October 27, 1966
Airing on October 27, 1966 on CBS, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” was the third such special based on Charles Shultz’s long-running Peanuts comic after “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. CBS (as well as sponsor Coca-Cola), impressed by the ratings those two specials received, asked director Lee Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez to produce a special that would be a “blockbuster”, something that could be a surefire hit for the network year after year like the earlier Christmas special. Without any actual idea for a third special, they agreed, eventually settling on another popular holiday: Halloween.
Centering the focus upon the younger (at the time) Van Pelt sibling, Linus, the special goes into his obsession with a holiday figure known as “The Great Pumpkin”, who rises out of a pumpkin patch on Halloween Eve to give gifts to the boys and girls that believe in him. The Great Pumpkin was first mentioned in the pages of Peanuts exactly seven years later, in a week-long storyline which established Linus’ belief and obsession in the legend.
The children of the neighborhood get ready to head out on Halloween night for trick-or-treating, stopping by the pumpkin patch to ridicule Linus and attempt to get him to go with them. He refuses, and Charlie Brown’s sister Sally decides to stay behind with Linus, too caught up in her crush for him to take whatever he says as anything but fact. Charlie Brown and the others head on forward for trick-or-treating, the children all receiving large hauls of candy, except Charlie Brown, who in his ghost costume (sporting dozens of holes) only received a bag full of rocks.
Children who saw the special when it first aired in 1966 felt especially bad for Charlie Brown in being left out of receiving actual treats, leading to hundreds of bags and boxes of candy from all over the world to be sent to Shultz, addressed to Charlie Brown.
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After trick-or-treating, the neighborhood kids go to a Halloween party. It’s on the way there that Charlie Brown tells the tale of his dog Snoopy as his alter-ego, a World War I Flying Ace who takes on the historic Red Baron atop his doghouse airplane. Snoopy had long had various different alter-egos, but the World War I Flying Ace was a recent addition to the comic, only debuting a little over a year prior to this special. It’s perhaps in large part due to this special and its c-plot of Snoopy vs the Red Baron that the Flying Ace persona became one of, if not the most well known of Snoopy’s alter-egos.
Meanwhile, in the pumpkin patch, Linus and Sally still wait for the Great Pumpkin. When it starts to seem hopeless, a shadowy figure rises out of the pumpkin patch, causing Linus to faint. However, it’s only Snoopy, who had left the party. Sally gets upset and leaves, and Linus continues to stay until 4 in the morning, when Lucy wakes up and goes to retrieve him.
The special ends with Charlie Brown saying to his friend “Well, don’t take it too hard, Linus. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life too.” This only succeeds in driving Linus even further toward his determination to see the Great Pumpkin the following year, wanting to prove to everyone that it’s not a stupid idea.
The voice cast for the special was more or less the same as the previous two specials (the only voice to change between the three was Lucy’s, whose actress in the Christmas special was replaced by the time of All-Stars). Mendelson once recalled a humorous story about Sally’s actress, Kathy Steinberg, who had a loose tooth during recording. Fearing that a lisp from a gap in her teeth would make her dialogue unusable, they rushed her into the recording booth as soon as possible. They made it just in time, as her tooth fell out just as she was finishing her last line of dialogue.
True to their promise, Melendez and Mendelson had provided CBS with a blockbuster, the special garnering 50% of the total television viewing audience the night of its premiere. Thanks to this success, new Peanuts specials became an annual event for several decades, the majority of which were headed by the team until Melendez’s death in 2008. “It’s the Great Pumpkin” was likely the first animated Halloween special for television, and has gone on to be a major staple of the holiday, airing every year since its debut (moving from CBS to ABC in 2001, where it remains to this day).
Mendelson, Lee. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: The Making of a Television Classic. Dey Street Books: 2014