The life and legacy of Charles M. Schulz
Charlie Brown and Snoopy are recognized around the world as iconic comic strip characters, but in Sonoma County, they’re our neighbors.
Their creator, Charles “Sparky” Schulz, who lived and worked here from 1958 until his death in 2000, remains a powerful presence. While the world knows of his comic strips and the animated cartoons they inspired, locals have many other reasons to remember him.
At the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, known as Snoopy’s Home Ice, a “reserved” sign still rests on Schulz’s favorite table in the arena’s Warm Puppy coffee shop.
“I’m happiest when I’m going to the ice arena every morning, reading the newspaper, coming up with what I think is a great idea and coming over to my drawing board,” Schulz told The Press Democrat in 1997.
“The ice arena is still a big part of Santa Rosa,” said Schulz’s widow, Jean Schulz. “It’s a happy place. Sparky said people needed to hang out, whether they were watching their kids skate or just having a cup of coffee.”
“He’s gone, but he is still such a presence,” said Tamara Stanley, general manager of the arena.
From the statues of “Peanuts” characters scattered around Santa Rosa to the vintage “Peanuts” comic strips reprinted daily in The Press Democrat and 2,000 other newspapers to the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, Schulz’s spirit is still evident.
Schulz was born Nov. 26, 1922, in Minneapolis and got his “Sparky” nickname at a very early age. Perhaps cartoons were part of his destiny. Sparky was a reference to the horse in the “Barney Google” comic strip.
Schulz would have turned 100 on Nov. 26. He died of colon cancer Feb. 12, 2000, in Santa Rosa at age 77.
By the time of his death, he had drawn the “Peanuts” comic strip for nearly 50 years. He wrote, penciled, inked and lettered by hand every single one of the daily and Sunday strips to leave his studio — 17,897 in all.
The ‘Peanuts’ saga
The “Peanuts” comic strip debuted in 1950 and over the following decades garnered hundreds of millions of readers worldwide. It spawned some 50 TV specials, movies, books, countless toys and related merchandise and a Broadway show. At its height, the “Peanuts” strip ran in as many as 2,800 newspapers.
Schulz had hoped to call the strip “Li’l Folks,” but the legal counsel of United Features Syndicate said no. It was too similar to an older strip titled “Little Folks.”
So Schulz suggested “Charlie Brown” or “Good Ol’ Charlie Brown” as alternatives. He was told neither would work, for copyright reasons. The syndicate went with “Peanuts,” a name Schulz never liked.
By 1955, Schulz had won the first of his two Reuben Awards from the National Cartoonists Society for outstanding cartoonist of the year. By the time he moved to Sebastopol in 1958, he already was an established success.
Once in Sonoma County, he started working local landmarks, events, quirks and people into his comics. Individual strips in the Charles M. Schulz Museum’s collection have Charlie Brown talking about Bodega Bay or show Snoopy heading to the World Wristwrestling Championship in Petaluma.
Some characters in the strip are even named after local people.
One of the most prominent namesakes in the “Peanuts” canon is Linus, crabby Lucy’s philosophical little brother. He was named after Linus Maurer, who enjoyed a long friendship with Schulz and was a longtime cartoonist for The Press Democrat’s sister publication, the Sonoma Index-Tribune.
And “Peanuts” characters still populate Sonoma County, another reminder of the legendary cartoonist’s presence here.
Anyone who drives around the area is bound to spot the colorful “Peanuts on Parade” statues. Four-foot Charlie Brown statues were decorated in the summer of 2005, followed by Woodstock in 2006, Snoopy in 2007 and Lucy in 2010.
Former Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron and Schulz’s son, Craig Schulz, brought the public art concept to Santa Rosa from St. Paul, Minnesota, where Schulz grew up. Craig is the cartoonist’s middle child of five, and the only one who still lives in Sonoma County. He serves as CEO of Creative Associates, the Santa Rosa company that helps manage the licensing and use of Charlie Brown and the gang.
In all, the public art program distributed more than 200 statues and raised more than $500,000 for art scholarships and to install permanent bronze “Peanuts” sculptures at three sites in town.
“Going around town with friends, there was always a competition to count how many of the figures we saw,” said Catherine Liang, the current Miss California, who grew up in Windsor.