How Woodstock - the bird - was inspired by the 1969 music festival
Ever since the early '50s beginnings of "Peanuts," creator Charles Schulz feathered his beloved comic strip with anonymous birds that popped in with mischievous, chirping whimsy. Yet it was two decades until a winged "Peanuts" creature finally got a name, becoming a fully nested character.
On June 22, 1970, Schulz officially christened Snoopy's little yellow friend Woodstock, naming him for the massive counterculture music festival that was staged 50 years ago this week on the farm in Bethel, New York.
Schulz was not particularly a fan of rock music - his record collection leaned toward classical and country-western - yet Life magazine's coverage of the event caught his eye. The Minnesota-born cartoonist lived in the Bay Area, which had been the locus of the "Summer of Love" a couple of years before, but the tumultuous decade was mostly reflected only glancingly in the strip, through the mostly warm and fuzzy filter of situational humor.
Yet something about that word, amid the generational rise of a new youth culture, rather fascinated Schulz.
"I can see him saying: 'That sounds like a bird species name,' " Benjamin Clark, curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, says of choosing Woodstock.
"The character was pretty well-established - the character we had come to love - so he's going: 'OK, we're going to need a name so I can go forward,' " he added.
Schulz - who collected words that amused him - was continually experimenting with his cast of characters, and one canary-yellow bird kept emerging as a fun foil to Snoopy, the beagle prone to flights of fancy. So what about the Woodstock name and its associations made it worthy for the cartoonist's star bird?
Schulz, it turns out, was "kind of cryptic" about that, says Clark, who guided the museum's current exhibit, "Peace, Love and Woodstock," which runs through March. In one interview, the cartoonist said that the name would "be good for people who like that sort of thing," says Clark before posing the question: Was he being a savvy businessman?
"I think it's much more than that," the curator continues. "He's middle-aged and looking at these young people behind him, protesting, and [asking]: 'What's that about?' "
Schulz, who served in the Army during World War II, began pulling back some on the war-themed strips during the Woodstock era, including Snoopy's dogfight scenes piloting his fantasy plane, the Sopwith Camel. (The Royal Guardsmen had released the hit novelty song "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" in 1968; the tune can be heard in Quentin Tarantino's new 1969-set film, "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.")
Yet "Peanuts" did sometimes reflect the changing times, including nods to civil rights and the Vietnam War. In one story, Snoopy gets invited to give a commencement speech at Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where there's a tear-gassed demonstration over the enlistment of dogs being sent to Vietnam.
And in the summer of 1968, Schulz integrated "Peanuts" by introducing Franklin, after a California schoolteacher - while grieving the Rev. Martin Luther King's assassination - wrote a letter urging the cartoonist to create a black character. Franklin, whose father is serving in Vietnam, begins by sharing a beach day with Charlie Brown.
Beyond the symbolism, "Schulz didn't really take a strong, definite stance on some issues, but you know he was thinking about it," Clark says. "He couldn't quite come out and be an anti-war protester." Still, in "Peanuts" strips of the era, Schulz drew birds holding protesting signs that sported only perplexing punctuation marks. Snoopy, perhaps as the cartoonist's avatar, observes the action with a wary but curious eye.
For the "Peace Love and Woodstock" exhibit, the Schulz Museum borrowed some historic festival memorabilia from New York's Museum at Bethel Woods, including the original art for the "Aquarian Exposition" poster that features a white bird perched on a guitar neck. For his "3 Days of Peace & Music" paper cut-out artwork, Arnold Skolnick had been influenced by a Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
The Schulz Museum cannot say for sure whether the cartoonist ever saw that poster. But the naming of Woodstock continued the evolution of this particular bird character, who at one point had been Snoopy's female secretary.
Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer of the classic "Peanuts" TV specials, including "A Charlie Brown Christmas," says that as Woodstock emerged as a sidekick, he became especially useful on screen. "Woodstock gave the animators a chance for action, gave Snoopy someone new to get involved with - and gave viewers a new friend." At times, Snoopy and Woodstock became like a pantomiming comedy team.