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The Bootleg Files: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

BOOTLEG FILES 744: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” (1973 television production of the Off-Broadway musical).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Most likely due to a problem with rights clearance.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely at this time.

One of the big entertainment stories this week was the announcement that the classic year-end holiday specials featuring the characters from Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip will not be shown on broadcast television, but will instead be seen on a streaming service. Many fans of these productions were deeply disappointed, as these specials have been an integral part of the holiday season television line-up for decades. However, there is another television special based on “Peanuts” that has not been broadcast since its only offering 47 years ago.

“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” began in 1966 as a concept album created by composer Clark Gesner. Schulz gave Gesner permission to use his characters, who then featured adult performers playing the “Peanuts” children, including comic Orson Bean as Charlie Brown. Gesner expanded the album into a stage musical which had its premiere in 1967 in New York’s Off-Broadway venue Theatre 80.

Gesner’s concept was not a traditional musical show, but was more of a revue with a series of vignettes inspired by the Schulz four-panel comic strip tied together by comic musical interludes. As with the album, adult actors played the children – a then-unknown Gary Burghoff originated the role of Charlie Brown. Gesner’s album gave Snoopy a voice – unlike Schulz’s drawings, where the beloved canine has thought balloons but doesn’t converse with the human characters – and the show had Snoopy played by an actor in regular clothing and not a dog costume.

“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” became one of the big Off-Broadway hits of the 1960s, and over the years it became a staple of regional, community and school theaters – when I was seven years old, my summer camp did an abbreviated version of the show. Up until the pandemic closed theaters, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” was still being staged all across the country.

However, not everyone was enamored with the material. A Broadway version opened in 1971 and flopped at the box office. Even Schulz saw little potential in the work when he began to ready his “Peanuts” characters for motion pictures – rather than adapt Gesner’s show for the screen, he focused on new scripts with musical interludes that would become “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy Come Home.”

In 1973, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” was tapped for inclusion in “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” a television anthology series. Rather than use the animated characters, this production followed the stage versions with a human cast. And that, unfortunately, was a mistake.

“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is an inherently small-scale theatrical work, with minimalist staging and a score that does not require extensive orchestration. Within an intimate setting, it has an eccentric charm – and even if the cast doesn’t resemble the “Peanuts” characters physically or vocally, the right actors can channel the idiosyncrasies that make the Schulz cartoons so appealing.

But a camera has a cruel way of magnifying flaws, and this version of “Hallmark Hall of Fame” harshly exposed the frailty of the material. Whereas a live theater audience can use its imagination to go into the make-believe world built on the stage, the television viewer winds up watching a group of adults trying to be something they are not. It might have worked with the proper behind-the-camera guidance, but director Walter C. Miller failed to calibrate the performances from a theatrical to television environment, thus giving the impression that the cast was desperately playing to the last row in the theater.

Indeed, the performances here are among the least subtle in the history of “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” This is particularly acute with Bill Hinnant’s Snoopy and Ruby Persson’s Lucy, who overplay their roles in one-note obnoxiousness to the point of suffocating the characters in misguided cuteness. Wendell Burton’s Charlie Brown is strangely creepy with an unblinking gaze, especially in his fetishistic pining for the little red-haired girl – the character’s pathos from the Schulz cartoons is nowhere to be found here, and it throws the show off.

At the time, this version of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” had enough cred to warrant a soundtrack album – not bad for a one-shot special. But there was never any great demand to have it repeated after its February 3, 1973, broadcast over NBC – and with Schulz turning out his own animated specials on CBS, this production was strictly a one-and-done deal. Schulz would finally make an animated version of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in 1985, albeit in a truncated version that sliced out four songs and much of the vignettes. This version also replaced the somewhat bland character of Patty, which Schulz had mostly discontinued by the 1980s, with Charlie Brown’s irrepressible kid sister Sally, and subsequent stage versions would also make that switch.

“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” was never released in any home entertainment format, although a clip of Bill Hinnant performing “Suppertime” was included in the documentary “You Don’t Look 40, Charlie Brown,” which had a VHS release. It seems unlikely that it will be made available again, given the licensing and music issues connected with the property. A not-pristine video bootleg can be found on YouTube, but this version runs one-hour and is missing one-third of the show. But, trust me, after a few minutes of this blurry unauthorized posting, you’ll be echoing Charlie Brown’s lamentation of “good grief.”

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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