Who were the first people to play Charlie Brown and Lucy before the TV specials? Who played the singing Snoopy and Linus before the stage show? Charles M. Schulz was delighted with them all when they premiered on vinyl records.
Kaye Ballard and Arthur Siegel
Columbia Records CS-8543 Stereo / CL-1543 Mono (12” 33 1/3 rpm / 1962)
Reissue: Harmony Records (Columbia) HS 11200 Stereo / HL-7400 Mono / 1968)
Adapted from Original Peanuts Comic Strips by Charles M. Schulz.
Producer: John Hammond. Composer/Conductor: Fred Karlin. Cover Artist: Charles M. Schulz. Album Notes: Curtis F. Brown. Running Time: 38 minutes.
Selections: “Introducing Charlie Brown and Lucy,” “Bugs and Birds,” Political Cartoons,” “Playthings,” “Snowflakes and Stars,” “Just Peanuts.”
It’s hard to imagine a world without Peanuts cartoons, stage shows, movies and merchandise, much less a world without Peanuts. But no one had ever performed any of the characters in Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip until Kaye Ballard and Arthur Siegel did. This 1962 album was the very first Peanuts record, ever.
Ballard was (and still is) a singer and comedienne who sang with Spike Jones, starred on Broadway (Life Magazine cover and all) and was the toast of the nightclub circuit of a bygone era of sparkling sophistication. The late Arthur Siegel was her accompanist and best friend, as well as a talented specialty writer, performer and composer (“Love is a Simple Thing”).
Both Siegel and Ballard were huge Peanuts fans, and perhaps without realizing it, were tailor made to play Charlie Brown and Lucy. Ballard was an emotive, empathetic Italian who adored the relentlessly neurotic Siegel, who was a therapist’s dream come true. As part of their nightclub act, they acted out their favorite Peanuts strips. (Ballard tells the whole story in her inimitable way on her audio autobiography, My Life, In My Own Words, With My Own Mouth!.
Charles M. Schulz was in the audience when the duo performed at San Francisco’s Hungry I. His enthusiasm about hearing his strips done in this way led to being captured in a recording studio be legendary jazz producer John Hammond, who was “instrumental” in the careers of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger George Benson, Billie Holiday and many more. Arthur Siegel had composed songs especially for the record, but he and Ballard were disappointed to learn that an up and coming composer named Fred Karlin was doing the music.
It turned out that Karlin spent three months conceiving one of the most bizarre musical undertakings of its time. In addition to gathering the toys and household objects (for which he provided a humorous itemized list on the original album jacket), the musicians had to be trained to work with unconventional instruments like ashtrays, cans of hair spray, sparklers, building blocks, a rubber ball and a bongo monkey. The oddness of the music makes much more sense when the album notes reveal that Karlin worked with Raymond Scott. Karlin would go on to win an Oscar for the song, “For All We Know” from Lovers and Other Strangers.
To say this Peanuts album sounds strange is an understatement. While it’s kid-friendly, with its overall adult approach to the characters, this is not quite a children’s record. It has jazz powerhouse John Hammond behind it, but it’s not a jazz album. The liner notes frame it as a comedy album (the reissue actually read “Material by Charles Schultz (sic)” as if he were Buddy Sorrell.
When I first got the reissue of this record, it had the added title, “Good Grief, Charlie Brown!” Kaye Ballard was a big primetime star on NBC’s The Mothers-in-Law and Peanuts was reaching a fever pitch in pop culture. But my mom couldn’t stand the weirdness of this LP, so it became, in effect, my “rebellious” equivalent to those Iron Butterfly, Rolling Stones or Frank Zappa records that made so many ‘60s parents, let’s say, less than serene.
I love it. It’s been part of my life for over 40 years. In effect, it’s the original Peanuts play—and a landmark, for its performances and its music, which was imitated and re-purposed over the decades. “Classics On Toys” became a popular series of CD’s and ironically, many of them were licensed to use Peanuts characters on the covers with the voices to introduce the music.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
Excerpts from Columbia Records’ “Peanuts”
This is an amalgam of the whole album, with familiar Peanuts strips, many of which have been done in various forms since. (I love how Kaye Ballard says “Lit-tale tiny points.”) The opening theme was used in a cat food commercial in 1972. The little musical button that follows Charlie Brown’s “banjo” line is the only time on the entire album in which the orchestra sounds “conventional.”
YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN
An Original MGM Album Musical
Based on Charles Schulz’ Peanuts
MGM Records – King Leo Series SE-900 Stereo / LE-900 Mono (12” 33 rpm)
Album Released in 1966. Adapted from Original Peanuts Comic Strips by Charles M. Schulz. Producer: Herb Galewitz. Arranger/Conductor: Jay Blackton. Engineering Supervisor: Val Valentin. Engineer: Johnny Cue. Cover Design: Ace Lehman. Cover Art: Charles M. Schulz. Recorded at Capitol Recording Studios, New York. Running Time: 32 minutes.
Cast: Orson Bean (Charlie Brown); Barbara Minkus (Lucy); Bill Hinnant (Snoopy); Clark Gesner (Linus).
Songs: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Doctor Lucy,” My Blanket and Me,” “Snoopy,” “Charlie Brown’s Kite,” The Baseball Game,” Little Known Facts,” “Schroeder,” “Suppertime,” “Happiness,” all music and lyrics by Clark Gesner.
Budding young composer Clark Gesner just wanted to write some songs about his favorite comic strip, Peanuts. Then he was convinced to make a demo for Charles M. Schulz, who loved them. All he wanted to do was see them come alive on a record album. In 1966, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was released—simply as a musical for records—on MGM’s children’s label, King Leo.
The album didn’t set the world on fire, but it did spur producer Arthur Whitelaw to get the concept mounted into a stage show. Using selected Peanuts comics instead of a formal script, the show came together using the first ten songs with a few longer sequences (“The Book Report,” “Glee Club Rehearsal”). The show was an Off-Broadway smash and not a year has passed since that several productions of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown hasn’t been produced in schools, community theaters—and that’s not counting two TV adaptations and a Broadway revival.
It’s interesting to listen to Clark Gesner singing his heart out as Linus, with absolutely no idea how much would spring from these ten songs. It’s a Cinderella story incongruous to Charlie Brown’s ongoing setbacks. It’s also interesting to note how Gesner’s songs would seldom, if ever, be so lavishly orchestrated than on this album.
Jay Blackton was no less than the musical director of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! His arrangements for this album have the grandeur of an Academy Awards ceremony. Even the Peanuts movies never sounded this lush.
Popular actor/humorist Orson Bean (The Twilight Zone, The Hobbit) was a welcome presence to audiences of the ‘60s and ‘70s, mostly as a game show panelist and glib, clever talk show guest. He does a marvelous job as the first singing Charlie Brown ever. Barbara Minkus, a talented comic actress who became very visible in those Love American Style vignettes, usually making a “Debbie Downer” expression after being insulted by Stuart Margolin or Bill Callaway—but I recall her most fondly as Miss Gittle on Chuck Jones’ short lived children’s series Curiosity Shop.
I am sure, though, that even Tony winner Roger Bart, as well as Don Potter, Teddy Kempner and other outstanding actors who have played Snoopy would concede the dog-dish crown to the original stage and record Snoopy: Bill Hinnant. Brother (and sound alike) to another fine actor, Skip Hinnant (The Electric Company, The Easter Bunny is Comin’ To Town, Fritz The Cat), Bill made it seem perfectly logical for a grown man to become a cartoon dog without a theme park-style costume.
Considering what theatrical history followed this particular album, it sure would be nice to see it remastered and reissued, perhaps by a company specializing in theatrical cast albums. As John Adams sang in 1776, “Doesn’t anybody hear me?”
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
This song is already emotionally moving, mostly rendered in a simple, unassuming way. Wait ‘til you hear it Star Wars-style. Sure it’s much ado about finding your skate key, as if Charlie Brown and the gang have donned their dirndls and are crossing the Alps on their way to Switzerland. But it’s just so big and beautiful, it gives me chills of joy.