Charles Schulz 1922-2000
MY AUDIENCE WITH SPARKY|
Some kids dream of meeting their favorite movie star. Others dream of meeting their favorite sports hero. Me, I always dreamed of one day meeting Charles Schulz. From the time I was three years old, drooling on the funnies in the Philadelphia Inquirer, to today's final Sunday strip, "Peanuts" has been an inspiration, a constant companion and a comfort in my life. I would even go as far as saying my infatuation with Schulz's round-headed posse led me to become a cartoonist.
Schulz revolutionized the comic strip. Not just with his simple and accessible art style but also his strong character development. He combined the innocence of childhood with the cynicism of adulthood to create realistic, idiosyncratic and empathetic icons. Each character was then put in repeated situations and environments that brought out his or her best humorous possibilities. Lucy was always pining for Schroeder. Linus was always clinging to his security blanket. Snoopy was always dreaming of being somebody more glamorous. Charlie Brown, the everyman, was always coming up a loser. He was equal parts human frailty and human spirit and fast became America's most loveable neurotic.
I was drawing Charlie Brown and Snoopy before I could walk. My father still blames Charles Schulz for me not going into medicine. I recently came across my little black notebook of cartoon stories drawn when I was about eight. Included were entries like "Poor Little Snoopy" and "Peanuts in Funny Halloween." By the time I was ten I was able to draw Schulz's characters so well that my Dad enlisted me to do illustrations for his medical talks. I became known in pulmonary medicine circles as the kid who drew cartoons of Lucy blowing into a respirator and Snoopy undergoing a bronchoscopy (that's where they stick a bronchoscope down your trachea and look at your lungs.) All of this, of course, was done before I had a keen understanding of copyright law (please address all legal correspondence to my father.)
My dream of meeting Charles Schulz finally came true back in 1991 at a meeting of The National Cartoonists Society in Washington, D.C. The NCS is a group composed mainly of comic strip artists and writers but also includes magazine cartoonists, animators, cartoon illustrators and political cartoonists. Every year the syndicates set aside one night during the convention to take all of their "talent" out to dinner. By chance my political cartoons are distributed by the same syndicate that distributes "Peanuts." I knew I would be dining with you-know-who. Uh, oh. How would I address him? His good friends call him "Sparky" but what would I call him? "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Schulz, Sir, Master, Your Majesty, Your Highness, Your Great Pumpkiness " I started to sweat. As our group left the hotel I noticed Schulz was surrounded by a talkative crew of syndicate big wigs. They seemed to be acting as an entourage of bodyguards protecting him from fawning young cartoonists clamoring for autographs or a chance to show him their own work. There wasn't a break in the flying wedge until we arrived at the restaurant. Once inside I found myself sitting at the opposite end of the table from him with about twenty earnest cartoonists in between us. After dinner I saw an opening. Schulz was standing on the curb outside the restaurant with no one around him. This was my chance! I drew in a big breath and walked toward him. There were so many things I wanted to tell him. How I started drawing cartoons because of him. How I empathized with so many of his characters. How in a business where so many comic strips were being produced by committee I admired him as one of the few creators who still wrote and drew the entire strip himself. How I cried the first time I watched the Charlie Brown Christmas special. How he changed my life. "Mr. Schulz," I said nervously with my hand outstretched, "Rob Rogers, I'm a big fan!" As he turned toward me I could feel the blood rushing to my face and I was thinking, "big fan!? did I really just say big fan?" He graciously thanked me, grasping my hand. And then it happened. He smiled and looked me right in the eye. I froze. I couldn't speak. The next few seconds felt like an eternity as I stood there gripped with the kind of reverent fear that must accompany one who is standing before God on judgement day. His wife finally arrived at his side. He smiled again, letting go of my death grip and began walking back to the hotel. I felt humiliated. I felt stupid. I felt like Charlie Brown. Aaaargh!
As if being tempted to kick the football again, fate offered me another chance to be in his presence. Unlike Charlie Brown, though, this one paid off for me. In the summer of 1993 I was on vacation in northern California with my girlfriend. We had driven up the coast and decided to return to San Francisco with a more direct route through Santa Rosa. It dawned on me that Santa Rosa was the home of Charles Schulz. Standing at a payphone in a strip mall I dialed the number hoping this time I would actually be able to speak. I explained to one of his assistants who I was and that I had met Mr. Schulz on another occasion and that I was in the area desperate for a visitation. It was granted.
As we drove, I felt like a devout Catholic on a spiritual pilgrimage to Rome. We turned on to Snoopy Place, which leads to Schulz's studio, the cartoonist's "Basilica." Along the way we passed a skating rink, a gift shop, tennis courts, and a baseball diamond. I could feel my heart pounding as we entered his inviting studio--more chalet lodge than sterile office. Charles Schulz was incredibly warm and generous. Right from the start he insisted I call him "Sparky." This meant a lot to me, especially since addressing him as "Your Holiness" would have gotten tiresome. He invited us into his "inner" studio. We spent almost an hour talking about the state of cartooning and the process of coming up with ideas. He showed us several half-finished cartoons he was working on, confiding how he agonizes over every word and ink stroke, pouring his heart and soul into his characters. He recounted sleepless nights worrying he wouldn't be able to come up with any new ideas and described the pain he felt hearing critics say he had lost "it". He spoke tenderly of unrequited love and how it still affects him some forty years later. It wasn't hard to make the connection between this sensitive creator and his emotionally complex characters. Sitting an arm's-length away I finally had the chance to heap some of the life-changing kudos on him that I wasn't able to spit out two years before. He seemed genuinely touched by my sentiment but coming on the heels of his raw emotions my words felt weightless and unimportant. I couldn't wait to finish so he could speak again.
Among cartoonists, it's common knowledge that Schulz collects cartoons using "Peanuts" as a metaphor. I described to him a recent political cartoon I had drawn showing Bill Clinton hanging upside down from a tree tangled with several kites. The kites were labeled Whitewater, Travel Office, Nanny-gate, etc. I promised to send it to him. He seemed pleased by this and excused himself from the office. When he came back he was holding an original Peanuts cartoon that he proceeded to sign for me. I couldn't believe it. This was better than a personal blessing.
Next, he gave my girlfriend and me a personal tour of his skating rink. Schulz is originally from Minnesota and he's a big ice hockey fan. He built the ice rink so that he and the kids from the community would have a place to skate. After that it was off to the gift shop. The first thing we noticed when we walked into the gift shop was a whole section curiously devoted to roller blades. Aside from his own love of skating, his daughter was a professional roller blader. I made a beeline for the "Peanuts" books and merchandise but my girlfriend gravitated toward the roller blades. The next thing I knew, she was skating around the store trying not to lose her balance. Later, Schulz guided us up the stairs above the gift shop to his gallery. This is where he kept his cartoon collection. Hanging on the walls were comic strips, political cartoons, magazine cartoons and illustrations by assorted artists all using "Peanuts" as a metaphor. I noticed a spot on the wall above all the other cartoons and told him that would be a good spot for mine. He laughed. "Wow," I thought, "I made him laugh!"
After a few obligatory snapshots we were ready to let him get back to work. Before we left he gave us more presents. He handed me a signed copy of the Peanuts 40th Anniversary book that I had been admiring earlier and he handed my girlfriend a $200 pair of roller blades. My cherished original cartoon and book are still with me. I can't say the same for the girlfriend. I think she had a lot of the "little red-haired girl" in her (if you're reading this I want the roller blades back.)
I am sharing this story simply to give insight into a man whose gift has meant so much to me and to many of you over the last half century. Charles Schulz, although rightfully revered as cartoon royalty, is a sensitive, sometimes melancholy, hard working guy who believes in the human spirit. He is, in fact, Charlie Brown. Without Schulz there would be no loveable round-headed kid permanently etched on our collective psyche.
Charlie Brown has always been a mythic hero to me. Whether I was choking on the mound of my little league baseball diamond, sitting on the C squad bench in 8th grade football or too sick to my stomach to call a girl I liked in junior high, I always drew comfort knowing he went before me. He taught me that it's OK to lose. Losing doesn't mean giving up hope. No matter how many times he missed the football, lost the big game or heard Lucy call him a blockhead, he still believed in himself. This is the lesson that helped me get through childhood and now helps me deal with the tangled kite strings of adulthood. This is the gift that Charles Schulz has given me. Thank you, Sparky.