There are a handful of Christmas-themed audiovisual gems that invade American TV sets each holiday season to remind us what Christmastime is really all about. And while films like A Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life are touching and heartfelt reminders of the importance of giving, family, and selflessness, they also come from a time when American popular culture was overwhelmingly and unapologetically white. That’s all fine and good, of course, but it’s kind of hard for us Latinos to see our own experiences reflected in these lily-white paeans to middle America, so it might be surprising to learn that the man behind the undisputed classic A Charlie Brown Christmas was actually a Sonora-born Mexican-American bigotón by the name of José Cuauhtemoc “Bill” Meléndez.
We know, you’re probably thinking, “Uhh, no. Obviously it was Peanuts creator Charles Schulz,” and you would be partially right. Schulz, of course, was the creative mind who brought the world comic strip icons like Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the beloved Peanuts crew, but when Executive Producer Lee Mendelson pitched the idea of a half-hour animated TV special to Mr. Schulz back in 1965, he didn’t hesitate to recommend Meléndez for the job of producing, directing, and animating the project.
By that time, Meléndez had worked extensively as an animator for both Disney and Warner Brothers, and the two had met years earlier when they collaborated on a commercial spot for the Ford Motor Company. By 1964, Meléndez had founded his own eponymous animation studio, which quickly began to rack up some of the world’s most coveted advertising accolades, including an honorable mention at Cannes and a Venice Cup. Once he had signed on for A Charlie Brown Christmas, the trio of Meléndez, Mendelson, and Schulz began a six-month scramble to put together a screenplay, cast a handful of rambunctious children, and animate 13,000 frames worth of kid-friendly cartoon content on a shoestring budget.
With Schulz pushing the team to make some radical decisions – like leaving out the standard laugh track, adopting a jazz-inflected soundtrack, making explicit references to religion, and casting non-actors to voice his characters – both Meléndez and Mendelson had their doubts as to whether their gamble would pay off. After the screenplay was finished, Meléndez was left to animate the entire project in just four months, finishing the last frame only 10 days before the special was scheduled for broadcast. Believing he had animated an unmitigated disaster, Meléndez and the rest of the team were surprised when preview screenings started bringing in glowing reviews from critics.
After premiering on December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas garnered over 15 million viewers and was hailed by critics as an instant classic. The special went on to win Meléndez his first Emmy and Peabody Award, and inspired over 75 half-hour Peanuts specials that were animated exclusively by Meléndez until his death in 2008 at the age of 91. Over the course of his career, Meléndez earned himself even more Emmy and Peabody Awards for various projects, and gave life to a number of other comic-strip icons, including Garfield the Cat, Cathy, and Babar the Elephant.
His work is carried on by his son Steven Meléndez, who first assisted his father on A Charlie Brown Christmas, before opening up the studio’s overseas offices in London and ultimately taking the helm before his father’s passing. To this day, Bill’s legacy lives on not only in his thousands of animated commercials, specials, and features he created over the course of his lifetime, but also in the high-pitched gibberish famously spoken by Snoopy in his animated specials. Yes, that’s his voice.
Watch these 10 videos to get to know Bill Meléndez and his many talents.
The Making of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'
A Little Love: The Art of Bill Meléndez
Bill Meléndez Interview on the Genesis of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'
Bill Meléndez Interview on Creating Snoopy's Voice
Bill Meléndez's Voice Used for Snoopy in 'The Peanuts Movie'
“We dug into the archives of Bill doing Snoopy and Woodstock and we got the rights to use that,” Schulz says. “And we met with [producer] Lee Mendelson and got the rights to the music.”
“Listening to the clips of him laughing as Snoopy — that is liquid gold. It’s so infectious,” Martino says of the Melendez archives. “I’ve heard it over and over, and I can’t help but laugh. It’s great to be able to use his voice.”