You're a New Man, Charlie Brown
But Charles Schulz keeps a firm hand on his creation. 

By Blake Green.
New York Newsday
February 3, 1999

   SANTA ROSA, Calif. IF LOOKS could talk, or, apropos the situation, came equipped with their own cartoon balloons, there's no doubt what exclamation would accompany this silver-haired study in skepticism: "Good Grief!" is plastered all over Charles Schulz face. The cartoonist who immortalized that expression and the equally exasperated "Rats!" - the strongest epithets ever uttered by his trusty band of head-heavy comic strip characters - seems genuinely stunned as he sits at the wood, Plexiglas and chrome desk that also serves as his easel here inside his cozy suite of offices at a wooded address that is - really - One Snoopy Place.

Presented with a Playbill direct from the Broadway production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," which opens tomorrow at New York's Ambassador Theatre, the creator of "Peanuts" appears impressed - but not by the cover depicting silhouettes of his famous pair, jug-eared Charlie and his floppy-eared beagle Snoopy. Nor does he seem to care that an early preview crackled with enthusiasm. But the Broadway ticket prices! And Schulz refuses to be consoled with the assurance that $ 75 is the going rate for orchestra seats, that audiences for "The Lion King" pay as dearly. "Oh, who cares about Disney," he says with only a flicker of good humor, concerned with the family purse for what he complains "is supposed to be a family show."

Just as he needed some convincing that the musical, an Off-Broadway hit in 1967, required some refurbishing, Schulz seems ambivalent about the things that come with a Broadway debut. He remarks several times that he's "amazed someone came all the way out here just to talk to me" and he has no plans to travel East for a firsthand look (he didn't see the original production "until it came to San Francisco"). Assured of the cast's pedigree - Anthony Rapp, for example, an original lead in "Rent," is playing Charlie Brown - he replies, "I'm amazed they'd want to do it - they must have better things to do."

If this seems vintage Charlie Brown wishy-washiness, don't be misled. The 76-year-old Schulz may have to deal with a tremor in his drawing hand, but after 50 years of "Peanuts" cartoons he still creates and executes all his work by himself and remains supervigilant about spinoffs of his famous strip. Licensers for the "Peanuts" embossed glass in which a visitor is served water, for the coaster it's set upon, for the cup from which Schulz sips tea have all had to pass muster.

Michael Mayer, the director of 1999 s "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," made a pilgrimage west to this Northern California city to win him over. "We hung out," Mayer says, which included lunching at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, a first-class skating rink built by Schulz, with a cafe that he uses as a kind of social annex to his office.

"He's a nice young man. We got along fine," Schulz says casually, warming as he reports the discovery that Mayer played the Beethoven-worshiping Schroeder in a college production in Michigan. Mayer was invited, like everyone else the artist favors, to call him "Sparky." (The nickname, acquired when Schulz was a child in St. Paul, Minn., is itself a comic strip inspiration, after the racehorse in "Barney Google.")

For Mayer, Schulz permission to make changes in the original musical - for which Clark Gesner had written the music, book and lyrics - brought with it thousands of copies of "Peanuts" strips published since the show first opened. Regardless of any edgier "new look" Mayer envisioned, the words must still be true to the syndicated strip. "I have control over everything," Schulz says firmly.

So throughout the fall and during the out-of-town tryouts that began in early December in Skokie, Ill., and the New York previews, Mayer and songwriter Andrew Lippa have been tweaking the script. Their efforts have included beefing up the opening title number, adding two completely new songs and replacing Patty - a somewhat generic, pre-Peppermint Patty character no longer in the strip - with Charlie Brown's irrepressible little sister, Sally. Out came archaic references to the advent of ZIP codes ("brand new in 1967," says Mayer), dial telephones and Lucy's dreams of becoming a housewife. Some added touches were also, upon reflection, dropped: "For a while we had Lucy miming smoking a cigarette," the director says. "Then we got word that Sparky wouldn't like it. And, you know, he's right - even if it is hard for a director to give up a laugh."

"What worried me from the start is tampering with something so successful," Schulz says of his initial reluctance to make changes in the play. "I think every church, school, college and professional group has done it; it's survived terrible beatings. I've seen it when girls have played Snoopy." The twinkle is real this time, for gender is one change the characters in the cast of six haven't experienced. (Schroeder is being played by an African-American actor, Linus by an Asian.)

The stipulation Schulz made to Mayer is the same one he made to the original producers: "Don't try to make it overly sophisticated or put in a few sly vulgarities to please the so-called New York audience."

"Blockhead" and "fussbudget" are as close to curse words as Charlie Brown and the gang ever get because "I just don't like swearing," Schulz says with as much conviction as if he were reporting fresh news from his outpost in what he sadly terms "the age of vulgarity." Stacking his unfinished strips in a neat pile to the side of the desk, he leans forward in his leather chair, peers through his glasses (a not altogether comfortable experience for any visitor who's heard that he has a habit of making mental drawings of his visitors) and bemoans the televised Golden Globe Awards presentation, which he'd recently watched. "Could you believe the vulgar, dumb things they said? It's worse than the Army. What's wrong with those people? Laurel and Hardy never did that and we still laugh at them."

If Schulz appears sensitive about what he disdainfully refers to as "the so-called cutting edge," it may be because he suspects that people judge not only the original production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" as out of step, but also his half-century-old comic strip. And on this subject he can be as crabby as Lucy on a bad - or is it a good? - day.

"I don't know what the 'cutting edge is," Schulz complains, "but if it means political and vulgar and all that sort of thing that's damaging, I don't want to be cutting edge."

"I am breaking new ground all the time," he insists, pulling out a color-washed strip that incorporates a famous photograph of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower addressing U.S. paratroopers into a cartoon of Snoopy in battle fatigues. The caption reads, "June 6, 1944 - To Remember." "That ran in Sunday papers all over the world last June and no one has ever done anything like that," he brags.

Eisenhower is one of Schulz heroes - "If he called tonight and said, 'Charlie, I need you to come to Washington, I'd drop everything" (something he indicates he wouldn't be likely to do if the current occupant of the White House were on the other end of the line).

The cartoonist, who's made D-Day awareness something of a personal cause, has contributed $ 1 million to a national memorial being built in Virginia. Asked to name his most prized award of the many he's received - as varied as two Reubens (the cartoonist's Oscar) to induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame - he crosses the wood-paneled room and removes from its place on the wall a World War II infantry combat badge. "When I met Gen. Colin Powell, he agreed with me about the significance of the badge ," he reports proudly.

"I think the strip is better than it's ever been," Schulz says, "and if you talk to other cartoonists, they'll agree." He fishes out a fan letter, received that morning from Jerry Borgman, one of the creators of "Zits," such an au courant name that mention of it momentarily sidetracks the discussion: "That's a terrible name," Schulz says, "the worst since 'Peanuts " - which he reluctantly accepted from United Features (his own choice, "Li'l Folks," had been pre-empted by another strip) and still doesn't like. "I've told the guys they should change it now before they become too successful.

"Who else do you know who's read by 200 million people?" Schulz asks, back on track. Actually, the syndicate gives his readership as 350 million; he's published in 2,600 newspapers. Millions of copies of "Peanuts"-inspired books have been sold, and there have been 50 animated television specials, which are constantly played on Nickelodeon.

So with all this balm to salve any perceived slights, one might wonder why Schulz appears so thin-skinned about some things. It's because that's exactly what he is - and he's beguilingly upfront about it, incorporating it into his overview of his strip's success: "Winning isn't funny," he's often said. And who's to argue? It's easier to envision a big "Sigh" floating above his head as it often does with Charlie Brown, the character who is most like his creator.

Schulz holds grudges. Look no farther than Charlie Brown's romantic nemesis, "the little red-haired girl," inspired by an early Schulz love who rejected his marriage proposal. For inspiration, Schulz mined his own childhood as the son of a barber, borrowed from his five children's childhoods and now has 18 grandchildren should he run out of ideas. "The character who's giving me the most ideas right now is Lucy and Linus little brother, Rerun," he says. "I've got so many grandkids starting school, and they hide under the bed all the time."

A 1989 biography, "Good Grief," by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, a news columnist, deals with Schulz ongoing battles with depression - although he now says "that really isn't the right word. It's too complicated to talk about. I suppose I'm an anxious person, but it's not debilitating except in not wanting to go places."

Which, it turns out, is yet another example of turning a negative into a positive - at least for his fans. Of cartooning, Schulz says, "This couldn't be done by someone who has to be out flying all over the world. If it's anxieties that confine me, well, okay, this is where I belong."

Drawing in Race

IN "SNOOPY!!!" - another musical written about Charles Schulz "Peanuts" characters - the famous beagle was played by a black actor. "He was wonderful!" the cartoonist enthused the other day in his northern California studio. Nonetheless, Schulz wasn't initially so happy when he heard a multiracial cast was being considered to play the familiar characters readers have never seen as anything but Caucasian. "It kind of annoyed me," he says of his state of mind before meeting with Michael Mayer, director of the Broadway revival of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."

"It's my strip; I've been working on it for fifty years. Should you take something that's art and change it to make it liberal? If they want to be so open-minded, let them go ahead and write their own play," he says. Schulz has had a black character, Franklin, in his strip for years, but in a minor role. "It would have been nice if he'd just used him in the cast ."

But Mayer won Schulz approval and cast a black Schroeder (Stanley Wayne Mathis, recently a hyena in "The Lion King") and an Asian Linus (B.D. Wong, a Tony winner for his man-disguised-as-a-woman in "M. Butterfly"). Snoopy, as always, is played by a human.

"He told me this is what all musicals were doing in New York," says Schulz, who believed Mayer's promise "that he would do the right thing."

And it is right, says Mayer. "I wanted this quintessential American show to acknowledge where we are now. These characters were written as white but are so universal they can transcend that." He insists he didn't make this an absolute rule of casting and "chose the best actor for the role." The only public comment he's heard was the exclamation "Hey, Linus is Chinese" outside the Ambassador Theatre where the cast's photos sit atop their cartoon bodies. His interpretation: "Hey, that's cool."

Mathis says people have asked him what it's like to be a black Schroeder. "I tell them I've had a friend named Schroeder for 15 years; I can't wait for him to see the show."

Audiences won't mind that Lucy has an Asian brother, says Wong. "The way the world works these days, a lot of families are mixed. I think it just reinforces a child's color-blind nature. This show is so much about being left out and finding a way to become a part."

GRAPHIC: 1) Newsday Photo / Ari Mintz-The multicultural gang's all here: Sally, left, Schroeder, Lucy, Linus and Charlie are Broadway-bound. 2) Ap Photo- Schulz at his desk. 3) Newsday Photo / Ari Mintz-And Lucy (Ilana Levine) and Charlie (Anthony Rapp) in a familiar scene from the new play, which opens tomorrow. 4) AP Cover Photo-Cahrles Schulz and the entire "Peanuts" gang

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