Wednesday, September 03, 2008

It's a Sad Day Charlie Brown -- Remembering Peanuts Animator Bill Melendez

Before I continue, I'd like everyone to take a moment of silence to reflect on how Bill Melendez affected your childhood. Melendez, who died on Tuesday at St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica at the age of 91, was the "official" animator for the Peanuts movie specials in addition to working on the animated version of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe." He worked on a number of other projects, to be sure, but those properties are the ones that had the greatest affect on me as I was growing up.

Here's one way that he affected me.

A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN (1969), which Variety erroneously -- at least according to IMDB -- attributes to 1971, was one of my favorite movies growing up. It was also the story that made me most desire typical "Hollywood Endings," both in life and in film/tv. I hated that Charlie Brown lost the spelling bee. I was even more appalled that his loss was related to the thing he loved most in the world -- his pet beagle. You see, his misspells beagle at the climax of the story. I was heartbroken as a child, and I'm still heartbroken. I know that Charlie Brown, who is representative of the everyman, rarely gets to win in the Peanuts-verse, but I have always seen that as a kind of injustice. I want everyone to succeed in life.

Sure, I know that not everyone can become a successful actor, author, director, rock star, or statesman. That isn't what I am talking about. I am referring to the little successes that allow us to marvel at the world in which we live, the most important of which is a loving family that is free from tragedy. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. I want this for everyone. To further illustrate how the Charlie Brown film reinforced this desire, consider for a moment the role of Charlie's parents at the end of the film -- the lack thereof. Where is the loving embrace of a mother, or father, to console Charlie at the end of the story? Lost in "wah wah wah wah wah" land, no where to be seen by the audience. Charlie certainly has friends, Linus and Snoopy in particular, but what of family?

The Charlie Brown films made me long for a happy and loving family -- though like Charlie my experience was mixed. Certainly, my family loved me and let it be known. In fact, I had many a consolation hug after a tragic defeat. But my family life wasn't free of tragedy. In my late teens and throughout my twenties, I watched my mother as she struggled through addiction. More accurately, I watched as she slowly died from addiction. My younger sister, who lived at home with my mother, witnessed it more than I. It was a terrible struggle to which she eventually succumbed, more on that will be written on October 7th. But one moment comes to mind as I reflect on the absence of Charlie's parents after Charlie's loss, it is a memory of my mom in recovery -- in treatment at a center somewhere near Lake Tahoe.

My mom's parents, my grandparents, were still reeling from the hurt of having a daughter addicted to heroin and were looking for ways to cope. They latched on to the concept of "tough love," an important concept to keep in mind when one is an enabler which my grandparents weren't, seeking some magic trick to snap my mom out of the addictive cycle. They seemed to think that if they were "tough" that would help my mom, they focused on that more than the outward expression of love. I am certain they did what they did exactly because they loved their daughter, but their focus on one aspect of being a family in recovery prevented them from being ready for the likely inevitable "relapses" my mom would cycle through. That is, she would cycle through them if she was lucky enough to survive addiction. Sadly, my mom wasn't and I think that my grandparents regretted that they didn't spend more time giving comforting embraces to my mom and less time worrying about whether they were being tough enough.

I know I certainly felt that way. How many times have I asked myself whether I let my mom know how much, and how unconditionally, I loved her? Too many, and I have not always been satisfied with the answer.

What does this have to do with Peanuts? Well, in many ways my mom was Charlie Brown. She was "trying to kick the football" in life, only to have it frequently pulled away at the last second. This often happened as she attempted to advance her career. Unlike Charlie Brown, she had no Linus to offer "timeless truths." Her family was more present, and listened more than Charlie's, but her friends' consolation which she sought more often than the embrace of her children was rarely wise advice -- rather it was usually a detrimental escape.

Before this piece becomes too maudlin and makes it seem that Mr. Schulz creation was merely a catalyst that made me desire happy family life -- as well as appreciate the family I have, I should mention that Peanuts has also been a part of someone I dearly love's ongoing journey to success. My wife Jody is a winner of the 1996 prestigious Charles M. Schulz award for her college cartooning. It was winning this award that let Jody know that her dreams of entertaining people were possible. Not to sound too prideful -- I was able to be her Linus after she didn't win in 1992, a year so "bad" in the judges' mind that no one was awarded the prize. I told her that this only made the prize more legitimate and I let her know how convinced I was that she would eventually win the prize. She continued developing her craft and won the prize four years later when she thought her comic had improved enough. Jody is, if anything, her harshest critic.

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