Good Grief: An Oral History of the Northfield Christmas Play Special, Brought to You by Coca Cola, 1965, by Dave Housley

Charles Brown: I think it was called like the “Coca Cola Northfield Christmas Special” or something like that? And then the next year -- after, you know, all the publicity -- they switched to “Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Which, I mean, obviously that’s why I go by Charles now. I didn’t exactly come off super awesome, am I right? 

Linus Van Pelt: I’m hazy on how it got started, but the director was our Uncle Bill. My mother’s brother. 

Bill Melendez (Director): The Coca Cola people were looking for a slice of life kind of thing. It was a small world back then, Hollywood and Madison Avenue. I thought it was just going to be another gig, you know? Six weeks and then on to the next thing. I didn’t know we were inventing a genre. I didn’t know we were making history. 

Linus Van Pelt: The Real World, the MTV show, was twenty years later. Twenty years! 

Lucy Van Pelt: One thing I want to say first thing: I was not a good kid. I was a bully. I’ve done a lot of work on myself since that show. A lot because of that show. I’m twelve years sober now. I’ve made amends with almost everybody from that group. 

Bill Melendez: The Van Pelts were my sister’s kids and right away I thought they might be good for this. You know, the smart little boy, the sassy older sister. The Coke people wanted Midwest, the heartland. They kept on saying “real America.” I knew the Van Pelts were there in Minnesota. Then it turns out they have this little neighborhood group. I mean, it was kind of a special group. And then this Charlie Brown shows up!

Joyce Brown: They did talk to me. I signed a waiver. They said such nice things about him, how special he was, how he had this quality. None of us knew what we know now about reality television. He had been having trouble, especially the Van Pelt girl. I thought it might be good for him. I heard what I wanted to hear. 

Charles Brown: We were so young. If you watch that show you’d never guess I’d turn out to be a bond trader with a super hot girlfriend. I can show you a picture…what? No, this will be worth it. Trust me. Let me find it on my iPhone Six Plus. Do you have the Plus yet? You should really check it out if you have the money. Totally awesome. Okay, that picture…

Lucy Van Pelt: They asked me to wind him up, you know, send him in this direction: “you have to produce the Christmas play, Charlie Brown.” If I’m being honest, I was fine with it. At the time, it was pretty much how I had my fun. I’m not proud of it but it is what it is. 

Joyce Brown: That girl was practicing psychiatry without a license. People think I’m joking but I’m not. I saw the sign: “The Doctor Is In.”

Charles Brown: I guess today we’d say she was a bully. At that time I just thought, well, sure, yeah. Lucy says I have to do this so I guess I have to do it. A lot of things were like that between us. 

Joyce Brown:  He was a different kind of kid. Between me and you, he was diagnosed high-functioning Asperger’s, so he had…how to say it? He had trouble seeing the difference between a little girl with a ‘doctor is in’ sign and a real doctor. She told him to direct that play -- to do anything, really – and the way his mind worked, he didn’t have any choice.

Charles Brown: Asperger’s? I don’t…No, they never told me anything about that. I’ve never heard that before in my life. I mean, you saw the picture of my girlfriend, right? The one where she’s laying on top of my vintage ’69 Camero ZL1?

Joyce Brown: Don’t even get me started about football. How many times she tricked him into trying…I can’t even talk about it. 

Bill Melendez: The first rehearsal was us. The producers. We really pushed for them to get into the environment as soon as possible, get that “show behind the show” thing. 

Phillip Schroeder: That first rehearsal! Man, sometimes it just works, you know, man? You get in the right situation, the right cats in the room, and it just sings.  Since then, I don’t know, maybe five times I’ve had that same feeling. 

Bill Melendez: The Schroeder kid came out of nowhere. We had no plans for the music, other than the Christmas carols. The jazz thing? No way. Never planned. It made the Coke people very nervous, to be honest. The phrase “race music” came up. 

Justin “Pigpen” Pennington: It was maybe the fourth time I had even played the upright bass. Schroeder had this riff, you know? Da-da-da-da, da-da-da, da da…boom ching… and I was just trying to keep up, not embarrass myself in front of the cameras. 

Xavier Mandelbaum (Dancer): I still see people doing that dance. That song comes on and sure enough there’s going to be somebody starts in with the shoulder-shrug thing. I’ve heard it called the Marionette. Here’s the secret: we were stoned, me and Shermy. I had caught my older brother smoking something and made him let me try it. You know, share or I tell mom. I had never done that dance before in my life. I think I was trying to dance like how I thought beatniks might dance. 

Sherman (“Shermy”) Aadland (Dancer): We had just seen this zombie movie, me and Xavier, and then on the way over we catch his  brother smoking something. Long story short, I don’t even remember rehearsal. I had a hard time explaining that dance to my mother. 

Lucy Van Pelt: We knew there were cameras around. Mr. Melendez directed us a little – you know, hey Lucy why don’t you go tell Charlie to get a ‘big shiny aluminum tree?’ 

Bill Melendez: Lucy was amazing. That was one of the reasons we were there. I knew Lucy. We thought, geez, if these are going to be real kids, we’re going to need some kind of way to direct the action, move it along, influence events. That was when I thought: Lucy! 

Lucy Van Pelt: Like I said, it was what it was. I’ve made amends. I know everything happens for a reason. 

Linus Van Pelt: That tree! Only Charlie could have picked a tree like that. 

Bill Melendez: The thing with the tree was unscripted. Like I said, the kid was a little…different. 

Charles Brown: I’ve thought about it a lot over the years. I got picked on a lot. I was this weird looking kid. You’ve seen the movie. I was almost bald at ten years old! I see this tree and of course nobody wants it and…geez, you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure it out, right? Now, just so you know, I would never settle for a tree like that. You should have seen the tree we had last year. Had to drive all the way into Greenwich for it. I can show you…no, it’s okay, it’s right here somewhere. That was a different girlfriend, so if you’re wondering what happened to the hot blond, I guess I traded in for a newer model, if you know what I mean. 

Linus Van Pelt: The Gospel of Luke stuff had been given to me. 

Bill Melendez: We had my genius little nephew Linus ready to go with the Bible stuff. That was the Coke people’s idea, actually, and it was something that was on the table from the get-go. This is how it ends, with the precocious little boy and the Bible verses, Coke telling the people what Christmas really means yadda yadda... So when the Brown kid took his little tree and walked out, we were going crazy. 

Lucy Van Pelt: I know I bullied him a lot, but I’m still proud of Chuck for doing that. He was smiling! 

Joyce Brown: We didn’t know what he was doing. At the time it was a disaster: he’s ruining the show! I had signed a contract. I remember the first thing I thought was I’m going to have to give them their money back. I had already bought a new couch! 

Bill Melendez: Today this would be exactly what we want – you know, conflict, spontaneity. If this happened on The Bachelor, they’d be high fiving each other. Back then, it was a disaster. Total, total disaster. 

Joyce Brown: Honestly I don’t know who decorated that doghouse. At the time I thought it was Sally but she has always maintained that she didn’t do it. It doesn’t seem like the television people could have known he was going there. 

Sally Brown: Sometimes things happened with that dog that we couldn’t explain. 

Charles Brown: I still miss that dog. Snoopy. Had a lot of personality, if that makes any sense. I haven’t owned a dog since. 

Bill Melendez: The way it did wind up ending, well, it was magical, wasn’t it? We literally could not have written anything better. 

Linus Van Pelt: The thing with the tree? I was there when he got it so I felt kind of responsible. I should have pushed him toward a better tree.  At the time I’m so nervous about my speech, all I’m thinking is, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field…” So when I saw it there, all broken, all I thought was I can try to fix this. 

Sally Brown: It was so nice. Really a Christmas miracle. These kids were terrible to my brother. You should have seen how they treated him when the cameras weren’t around. And now here they are, decorating this awful little tree that of course he bought…it just makes me tear up every time. 

Joyce Brown: I have my issues with those kids. I haven’t talked to Mrs. Van Pelt or to Lucy since I saw the original airing. But I’ll give it to them. They really pulled it out. 

Bill Melendez: At first, we didn’t even realize what we had. The Coke people were freaking out. They were going to pull the money out. It was all ruined. We didn’t realize until we’re watching the dailies that our ending was ruined but the kids…their ending was, well, it was a Christmas miracle, wasn’t it? 

Charles Brown: To be honest I don’t even really remember it. It was emotional – the tree, the singing. The first time I really felt like I belonged. 

Sally Brown: Still get chills every time I hear that song. 

Joyce Brown: We’re not really very religious anymore, to be honest. 

Lucy Van Pelt: After it aired? Oh, everything was different. It took me a long time to forgive myself, a lot of years spent inside a bottle. 

Joyce Brown: I guess in hindsight we were lucky with how Charles turned out. I see these school shooters and most of them are bullied and I count my blessings. He won’t tell you this because he’s very humble, but he’s become quite a successful bond trader. 

Charles Brown: Yeah, it was a big deal for me, obviously. I started lifting, focusing on my school and getting into a good college. I realized that my parents…I mean, seeing it from the outside like that: we were poor! I started watching the market. That was the beginning for me. I don’t know who I would be now if it wasn’t for that special.

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Dave Housley's third collection of short fiction, If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home, will be published by Dzanc Books in January 2015. He is the author of Commercial Fiction (Outpost 19) and Ryan Seacrest is Famous (Impetus Press, Dzanc Books eBook Reprint). His work has appeared in Hobart, Mid-American Review, Quarterly West, Wigleaf, and some other places. He is one of the founding editors of Barrelhouse and a co-founder of the Conversations and Connections writer’s conference. Sometimes he drinks boxed wine and tweets about the things on his television at @housleydave.

[ed. note: over the next two weeks, we’ll be catching up with characters from beloved Christmas movies, learning how their lives have turned out after the cameras stopped rolling. We’ve invited some of our favorite writers to share these stories.]