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- October 30, 1989
- Vol. 32
- No. 18
Good Ol' Charlie Brown Is About to Turn 40 (Good Grief!), but His Kindly Creator Still Finds Happiness in Working for Peanuts
Charles Monroe Schulz, 66, is a connoisseur of dread. Forget that he has created the most successful comic strip since the invention of ink, that his beloved Peanuts gang appears in more than 2,000 newspapers, countless TV specials and on enough coffee mugs, lunch boxes and beach towels to stock a big-town department store. To Schulz, every late-night bodily twinge means cancer, and outings by rowboat are spent hugging the shore. If good of Charlie Brown, his fatalistic comic-strip Everyman, is a bundle of insecurities, look no further for their origin, "I sometimes feel people only like me because I draw those silly little pictures," Schulz frets. "If I didn't, they wouldn't care if I were ever born."
Schulz has been converting such worries into his endearing, gentle comic strip for almost 40 years now. It is a milestone that will be framed by international celebrations, an authorized, first-ever biography (Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz by Rheta Grimsley Johnson) and, inevitably, rising appeals for personal appearances. In a hollow tone suited to welcoming a tax auditor, he says that people want him to travel from his California sanctum to Paris and to the Super Bowl, and he feels helpless to stem the tide. "I don't want to go anywhere," he says. "I enjoy the security of staying home and drawing these pictures."
Lucy: Do you ever worry about the world getting blown up, Charlie Brown?
Charlie: It all depends...what day is today?
Charlie: Well, on Tuesdays I worry about personality problems.... Thursday is my day for worrying about the world getting blown up.
If drawing "those silly little pictures" hasn't yet brought Schulz much psychic security, it has certainly made him rich. Retail sales of Peanuts products now generate $1 billion annually, and Schulz reportedly splits a 5-to-10 percent royalty (with United Feature Syndicate) on the wholesale price of them all. There's something appealing about a man whose ego hasn't grown to fit his income. A few years ago Schulz phoned cartoonist Lynn Johnston (For Better or for Worse) to tell her how much he admired her strip. When she didn't react at first, the country's most famous cartoonist wasn't sure Johnston knew who he was. "Charles Schulz," he ventured. "I draw Peanuts."
He does more, of course. He skates in a seniors hockey league, plays golf regularly and is a tough, blue-collar competitor in both. When he wins a $2 bet on the links, says longtime golfing buddy Chuck Bartley, "he wants to be paid up and no fooling around." Most often the bet is for a chocolate sundae on the way home.
Since his marriage to second wife Jeannie 16 years ago, home has been a quiet and secluded hilltop retreat above the wine country in Santa Rosa, Calif. It is there he begins the rituals of his life each day. Those rituals are his mooring, the flannel blanket he has drawn a thousand times in the hands of Lucy's little brother, Linus.
While Jeannie, a suntanned package of energy 16 years his junior, gets up early to exercise, Schulz lies in bed, often wrestling with his white terrier, Andy. A menagerie of pets passed through his life while his five children were growing, but it is Andy who has come closest to replacing his beloved Spike, the pet of his childhood (and later the inspiration for Snoopy). Before 9 A.M. he has made the 18-minute drive into town in his maroon Mercedes (license number: WDSTK1, after his cartoon bird). Following coffee at the Warm Puppy snack bar in the ice rink that he built for $2 million back in 1969, he walks a few short blocks to I Snoopy Place and the neatly landscaped, one-story stone-and-redwood building that houses his office and workplace. While others attend to product endorsements, syndication rights and other commercial concerns, Schulz sits behind a closed door in his blue-walled studio and starts to think. His ideas come from newspapers, conversations with friends, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations—or sometimes they just appear. He is firm about never accepting suggestions from others, even his best friends.
He works first in pencil, returning later with his Esterbrook Radial 94 pen. It is the only type of pen he has used for more than 40 years, and there are thousands of his favorite, no-longer-made pen points squirreled away in a desk drawer. He accepts assistance for only the smallest paste-up work and does all his own drawing, sometimes propping his right hand on his left to steady the occasional hand tremors he has suffered since a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery eight years ago. "I like drawing Charlie Brown's hat and Peppermint Patty's hair," he says. "If one line doesn't go where you want it, you can always bring it back."
Like his methods, Schulz's metaphors are constant: the kite-eating tree and the football that Charlie Brown can never kick, the winless baseball games, the Great Pumpkin that never comes, the ever-unobtainable Little Red-haired Girl. "Happiness isn't very funny," says Schulz. "It's wonderful, but it's not funny." He scoffs politely at suggestions that his strip has staled and insists that his work has become "more deep, and the drawing is better. I don't repeat myself," he says. "I play themes and variations."
The only child of a Minneapolis barber and his wife, Schulz began learning those themes in a home where hard work and frugal living were bywords of survival. His father compensated for a third-grade education with six-day workweeks, finding his entertainment in the newspaper comics that he read faithfully. He loved them so dearly that he nicknamed his little round-headed boy Sparky after Barney Google's cartoon racehorse, Spark Plug. It is still the name by which Schulz is known to all his friends.
Young Charles, by his own admission, was an undistinguished boy. But he loved drawing and at 15 had his first success by getting an illustration published in Ripley's Believe It or Not! A drawing submitted to his senior yearbook, however, never appeared; Schulz keeps the offending volume in a bookshelf to this day and occasionally opens it to the picture of a somber, smooth-faced young man with no academic credentials or club affiliations under his name. "Whoever thought that kid would grow up to be in the Central High School Hall of Fame?" he says, shaking his head in wonderment.
At 17, Schulz responded to a "Do You Like to Draw?" advertisement and signed up for a correspondence course with the Minneapolis-based Art Instruction Schools. He got his worst grade, C+, in the lesson devoted to drawing children. Then in 1943 he was drafted by the Army and eventually packed off to Europe as an infantry machine gunner. Before he had finished boot camp, his mother died of cancer.
After the war, Schulz moved into an apartment with his father and applied for a job carving letters on tombstones. When his prospective employers never responded—to his relief—he returned to his old art academy as an instructor. There he met Donna Johnson (see box), whose bright red hair and cheery smile would leave an imprint as lasting as india ink. She became his best friend, frequent date—and the model for the elusive Little Red-haired Girl, his comic strip's symbol of unrequited love. "Mothers always liked me, except her mother, and she couldn't stand me," he says sadly. "I didn't have a chance." Too proper to elope, Schulz watched unhappily as a fellow suitor won his true love's hand instead. Asked what life might have been like had he done things differently, he answers without hesitating, "Perfect. I saw her years later, when my sons were grown. Walking down the street with her, it was like not a day had passed."
In 1950 Schulz finally did get married, to Joyce Halverson, the pretty sister of a co-worker and mother of a daughter. That same year he sold a comic strip to United Feature and, although he objected when they changed its name from L'il Folks to Peanuts, little Charlie Brown (named after an art school colleague) was born. Soon, two more real-life daughters and two sons followed.
Schulz would be as gentle a father as he was a cartoonist. "At the dinner table we had to behave and say 'please' and 'thank-you,' " recalls his youngest daughter, Jill, 31. "But occasionally I'd say, 'Pass the rolls,' and he'd toss one over the table." Discipline was by indirection. "He wasn't the type to come yelling and screaming if I came home late. He would just say, 'I wish you would call because I worry.' He would say it matter-of-factly, but you knew he was upset. He was more into making you feel guilty than yelling."
The marriage to Joyce lasted 23 years, and Schulz is still loath to talk about its ending. "I don't think she liked me anymore," he says simply, "and I just got up and left one day, walked out the door, because I didn't know what to do." Faced with his worst loss since the red-haired girl, he moved into his studio and stopped listening to music because it made him sad.
Schroeder: Is Snoopy a hunting dog?
Charlie: I guess he is...in a way...
Schroeder: What does he hunt, animals or birds?
Charlie: Neither...What he hunts for mostly is an easier way of life.
In 1973 Schulz ran into Jeannie Clyde, a soon-to-be divorcée who was dropping her daughter off at the rink. The courtly artist courted quickly this time, and within a year the couple had wed. Despite the curiosity of Peanuts fans and would-be interviewers, Jeannie tends to guard her privacy now—much like her husband, who has long shared his wisdom through lines drawn rather than spoken.
That he has been creating daily samplers of that wisdom for almost 40 years now is testament both to his doggedness and his affection for the work. Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau, Bloom County's Berke Breathed, even The Far Side's Gary Larson have all wilted in time, taking temporary or permanent breaks from their pencils. But not Schulz. "There are times you really hate your job, and we talk about that," says Lynn Johnston, who has become both his colleague and friend. "He once said, 'Yeah, and isn't it awful that we can't complain to anybody? I feel God would strike the fingers off my hand for complaining about having the best job in the world.' "
It is a job that, happily, Schulz intends to keep for a good while longer. "We just had a meeting of the licensees, and they told me all their great big plans for the next decade," he says. "I thought, 'Decade? Good grief, am I going to have to draw for 10 more years so you'll have a great decade?' But what can I do? I wouldn't know what else to do."
Nor would we, No matter that Charlie Brown will never kick that football, win the Little Red-haired Girl or that the Great Pumpkin will never appear. They seem likely to remain as constants in our lives, as perennial as the turning seasons and as reliable as the daily paper.
But, of course, as Charlie himself might say, you just never know.
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