Real people and places that Charles Schulz put in ‘Peanuts’ comic strip
“There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed,” the Beatles sang at the beginning of “In My Life.”
“I know I'll never lose affection for people and things that went before,” the song continues.
The same could be said of the current exhibit at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, “Drawn from Life: The People and Places of ‘Peanuts,’” running through mid-March next year.
Benjamin Clark, the museum’s curator, sees the show as an important prelude to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charles Schulz next year. The museum also celebrates its 20th anniversary next year.
“As we lead into the Schulz centennial in 2022, we’re getting to know him better through all of his characters,” Clark said. “He was present in all of his characters, but he also was influenced by the people around him, so this exhibit takes a look at that.”
Schulz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Nov. 26, 1922, and grew up in Saint Paul. He moved to Sonoma County in 1958 and lived in Sebastopol before moving to Santa Rosa, where he died in 2000, after writing and drawing the “Peanuts” comic strip for nearly 50 years.
So it’s not surprising, as you wander through the “Drawn from Life” exhibit, to see comic strips that have Charlie Brown talking about Bodega Bay or show Snoopy heading to the World Wrist Wrestling Championship in Petaluma.
But even more prominently featured in the strips on display are the identities of people Schulz knew, both in Sonoma County and Minnesota.
Take the mysterious Little Red-Haired Girl, the object of Charlie Brown’s unrequited affection, who is never seen in the comic strip. First referenced in “Peanuts” in 1961, she was based on Donna Johnson from Minneapolis. Johnson worked at Art Instruction Inc., a correspondence school where Schulz worked before moving west.
“She worked in the accounting department there, and he was an instructor,” Clark said. “She and Schulz dated, and he even proposed after selling ‘Peanuts’ to the syndicate, but she turned him down.”
Peppermint Patty, who excelled at sports but slept through class, got her last name, seldom used, from Sue Reichardt, according to the curator.
“Sue was one of Schulz’s secretaries in Sebastopol,” Clark said. “In the strip, Peppermint Patty’s last name is given as Reichardt.”
The source for Patty herself is a different matter.
Schulz modeled Peppermint Patty after a favorite cousin, Patricia Swanson, who served as a regular inspiration for “Peanuts,” according to several sources, including a new Apple TV+ documentary, “Where Are You, Charlie Brown?”
“The cousin idea is speculation by David Michaelis in his book,” Clark explained, referring to “Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography,” published in 2007.
“It’s not a bad speculation, probably, but Schulz is not on record saying that his cousin Pat Swanson was the inspiration for Peppermint Patty,” the curator continued.
The source of the name may have simply been peppermint candies, Clark said.
The study of “Peanuts” lore is serious business. After all, the museum’s full name is the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center.
Schulz’s groundbreaking Black character, Franklin Armstrong, introduced in 1968, got his last name from African American cartoonist Robb Armstrong, best known for creating the comic strip “Jump Start.”
Naturally, the exhibit includes an entry on Charlie Brown’s multitalented canine, Snoopy.
“Originally, Schulz wanted to name the dog character Sniffy,” Clark said.
That idea was dropped once Schulz learned of a comic book dog character named Snippy, which was too close for comfort. An issue of that comic is included in the exhibit.
“Schulz saw the comic book on a newsstand,” Clark said. “This would have been just after losing the argument over naming his strip ‘Peanuts,’ a name he never liked.”
Schulz had hoped he could call the strip “Li’l Folks,” but the syndicate’s legal counsel said no. It was too similar to an older strip titled “Little Folks.”
So Schulz suggested “Charlie Brown” or “Good ol’ Charlie Brown” as alternates, but he was told neither would work, for copyright reasons. The syndicate went with “Peanuts.”
“So, he’d been carrying the name Sniffy in his head for the dog, sees this comic book on a newsstand and realizes he needed to have a good replacement name to suggest,” Clark said. “Otherwise, the syndicate could name the dog something he hated, and he’d be stuck with it.”
That’s when Schulz recalled his mother saying something to the effect of, “If we ever have another dog, Snoopy would be a good name.”
“She was probably using a Norwegian term of endearment, meaning sweetheart, ‘Snuppa.’ I understand this is now an old-fashioned term and not much used,” Clark said.
History has it that the original drawings of Snoopy were inspired by Spike, one of Schulz’s childhood dogs, which became the name of Snoopy’s desert-dwelling brother.
Names in the strip that sprang from real people were given to both prominent characters and bit players.
Snoopy serves as scout leader for his tiny bird friend, Woodstock (a nod to the rock festival after the character had gone nameless), and his pals. The only female bird in the troop is named Harriet.
That name came from Harriet Crossland, whom Schulz met in 1969 at the opening of his skating rink, the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, now known as Snoopy’s Home Ice, Clark said.
After the introduction of the character to the comic strip in 1980, Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron wrote, “The real Harriet responded immediately to her new-found fame by showing up at Sparky’s studio carrying an angel food cake with seven-minute icing. His whole staff joined in the impromptu tea party. That’s the fun of having a cartoonist-in-residence. You can watch the familiar names come up now and again.”
One of the most prominent namesakes in the “Peanuts” canon is Linus, given to crabby Lucy’s philosophical little brother. He was named after Linus Maurer, a longtime cartoonist for the Sonoma Index-Tribune, who enjoyed a long friendship with Schulz.
The list of local and personal references is a long one, and the tantalizing snippets of information will keep you browsing with interest as you wind your way through the exhibit.
“This exhibit is important,” Clark concluded, “because we get a look at these beloved characters and understand their origins.”
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at email@example.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Sue Reichardt’s last name.
Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat
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