Exactly 40 years ago, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" first aired in living rooms across the country. That night Snoopy's iconic WW I Flying Ace made his debut and for the first time, viewers could watch an animated Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown.
The Peanuts comic strip, at that time one of the world's most popular (it still runs in 1,200 newspapers worldwide, though its creator, Charles M. Schulz, died in February 2000), sprang to life in our living rooms and created -- along with the Peanuts Christmas special -- an instant tradition for the children of America. The special made the characters come to life.
"You remember he [Charlie Brown] got rocks in his trick-or-treat bag, and all the other kids got candy. Well, we got candy from all over the United States for poor Charlie Brown, and people were really upset with us," recalled Lee Mendelson, producer of the "The Great Pumpkin" and many other Charlie Brown TV specials. "I mean, we got some … not hate mail but letters that really didn't like the fact that he got rocks in his bag."
Viewers are still writing letters, though this year many were in response to an essay contest held to commemorate the 40th anniversary on the topic "Worst Halloween Ever."
The essays run the gamut from dark to hysterical, from neighbors dying to getting cans of sardines instead of candy. Many people relived Halloween memories that resulted from watching "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" for the first time.
"This whole idea of the Great Pumpkin, just think about it -- what a crazy, wonderful idea. For this little kid in the pumpkin patch, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to show up -- what a crazy notion," Mendelson said.
The contest winner, Lew Seitz, 52, of Cincinnati, told of his visit to a pumpkin patch on Halloween night, 1967. Just as Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally, does in the Halloween special, Seitz's diligent brother went house to house asking for extra candy for his "stupid brother who was spending the night in a pumpkin patch."
As fate would have it, his brother used that line at the home of the farmer who owned the pumpkin patch Lew was camping in. The story ends with a shotgun and pumpkin-masked man telling Seitz to hurry home.
"Great Pumpkin," like other holiday classics, transcends generations, with parents enjoying it as much as their children. With the exception of a few editing cuts to allow for advertising, the special is essentially the same as when it first aired and has managed to keep viewers coming back year after year.
"Well I think it's pretty amazing to think that 'Pumpkin' is 40 years old. I've seen it at least 20 times, and I think it's kind of wonderful that it is new every time," said Jeannie Schulz, Charles Schulz's widow.
Though times have changed, some things last forever.
Consider Linus, never without his blanket, as he philosophizes: "There are three things I've learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin."
During a discussion about the difference between believing in Santa Claus and believing in the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown observes, "We are obviously separated by denominational differences."