cable), and that these programs are still so meaningful to many.

    I have long had the Sixties and Seventies Peanuts specials on DVD, but I am enjoying watching the PBS presentations. And they, unlike ABC, air the shows in their proper aspect ratio (not that fake "widescreen" with the top or bottom image lopped off), and no commercial interruptions (especially in the middle of a scene).

    1. TCJ, I haven't owned a television in over 25 years so I didn't realise networks would stop for a commercial in mid-scene. Ridiculous. Fake widescreen? Bah.
      The PBS audience, I suspect, would demand nothing but quality so I'm glad the special has been treated right.

    2. Yes, everything TCJ wrote is true, especially the Apple TV exclusivity. In recent broadcasts, ABC has been Ludacris on not only dumping out for commercials in mid scene, but editing out scenes to get time for more commercials avails. That's why I'm glad I've had personal copies of these specials for years.

    3. I think, Errol, one of the original big selling points for home video was the material wasn't edited. In the '70s, if you tried to watch "I Love Lucy" it was chopped with a cleaver. It wasn't subtle. I swear scenes were cut before they ended to fit in more commercials.

  4. Good grief, as good ol CB would saY, JUST SAW THIS article herel,..this is one where Linus would be more the "long suffering" one due to his imagination, like takingf hi his fan, CB'
    s little sis Sally to the pATCH, AND Her not believing her..
    Sweet baboo"
    ..anyone remember thatr crush on Linus, when they were an item?":O Happy Hallowe'en!

  5. Hans Christian Brando29 October 2021 at 17:26

    Easily the best of the Charlie Brown specials.

    I feel so lucky to have been of the generation that had these shows made just for us, back when American TV was between three and nine channels (pre-cable), color was a big deal, and you made sure you were home to watch these because they appeared--like the Great Pumpkin--once a year. We have the DVDs and our memories, but it's not the same.

    According to legend, a woman once told Charles Schulz that the Great Pumpkin was "sacrilegious." Schulz agreed: "That's the point."

    1. Exactly. Up until around the early Eighties or whereabouts, a new Peanuts special was an event (what would be called "appointment television" now). CBS would ratchet up the publicity a few weeks ahead of the broadcast to build up the anticipation, not just with TV promos, but with ads and write-ups in magazines and newspapers.