December 08, 2014 - 12:18 PM
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" has spoken to the child in all of us for five decades. Imagine what it would have been like to have been a child involved in the making of this special.
One such lucky girl was Sally Dryer. At eight years of age, Dryer was among the children cast as the voices of the beloved Peanuts comic strip characters.
"I was just at the right place at the right time," says Dryer, now 58 and living in Arizona, N.M. She was cast as the voice of Violet in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but starting with the next special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," and through a few more in the '60s, she voiced Charlie Brown's football-yanking nemesis, Lucy Van Pelt.
Then her voice changed, and as Dryer says, "I was a has-been at 11!"
Cartoonist Charles Schulz, who died in 2000 at 77, was very protective of his creation. For 50 years, he drew every panel of every comic strip. In 1965, when producer Lee Mendelson finally wore him down about doing an animated TV special, Schulz agreed only if certain conditions were met. One was that actual children — and not the adult voice actors usually hired on animated programming — be used to give voice to Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder and the rest of the Peanuts gang.
Mendelson spread the word among his staff that he was looking for kids who might fit the parts. Dryer got an audition because her big sister happened to be Mendelson's babysitter and — at the time of the casting call — a production assistant at his company.
Nobody had any idea that the special would still be charming TV audiences 50 years later — least of all the young actors. Dryer remembers the experience as "a day off school, a hamburger and a recording in San Francisco."
One or two of the kids weren't old enough to read that well and director Bill Melendez would feed them the dialogue line by line. Kathy Steinberg, who did the voice of Charlie Brown's little sister Sally, relied so much on Melendez's coaching she started mimicking his Latino accent. Dryer remembers this was still a problem on the "Great Pumpkin" special. "He would say, 'tricks or treats' instead of 'trick or treat.' I still get questions about that — 'Why do you say, 'tricks or treats?" and I say, 'Because that's what we were told to say.'"
Dryer remembers playing with Peter Robbins (Charlie Brown), Chris Shea (Linus) and the other kids while waiting their turn at the mike. "It was like playing hooky for a day," says Dryer. "We were a group of wild children, playing on the elevators and running up and down stairs and they'd take us one by one into the soundproof room and work with us, while the other kids crazily ran around and played."
It didn't sink in until many years later that Vince Guaraldi was in a neighbouring room recording his iconic jazz score for the special. Members of the rock group Jefferson Airplane also happened to be in the same recording studio on that day and came over and asked the kids for their autographs.
Like Dryer, Jill Schulz also grew up with Charlie Brown, Lucy and the rest of her father's comic strip ensemble. While she had an even better connection, neither she nor any of her four siblings ever auditioned for a voice role on the specials.
"I don't know if any of us had that unique of a voice or speech pattern that would have suited that job," says Schulz, also 58. While Dryer was a raw rookie, some of the children had some acting experience. Over the years, a few stuck with acting, such as Jeremy Miller (a later Linus), who went on to "Growing Pains."
Voice work aside, "people always asked my dad if any of us could draw," says Schulz. There was talk at one point of a family member carrying on her father's work, but that notion was quickly shot down. "That's like asking someone to do someone else's art," says Schulz.
The family is thrilled new generations continue to relate to Charlie Brown and Snoopy. A new CGI-animated Peanuts movie, approved by the family, will premiere in 2015. "You see so many other products that come and go and they're major hits and they have their Christmas specials and then they're gone," says Schulz. The reason "A Charlie Brown Christmas" endures, she thinks, is because these characters seem so human. There's a sense that what happens to the Peanuts gang "happens to all of us." Casting children to speak for the characters helps keep everything timeless and real.
"People would ask my dad, 'Why don't you let Charlie Brown kick that football just once?'" says Schulz. The cartoonist felt few people ever experience winning, but everybody experiences losing. "There's more of a connection there."
It's a connection Dryer understands. "I think that's the beauty of all the show's characters," she says. "We all have a piece of them in us."
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" returns Dec. 16 on ABC and Dec. 23 on YTV.
News from © The Associated Press, 2014