The life and legacy of Charles M. Schulz

Friends, family and fans share the impact the cartoonist had on Sonoma County and beyond.|

“It’s the Girl in the Red Truck”

“Peanuts” was adapted into nearly 50 animated specials starting in 1965, most of them released on TV. In recent years, Apple TV has streamed new specials and a new show, “The Snoopy Show.”

One of the most unusual projects was “It’s the Girl in the Red Truck,” a combination of animation and live action that aired in 1988. It starred Schulz’s daughter, Jill, in the title role and featured the “Peanuts” comic strip character Spike, Snoopy’s brother who lives in the desert. The plot is a bit like Beauty and the Beast, with Spike pursuing a cute aerobics instructor who drives an old red Chevrolet pickup.

Schulz’ son, Monte, helped write the script, and longtime Santa Rosa stage actress Mollie Boice appeared in a supporting role.

“When he did ‘Girl In The Red Truck,’ he cast me in it as the owner of a diner, as that’s what I played in the first show he saw me in,” Boice said.

“I’d have lunch with him a few times each month, unless they were getting ready for the ice show,” she added. “Then I’d come in the afternoons to sit with Sparky and watch … the skaters.

“Sparky was an amazing man, and great fun.”

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.

Schulz famously introduced Franklin Armstrong, his strip’s first Black character, on July 31, 1968, in a move that was considered a breakthrough at the time. He took the character’s last name from Black cartoonist Robb Armstrong, creator of the “Jump Start” comic strip.

A Los Angeles teacher named Harriet Glickman had written to Schulz on April 15 that year, 11 days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., urging him to add a Black character to “Peanuts.”

House of ‘Peanuts’

One of the Schulz family’s greatest gifts to the county is the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which preserves Schulz’s legacy while championing the art form he advanced.

Since it opened 20 years ago, the museum has hosted more than 350 cartoonists, through presentations, book signings and panel discussions.

Guest cartoonists have included Patrick McDonnell, creator of “Mutts;” Jim Borgman, co-creator of the “Zits” comic strip; Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) of “This Modern World;” and David Needham of Dreamworks Animation. Others have included Cathy Guisewite of the “Cathy” comic and Santa Rosa resident Stephan Pastis, creator of “Pearls Before Swine.”

Schulz’s impact on the medium was monumental, according to Pastis.

“He created modern cartooning — tone, pace, depth of character, motifs, language — he created the whole modern template,” Pastis said. “I don’t know of any cartoonist that followed that wasn’t influenced by him.”

“He created modern cartooning — tone, pace, depth of character, motifs, language — he created the whole modern template,” Pastis said. “I don’t know of any cartoonist that followed that wasn’t influenced by him.”

At the museum, visitors have come from as far away as Japan, the Netherlands, England, Brazil and China.

“The museum has given depth and richness to the work of Charles Schulz,” said Gina Huntsinger, the museum’s director.

“The museum also has pushed beyond Sonoma County with our educational outreach and the Snoopy Museum in Tokyo,” she said. “We have traveling exhibitions that are originated here that go all around the world.”

Huntsinger estimates the classes at and field trips to the museum reach 12,000 local students a year. Many Sonoma County students first encountered the museum on school field trips.

“In elementary school, I remember taking trips to the museum,” said Liang, 23. “I was in an after-school art and cartoon program. I can’t say I was talented at it. My stick figures struggled.”

She particularly remembered the bedroom wall mural at the museum, retrieved from a Colorado house Schulz once lived in. It shows early versions of some of his characters.

Liang said she grew to respect the influence of Schulz’s world-famous comic strip creation.

“It shows how powerful a storyteller Charles Schulz was,” she said. “His legacy is his personal storytelling.”

Snoopy on ice, in space

The Redwood Empire Ice Arena, commonly known as Snoopy's Home Ice, opened on April 28, 1969. It was conceived, designed and originally operated by Schulz’s first wife, Joyce Schulz.

“Charles Schulz enjoyed this ice arena so much, and he loved what happened here,” said General Manager Stanley.

The arena was the place where Schulz interacted with locals the most.

“Charles Schulz would host a fantastic ice show every year during the holidays. He brought in great skaters, including many Olympians. He obviously subsidized the production, because the admission fees were very low,” recalled Rick Denniston of Santa Rosa, a retired biomedical engineer.

“My wife, Teresa, and I went to a preview performance in 1999. We were very surprised when Mr. Schulz got in line right behind us. As the line slowly moved forward … one of his employees, with a shocked look on her face, said, ‘Mr. Schulz, You can just go in!’ He waved her off and continued in line with us and sat next to us for the first half of the show.”

The ice shows ran from 1979 through 2003 at the arena and were directed and choreographed by Karen Kresge, who still coaches there. Star skaters who performed at Schulz’s ice rink included Peggy Fleming, Scott Hamilton, Robin Cousins and Dorothy Hamill.

Hamilton’s CARES Foundation, the nonprofit the skater founded to fight cancer, will celebrate Schulz’s 100th Birthday with “Sparky's Ice Spectacular” Nov. 26 at Snoopy’s Home Ice.

The arena is also host to the annual Snoopy’s Senior World Hockey Tournament and the home of the Santa Rosa Growlers, a new Senior A team in the Mountain West Hockey League. The youth hockey team Santa Rosa Flyers and the Santa Rosa Junior College Polar Bears also play there.

Anyone who remembers “Peanuts” strips with Snoopy riding atop the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine will immediately recognize the connection. Schulz, born in Minneapolis and raised in St. Paul, loved hockey.

“I don’t know if he had much hockey experience in Minnesota,” said Roland Thiebault, who coached and played hockey with Schulz in Santa Rosa. “He was a good tennis player and a good golfer, but he loved hockey.”

Generally known as a quiet man in public, Schulz was aggressive on the ice, Thiebault said.

“He was very reserved, but he was very competitive. He wanted to win,” Thiebault added. “He was a fairly good skater and he was tough. You didn’t try to take the puck away from him.”

The connection between Schulz’s real life and the story line in the “Peanuts” comic strip was ever-present, Thiebault discovered.

“He did create a character named after me: Tibo,” he said. “Tibo was cranky. It’s not me. I have no idea why he made me a tough guy, but I was playing hockey so I guess I was tough.”

“Peanuts” characters are so universally recognized that they have been used as symbols for the U.S. space program and the U.S. Postal Service, including in new Forever stamps the Postal Service issued this fall featuring “Peanuts” characters to commemorate the centennial of Schulz’s birth.

In May 1969, Apollo 10 astronauts Gene Cernan, John Young and Thomas Stafford named their lunar module “Snoopy.” The Apollo command module was labeled “Charlie Brown.”

Snoopy’s first flight to space was in 1990, when a toy figure of the famous cartoon beagle caught a ride on the space shuttle Columbia during the STS-32 mission.

Charity at home

Given that Schulz created Snoopy, one of the most memorable dog characters ever, it’s no surprise he and Jean have supported Canine Companions.

Founded in 1975 and based in Santa Rosa, Canine Companions is a leading service dog provider and has six campuses across the country. Earlier this year, the organization broke ground for a 32,000-square-foot center, expected to be finished by August 2023.

“The Schulzes first got involved with Canine Companions in the mid-80s,” said Paige Mazzoni, CEO of Canine Companions. “Sparky saw a demonstration given by one of the recipients. They donated the land for our headquarters.”

When asked to join the organization’s board of directors, Schulz declined. Jean accepted and continues to serve on the board, often lending her help in the quest to recruit sponsors and donors.

“A huge part of what the Schulzes have done is bring attention to the concept of service dogs,” Mazzoni added.

Another important Schulz legacy is the Jean and Charles Schulz Information Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, which opened in 2000.

“Charles and Jean Schulz donated the original $5 million gift, with an annual endowment to keep pace with changes in technology,” said Dean of the Library Karen G. Schneider.

Updating and refurbishing has been needed since, and thanks to those funds and other contributions, the necessary work has been done, Schneider said.

“It was groundbreaking when it opened. But if you think back 20 years, there was no YouTube and no cellphones, so our technology has been upgraded,” she said.

One of the upgrades has come in the form of new furniture.

“The Schulzes’ generosity makes the library a very comfortable living room for the students,” Schneider said.

And the “Peanuts” legacy is evident.

“We have a lot of prints on the wall, and Jean Schulz provided the captions,” Schneider said. “And we have a great photo of Sparky on the third floor.”

Making music

In 2015, the $9.5 million Schroeder Hall chamber and choral music performance and teaching space opened opposite the Weill Hall concert space and lawn on the Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center in Rohnert Park.

The hall is named after the blond boy in the “Peanuts” comic strip who played Beethoven on a toy piano, ignoring bossy Lucy as she talked of marriage.

Jean Schulz had suggested the name, observing at the time, “Sparky loved classical music.” That ardor was demonstrated in numerous ways.

“It’s no small thing to say his philanthropic support allowed the Santa Rosa Symphony to go from a really good local orchestra to a professional regional orchestra that is nationally recognized,” said Alan Silow, president and CEO of the symphony since 2002.

“He also anonymously donated contributions to support individual concerts,” Silow said. “Even with his passing, Jean Schulz and the Schulz Fund have continued his philanthropic legacy. That legacy continues to grow.”

The symphony’s first commercial label recording, released in September, includes “Peanuts Gallery,” inspired by the comic strip and composed in 1983 by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Music.

In October, the Symphony Pops Series at Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Center for the Arts opened with “Playing for Peanuts: The Music of Vince Guaraldi,” a concert of the iconic music from “Peanuts” TV specials plus Zwilich’s “Peanuts Gallery.”

Guaraldi was an American jazz pianist noted for composing music for animated TV adaptations of the “Peanuts” comic strip, produced by Lee Mendelson.

“Lee Mendelson started Lee Mendelson Film Productions in the ’60s and he produced all the ‘Peanuts’ specials up until Apple started making new material recently,” said Sean Mendelson, Lee Mendelson’s son. “Having been moved by (Guaraldi’s hit single) ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ my dad brought Vince Guaraldi into the ‘Peanuts’ fold in 1963, and the rest is history.”

Sean’s brother Jason added, “The legend goes that my father, Lee Mendelson, called Charles Schulz, whose number was in the phone book, in 1963 and asked him if he was interested in making a documentary on Mr. Schulz and his ‘Peanuts’ gang. Mr. Schulz said he was happy doing his strip and didn’t want to do any television.”

But “Once Mr. Schulz had agreed to the project, Lee called Mr. Guaraldi, who agreed to score the documentary. ‘A Boy Named Charlie Brown’ never aired, but its score was a smashing success, with Guaraldi’s music for the documentary still enjoying success to this day,” Jason Mendelson continued.

“Along with Bill Melendez, who had animated the documentary, too, they next created ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.’ And until Vince’s passing in 1976, they constantly worked together on many ‘Peanuts’ specials and movies,” he said.

Lasting memories

“When Sparky first moved from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa in the early ’70s, I think a lot of people didn’t know who he was,” Jean Schulz said. “He wasn’t famous the way a movie star is famous.”

That changed, however. After Schulz moved to Santa Rosa, the ice arena opened and he married Jean, he got more notice from the locals, she said. On his walks around the Coddingtown area, near the arena and his studio, passing drivers would hail him.

“I’m a different kind of celebrity. Not like Joe Montana or Steve Young,” Schulz told The Press Democrat in 1997. “I can still go wherever I want, do what I want and people don’t usually come up to me. Sometimes I see them look at me and turn and talk to each other, and I know they’ve spotted me. And that’s all right.”

In Sonoma County, Schulz, who admitted to being a bit shy, ultimately found a comfortable balance between worldwide fame and being part of a community, said those who knew him.

“He liked it here, because he could go places and be a regular person in the community,” said Huntsinger of the Schulz Museum. “People here let him be.”

There is no question Schulz is still remembered in Sonoma County.

“I think there’s a heck of lot of people who miss him,” said Thiebault, Schulz’s onetime hockey pal. “He was a genius.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

“It’s the Girl in the Red Truck”

“Peanuts” was adapted into nearly 50 animated specials starting in 1965, most of them released on TV. In recent years, Apple TV has streamed new specials and a new show, “The Snoopy Show.”

One of the most unusual projects was “It’s the Girl in the Red Truck,” a combination of animation and live action that aired in 1988. It starred Schulz’s daughter, Jill, in the title role and featured the “Peanuts” comic strip character Spike, Snoopy’s brother who lives in the desert. The plot is a bit like Beauty and the Beast, with Spike pursuing a cute aerobics instructor who drives an old red Chevrolet pickup.

Schulz’ son, Monte, helped write the script, and longtime Santa Rosa stage actress Mollie Boice appeared in a supporting role.

“When he did ‘Girl In The Red Truck,’ he cast me in it as the owner of a diner, as that’s what I played in the first show he saw me in,” Boice said.

“I’d have lunch with him a few times each month, unless they were getting ready for the ice show,” she added. “Then I’d come in the afternoons to sit with Sparky and watch … the skaters.

“Sparky was an amazing man, and great fun.”

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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