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Remembering cartoonist Charles Schulz

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

This Thanksgiving weekend, a lot of families are going to be gathered around the TV to watch Charlie Brown get tricked yet again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING")

ROBIN KOHN: (As Lucy) Charlie Brown. Oh, Charlie Brown.

TODD BARBEE: (As Charlie) I can't believe it. She must think I'm the most stupid person alive.

KOHN: (As Lucy) Come on, Charlie Brown. I'll hold the ball. And you kick it.

MARTÍNEZ: That scene from "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" ends exactly how you'd expect, with Charlie Brown flat on his back. That was Lucy, by the way, in case you were wondering who the other person in that clip was. Now, tomorrow, Charles Schulz, who created those classic characters from the comic strip "Peanuts," would have turned 100. Here to talk about his life and legacy is his widow, Jeannie Schulz, and the director of the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., Gina Huntsinger.

Gina, Jeannie, welcome to the show.

GINA HUNTSINGER: Thank you.

JEANNIE SCHULZ: Thank you.

MARTÍNEZ: Jeannie, let's start with you. Since it is that time of year, I got to ask, how did you used to celebrate Thanksgiving with your husband, Charles?

SCHULZ: Well, I remember one when we were in a rented house. It was all of his family. And it was probably the biggest Thanksgiving family thing I've ever experienced. Mostly, we had smaller sorts of things. And I remember one of our early Thanksgivings in our new home, he carved the turkey.

MARTÍNEZ: Jeannie, how did Charles - or Sparky, as he was known - how did he come up with the idea for Peanuts?

SCHULZ: I guess that he drew a cartoon called "Li'l Folks." They were panel cartoons. And they were just little kid cartoons. One of the principals at Art Instruction School, where he worked as a corrector of people's art lessons, said, I think you should stick with the little kids. That's what he turned in to all the syndicates to see if he could get a contract, little kids, no parents. Even his early drawings were pretty simple. They got a little more complex. But then they went back to simple, simple, simple.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, that - I think that was the genius part of "Peanuts," is that no parents, no grown-ups. It was just focused on the kids. Gina, you're the director of the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif. What do you think made Schulz different from other cartoonists?

HUNTSINGER: First of all, he was a genius. He - we could relate to his strip. Like, we could see ourselves as Charlie Brown, and our kites stuck in the tree again or the frustration of, you know, something happening. And also, Charles Schulz was the first one to really talk about emotions in the strip. So it changed the cartooning industry with his influence. He was so different than what was on the page when he first started. The other thing that he - was different was that - his aesthetic. His lines were minimal. He only put what was necessary to tell a story. And it just jumped off the page compared to the cartoon strips of the time when he started in 1950.

MARTÍNEZ: You know what I like about "Peanuts" is that being a kid is difficult because, you know, you're not fully formed yet. So you make mistakes. Things that would seem like not a big deal to an adult are a really big deal...

HUNTSINGER: Right.

MARTÍNEZ: ...To a little kid.

HUNTSINGER: Right.

MARTÍNEZ: Kids are just messy. And I think that was something that really took hold.

HUNTSINGER: Yes. I feel like we've been listening to so many people talk around the centennial. And one of the cartoonists said, you know, people are trying to sell us things all the time. Like, you're supposed to be happy. And you're supposed to do this. And Charles Schulz sort of said it like it was. So people were like, yeah, I get these characters. I feel a part of this. They speak to me.

SCHULZ: And we have so many people who come into the museum and say, you know, when I was a little kid, I used to run home from school, run into my room, close the door and read those little "Peanut" dollar paperbacks. And that was comforting to them. They just wanted to go home and suck their thumbs and read peanuts.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, I want to play another clip from "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving." Now, in this scene, Sally sees her big brother, Charlie, looking sad at the mailbox and asks him, what's the matter?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING")

BARBEE: (As Charlie) Holidays always depress me.

HILARY MOMBERGER-POWERS: (As Sally) I know what you mean. I went down to buy a turkey tree. And all they have are things for Christmas.

BARBEE: (As Charlie) For Christmas already?

MOMBERGER-POWERS: (As Sally) Anyway, why should I give thanks on Thanksgiving? What have I got to be thankful for?

MARTÍNEZ: It's been 49 years since that first special aired. And listening to it now, I mean, it just sounds a lot simpler than a lot of the TV shows and streaming shows that are out there today. Jeannie, why do you think its appeal has stuck around for so long?

SCHULZ: I always say that Sparky expressed the human condition. He wrote about real emotions that kids are feeling. And it's always delivered with a little bit of humor. Anybody can read that strip in 4 seconds and get comfort from it because it talks about humanity.

MARTÍNEZ: Gina, how would you define his legacy?

HUNTSINGER: Pervasive. I feel like he has influenced the world, you know, just from, like, security blanket in the dictionary to we have people from all over the world come and visit. And they love "Peanuts".

MARTÍNEZ: Jeannie, how come no one has taken over the "Peanuts" comic strip after Charles' death? Or is that something that maybe no one would want to have that job, to fill those massive shoes?

SCHULZ: Well, that may be true. Although, I suspect there were people who would have liked to try. But Sparky, in his contract, said when he stopped drawing it, the strip would stop. What people see today are reruns. So you're seeing the same comic strips. And what amazes me is that it's still funny. You still want to read it. Right now, Snoopy's going to Needles or somewhere to find Spike. And it's just funny.

MARTÍNEZ: Jeannie, it sounds like you still read the comic.

SCHULZ: Oh, I do (laughter). I actually still read the newspapers.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

SCHULZ: I get a lot of fun out of looking through those when I do.

MARTÍNEZ: Gina, when people visit the Schulz Museum, what do they tell you is the reason why they come? Why do you think people still want to have "Peanuts" in their lives?

HUNTSINGER: The thing that people say the most to me is that they actually feel like there's some sort of comfort that they get from coming back to something that takes them back in time, and it still makes them laugh. And I feel like they just want to come for a little comfort and happiness.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Gina Huntsinger, the director of the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., and also Jeannie Schulz, the wife of Charles Schulz.

Jeannie and Gina, thank you very much.

HUNTSINGER: Thank you.

SCHULZ: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "LINUS AND LUCY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.