Even if it was a dark and stormy night, the rain had no effect on the dirtiest, dust-clouded youngster ever created in the world of comics.
For fans of “Peanuts” — the iconic comic strip made in Sonoma County by favorite son Charles M. Schulz — only one name comes to mind: Pigpen.
And they can get their fill at “Behind Peanuts: Pigpen,” the newest exhibit at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, celebrating the oddly beloved character. Located in the Upstairs Changing Gallery, visitors can view the display from July 27 to Jan. 14.
Having appeared in a little more than 100 of the 17,897 strips created by Schulz, the dust-enshrouded grade schooler, who brings wafting clouds of dirt to every setting, seems like an unlikely fan favorite. However, the elusive Pigpen has developed a following that rivals even his cleaner and more kempt counterparts.
“Many people [do] gravitate to a character that wasn’t in many ‘Peanuts’ strips,” said archivist Cesar Gallegos. “What makes him really special is everyone can think of that little kid that’s always dirty.”
Introduced in 1950, the “Peanuts” strip was written and drawn by Charles ‘Sparky’ Schulz — who settled in Sonoma County in 1958 — for nearly 50 years, until his death in 2000. Since then, reprints have continued to run in some 2,000 newspapers.
The rebellious nature of Pigpen’s design came at an interesting time in America, as TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Lassie” always made kids out to be neat and tidy. They follow the rules, whereas Pigpen goes against societal norms and expectations.
He’s also unique within the cast: not like Lucy, for example, who can be brash and demanding. Or the needy Linus. Pigpen has a rather mellow and calm persona, while remaining good-hearted like the rest of the “Peanuts” gang. The exhibition not only gives insight into how he became so popular but also background on his creation.
Schulz and his family first moved to Sebastopol in 1958, where his first studio was built. Three years after it burned down, he lived and worked in Santa Rosa from 1969 to 2000.
A 1970 black and white photograph taken in front of the Redwood Empire Ice Arena shows Schulz with his son Craig. Schulz credited him as one of the first inspirations for Pigpen. His son was outside a lot, and with that, always getting himself dirty.
Another occurrence was overhearing a childhood friend’s parents call their son a pigpen after being very messy from a long period of playing outdoors. Schulz incorporated this into an aspect of Pigpen’s personality that many have come to appreciate. His confidence.
“He seems to be the most at ease with himself,” said Suzanne Grant, a visitor. “He doesn’t have the hang-ups that the other characters have. You can identify with that.”
He became so recognizable, the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, founder of the Grateful Dead band, was nicknamed after him, because of his similar habits in body hygiene.
Along with the strips, many grew up with Pigpen in the animated TV specials during holidays, whether it was playing stand-up bass in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or taking a swing from home plate in a cloud of dust. His voice was seldom heard, but distinctive. One of his actors, San Francisco-born Christopher DeFaria, is now president of DreamWorks Feature Animation Group.
While Pigpen gets teased every now and then by the other kids, he never lets this change him as a person, and is very proud of his perpetually lingering cloud of dust.
Blown-up ink on paper designs from 1954 show that it was Pigpen’s choice to be filthy. Schulz didn’t make comments on his economic situation or class and showed how even though he loves baths, being dirty is more fun.
It brings to question how common it is nowadays for people to grow up with a Pigpen in the family or among friends. Some feel this is starting to drop in more recent decades with a combination of technology taking over and higher priority on cleanliness.
“There are kids that always look disheveled, and they’re messy,” said marketing director Tracey Pugh, “but I think of it more as being out in the dirt and covered in mud, and [today’s] technology’s kind of removed that.”
Others say this hasn’t changed, that being messy is a state of mind, and there will always be a token Pigpen in every group. Storylines in “Peanuts” often show a sense of longing, either to kick a football, fly a kite or win a baseball game.
This wanting to achieve something is no different for Pigpen, but he is entirely about standing up for himself and not letting anyone else bring him down. Perhaps what best exemplifies this is the largest sketch showcased, a 1960 “chalk talk” drawing of Pigpen.
These consisted of Schulz speaking to an audience while doing “Peanuts” character sketches at the same time. This piece was added to the museum a few months before the showing. “We have a lot of things you’re not going to see anywhere else,” said Gallegos.
Highlights include collectible Pigpen merchandise, with a magazine drawing and one for Earth Day. There’s also a recreated console TV playing a 1960 Ford Falcon commercial, his first time in animation, and insight on “The Peanuts Movie” when he was in full 3D.
Whether in the comic strip or numerous animated portrayals, the character continues to inspire people to enjoy life with their head held high, and not let others be discouraging. His message remains true for all, how what’s on the outside isn’t the whole person.
“He’s totally independent and unfazed by anyone’s expectations of him,” said Allison Pohl, outgoing public programs and visitor services coordinator.
“He’s an awesome role model.”
The Charles M. Schulz Museum is located on 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa. It’s open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. After Aug. 29, it will be closed Tuesdays. Adult admission is $12, seniors 62 or over with ID is $8, and children 4 to 18 or college students with valid ID is $5. Free access for museum members and children 3 or under.