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When the Charles M. Schulz Museum opened in Santa Rosa in 2002, even the "Peanuts" cartoonist's widow, Jean, wondered how the museum would come up with fresh ideas year after year, based on one man's life and work.

True, Schulz — "Sparky" to all who knew him — drew "Peanuts" for nearly 50 years, and the comic strip, animated TV specials and licensed merchandise based on them, have had a worldwide impact.

But some in the community wondered if the Schulz Museum would be a niche memorial, limited in appeal.

"There was skepticism about the staying power of the Schulz Museum. Whenever you launch a new project, particularly a museum, there's always some speculation," said Jennifer Sloan, executive director of the Art Council of Sonoma County.

The $8-million-dollar museum's attendance in the early months following its opening fell far short of consultants' ambitious preliminary estimates of 200,000 per year.

But eight years later, and 10 years after Schulz's death, the museum has established itself as both a tourist destination and a community center. It took years for the museum to hit its stride, offering creative, changing exhibits with broad appeal, classes for kids and other community outreach events that would move it past its start as a static homage to the cartoonist.

Even Jean Schulz has been pleasantly surprised as the 22-member museum staff continues to turn out inventive exhibits, classes and events, based on Good Ol' Charlie Brown and his pals but building beyond them as well.

"They'll come up with an idea, and I'll wonder, &‘How are they going to pull that off?' but they do," she said.

Exhibits have explored Schulz's comic observations on pop culture, politics, science, classical music and nature. Some shows have focused on more specific comic strip themes: the little red-haired girl and other characters mentioned - but never actually seen - in "Peanuts," and the imaginary locations used in comic strips from "Pogo" to "Lil' Abner."

Last year, Apollo 10 astronauts Gene Cernan and Tom Stafford, who nicknamed their command and lunar modules "Charlie Brown" and "Snoopy," attended a Schulz Museum salute to the 1969 moon mission.

"The experience of having the astronauts come here was a huge thing for the community. It's was wonderful to have people lined up around the block to see them," said Schulz Museum Curator Jane O'Cain.

Aside from such high-profile events, activity behind the scenes never ceases at the museum. Ongoing classes at the center range from serious training for aspiring cartoonists to Monday morning activity sessions for toddler and pre-schoolers and their parents.

"The philosophy really is to introduce children to going to a museum, in a way that's appropriate for them," said Jessica Ruskin, the museum's education director.

The museum also has its own theater, where holiday-themed "Peanuts" animated specials are running continuously during December.

"What I say to people is: &‘Join the museum, and when you're in the area, stop in. There's always something new,'" Jean Schulz said.

The diversified approach at Schulz Museum has strengthened its reputation and credibility, said Sloan of the arts council.

"There are other museums that focus on a niche, but in some respects I think the Schulz Museum has done a better job than most in reaching out to the community," Sloan said. "I have found the vision of the Schulz Museum to be right on point, particularly with their education programs for both youth and adults."

Attendance so far this year is about 61,000, up 2 percent from last year, said museum director Karen Johnson. Some 4,000 students from local schools tour the center each year. And the museum has built a strong community base, with 1,800 members and 120 volunteers.

Johnson believes that the museum is succeeding because, even as it has experimented with its exhibits and community outreach programs, it has never abandoned its original mission: to celebrate Schulz's creative vision and cultural impact, and his life in Santa Rosa.

"It's a combination of Jean Schulz's vision, which is very clear, Charles Schulz's talent and our amazing staff... but also our ability to reach people," Johnson said. "We get to take care of a legacy that makes people happy."

And Jean Schulz is satisfied that her vision for a museum celebrating her husband's life and work has been fulfilled.

"This is exactly what I hoped the museum would be," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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