What Makes It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown So Magical

One of the key parts of the timeless appeal of It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (and other Peanuts specials) is its music. We have the inside story of how it was made.

Linus, Sally, and Snoopy in It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Photo: Apple TV+

The 1966 animated television special It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has become a perennial Halloween standard. Starring the Peanuts gang created by Charles M. Schulz, it is not, however, a horror classic. “It’s not even on the scale,” says film analyst and Peanuts historian Derrick Bang. “It’s too sweet and gentle. The only thing mildly spooky is the title credit sequence.” What the special lacked in fear it made up for in wonder. Much of that magic came from the music.

While Lucy, Linus, and even Snoopy come home with sacks of candy, Charlie Brown’s trick or treat bag is filled with rocks. That’s not how Halloween is supposed to roll. Lee Mendelson, co-creator of the Peanuts animated specials, brought in someone who could make it swing.

San Francisco Bay area jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi had been part of the Peanuts’ creative gang for two years by the time he was called in for It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. He was first hired to score a TV documentary about Schulz, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, in 1964. While the documentary never aired, the soundtrack, Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was a crossover hit, introducing a young generation to jazz. Guaraldi then composed and recorded the soundtrack to the 1965 holiday classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the June 1966 television special, Charlie Brown’s All Stars!.

Guaraldi started as a side man to combos fronted by Cal Tjader and Woody Herman, and was one of the first musicians to embrace bossa nova which culminated in a collaboration with Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete. Signed to Bay Area jazz label Fantasy Records in 1956, Guaraldi broke into the commercial charts with his third album, Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus (1962), which is being reissued by Craft Recordings for its 60th anniversary.

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The Vince Guaraldi Trio, which consisted of Guaraldi on piano and assorted keyboard instruments, bassist Monty Budwig, drummer Colin Bailey, recorded the soundtrack to the Charlie Brown Halloween special at Desilu’s Gower Street Studio in Hollywood. They were joined at the sessions by Emmanuel “Mannie” Klein on trumpet, John Gray on guitar, and Ronald Lang on woodwinds. Production was done a few weeks ahead of the airdate, and overseen by John Scott Trotter, a composer, arranger, and conductor who worked as musical director for Bing Crosby for 30 years.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown premiered on Oct. 27, 1966, was nominated for an Emmy, and can be seen any time on Apple TV+. But much of the music has not been as accessible. The Great Pumpkin sessions had been considered lost to time. Before his death in 2019, Mendelson asked his children to find the original analog reels from the Peanuts scores. They found boxes, which included alternate takes and unedited live performances. They all contain the magic of Guaraldi’s immortal sonics.

Bang, who also wrote Vince Guaraldi at the Piano, 50 Years of Happiness: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz, and Charles M. Schulz: Li’l Beginnings, spoke with Den of Geek about Great Pumpkins, cool jazz, and working for Peanuts. This interview has been edited for length.

Den of Geek: When you first saw the Great Pumpkin as a kid, did you identify with Schroeder?

Derrick Bang: No, as far as the Peanuts characters are concerned, I have always identified more with Linus, I was drawn to his quiet philosophizing. As far as Schroeder’s character was concerned, in both Charlie Brown Christmas and the specials that followed, All Stars and then Great Pumpkin, I began to pretty quickly identify Schroeder with Vince Guaraldi. I was very disappointed when I got older and found out that the two really had nothing to do with each other.

Does that early impression still color how you see Vince Guaraldi?

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No. I’m afraid that by the time I hit college, I realized that my childhood self had made something of an error. But that’s okay. It was harmless.

You discovered Vince Guaraldi through Peanuts. Were you initially surprised when you found out his vast background?

Oh, astonished. When we saw the Christmas special the first time back on Dec. 9th, 1965, I was ten, and the credits zipped past at the end of that show very quickly. I didn’t catch who had done the music, and I don’t think I caught it the following year when it was repeated in 1966. But by 1967 I knew what I was looking for. Enough articles had been written in newspapers. But it wasn’t until I got a little bit older toward the middle of high school that I began digging deeper into his catalog. By the time I hit college I was very pleased and impressed to discover that his background ran deep to working with Cal Tjader and being part of Woody Herman’s third iteration.

What did John Scott Trotter bring to the sessions?

Order for Charlie Brown Christmas and Charlie Brown’s All Stars. The only direction that Guaraldi was given by animator Bill Melendez was “I want this. I think I’m going to want this sequence to run 20 seconds.” Guaraldi didn’t think that way. He was still thinking in terms of delivering a song. He and the trio would play, say, “Linus and Lucy,” that tune out. It would run 3 minutes.

Melendez didn’t know what to do with 3 minutes, which is why, if you go back and watch Christmas and All Stars, you’ll notice the music fades rather abruptly, sometimes in the middle of a progression or a bit of melody. When John Scott Trotter came on board, he was in a position to actually orchestrate and act as a conductor and get Guaraldi and the trio to deliver a 23 second cue, which then would be intact in the show.

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Trotter also was a composer himself. He had worked with Bing Crosby for decades. So, he typically added one or two additional little cues himself. There are a couple of those in the Great Pumpkin special. It’s easy to tell they’re not Guaraldi. They don’t swing is the best way to put it. They’re more what you would associate with atmospheric cues.

Guaraldi worked very closely with Mendelson and Schulz for a very long time. What was that collaboration like?

Friends getting together and agreeing to have a good time. And you should include Bill Melendez. It was a quartet, not a trio. Schulz basically wrote the story outline, and then Mendelson would work with him and flesh it out, turn it into something that would run roughly 25 minutes. Melendez, at the same time, is taking notes and deciding on animated sequences.

Occasionally Guaraldi would be part of the conversation, most importantly in the case of Great Pumpkin. This was the show where Guaraldi decided that “Linus and Lucy” was going to become the Peanuts theme. Guaraldi decided this was it. This was going to be the running theme for however long this series continued.

He wanted to open the show with a really classy, lengthy reading of that theme, and Melendez obliged. Which is why, in this particular case, the music came first, which is usually not the way it happens. For that opening sequence, Guaraldi and his combo, particularly with that lovely flute counterpoint that you get during the midpoint of that particular version of the song, performed a full-length version of the song. Melendez animated that sequence to fill it without any dialogue until the very end.

How does The Great Pumpkin rate as a horror offering?

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Oh, not even on the scale. It’s too sweet and gentle. The only thing mildly spooky about that show is the title credit sequence, with the kids running around in their costumes, being menaced by ghosts and black cats and various sundry things, while that wonderful graveyard theme plays behind them. It’s punctuated by occasional boos and whistles and cackles of glee. Nah, it’s not scary. We can all do much better than that. I would be very surprised if that show ever frightened any child.

Guaraldi played live when he was doing the Peanuts sessions. How were they informing his live shows?

I think it was the other way around. The live shows influenced the studio sessions. In the case of the non-Peanuts stuff, he and whichever side men he had at that particular point in time would perform in clubs, and when Guaraldi felt they were ready with a collection of tracks, then they’d go into the studio and cut an album.

The Peanuts stuff tended to be the other way around. It wasn’t until Guaraldi had noodled the themes “Linus and Lucy,” “Red Baron,” and later “Peppermint Patty” and other good ones, put them into the show, and developed a sense for how to expand them as full-length tracks. Then those songs migrated into his live club performances.

By the way, an interesting piece of information. He was initially hired to write music for a documentary about Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown, and began to work with Lee Mendelson in 1964. Well, people in the Bay Area who went to see Guaraldi and his combo live, they were hearing Peanuts music throughout the bulk of 1965, months and probably almost a year before the rest of the country caught up with those songs. In December 1965, that must have been a lot of fun. Talk about your fly-on-the-wall moments.

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Original Soundtrack Recording) is out now. Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus will be released on CD and digital formats on November 18 with the LP due on February 24.

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