The Score of ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’ Was Lost — Now It’s Found, and Better Than Ever

Halloween has a soundtrack. It’s the shrieks, howls, and moans of a spooky sounds cassette. It’s the novelty songs from the era of late, late shows mingling with more straight-faced pop that dips a toe into the macabre and the supernatural. It’s the instrumentals that set the tone for the hauntings, possessions, and/or slashings of a favorite horror movie.

Yet, for decades, this seasonal backdrop was incomplete. The Halloween canon lacked one of its most vital recordings, its esprit de fall confined to annual television airings, home video releases, and one hard to find read-along storybook and record. You couldn’t add it to a costume party mixtape, couldn’t load it onto a playlist for a drive to the pumpkin patch. Which is a shame, because unlike so many of the pop hits retroactively adopted as Halloween standards, jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s score for the animated perennial “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” was both intended for and recorded during the spooky season.

The “Peanuts” gang’s Halloween exploits have been a television fixture since 1966, long enough to transcend the medium’s namesake device and land on Apple TV+, where subscribers and non-subscribers alike can await the Great Pumpkin’s arrival alongside Linus Van Pelt through October 31. But the charms of the special’s music have been what Guaraldi biographer and “Peanuts” historian Derrick Bang called, in a recent interview with IndieWire, “more of an open, shared secret.” These compositions don’t just illustrate the unwavering sincerity of Linus’ nocturnal vigil, ratchet the suspense of Snoopy’s imagined trek across the French countryside circa World War I, or amplify the horror of a trick-or-treat bag full of rocks. They also channel the mood and the sensations of the holiday, and this time of year, better than almost any other music.

Unlike its yuletide predecessor, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “The Great Pumpkin” had no soundtrack album of its own until the very recent past. And even then, it took a couple tries to get it right. But what took so long? Why doesn’t the autumnal majesty of the “Great Pumpkin Waltz” own the radio in October the way “Christmas Time is Here” does in December? Who left “Peanuts” fans, Guaraldi enthusiasts, and Halloween revelers out in the cold, screaming into the night, “Oh, ‘Great Pumpkin’ soundtrack, where are you?”

“I can’t tell you how many emails I have gotten from people during the last decade wanting to know when somebody was going to release ‘The Great Pumpkin,’” Bang said. “And I always had to say, ‘Well, you know, we’re not sure it exists.’”

Unlike the mythical squash believed to bring presents to the children of the world on Halloween night, there is now definitive proof that the “Great Pumpkin” score is out there. All it took was 54 years, a global pandemic, and one fortuitous FaceTime.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

Courtesy Everett Collection

The combined archives of Lee Mendelson Film Productions and Melendez Films house a vast, and specific, slice of American animation history. Between 1965 and 2006, founders Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez, in collaboration with “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, produced 44 primetime specials, four feature films, a Saturday morning cartoon, and countless TV commercials starring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, and friends. That amounts to “thousands and thousands” of tapes in storage, according to Mendelson’s son Jason.

“We have the versions of the show that are the 35mm prints, the positive prints, the 35mm sound elements, the 1-inches, the 2-inch,” he told IndieWire. “The versions that are made when they went to syndication, or they went to foreign countries, just the music and effects…” Somewhere in this trove of physical media was a wealth of Vince Guaraldi tracks, the original music cues for the first 15 “Peanuts” specials, which hadn’t been heard since they were mixed, edited, and mastered for broadcast all those years ago.

As the late Lee Mendelson told it, kismet initially brought Guaraldi into the “Peanuts” fold. The producer had teamed up with Melendez to make “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” a documentary about Schulz that featured his characters in animated interstitials. They knew they wanted a jazz score for the project, but struggled to find the right musician for the job — until the day Guaraldi’s alternately contemplative and swinging hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” came on the radio while Mendelson drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. Next came convincing the man who drew Charlie Brown.

“I don’t think Sparky was a huge jazz aficionado,” Jason Mendelson said, using the nickname that a young Schulz picked up from the newspaper strip “Barney Google.” “But I think when he heard what Vince could do with the documentary, and give life to those characters and give some movement — not just to Melendez’s animation, but spiritually — with the music, I think that helped bring to fruition the TV version of his strip.”

“A Boy Named Charlie Brown” never made it to air, but Fantasy Records issued Guaraldi’s cues — most named for “Peanuts” characters — as the 1964 LP “Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown.” When Coca-Cola commissioned a Christmas special from Lee Mendelson the following year, he again turned to Guaraldi. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was unlike any TV cartoon that came before, its complex emotions and unabashed wistfulness underpinned by a soundtrack of original compositions and jazzy interpretations by the trio of Guaraldi, bassist Monty Budwig, and drummer Colin Bailey . Also on the tracklist was “Linus and Lucy,” a “Boy Named Charlie Brown” number inspired by the fire-and-ice Van Pelt siblings and a prime example of what Bang describes as Guaraldi’s “astonishing facility for writing hooks.”

The Emmy- and Peabody-winning special’s commercial and critical success ensured two more specials for ’66, “Charlie Brown’s All-Stars” and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” with more to come every year after that. But despite Guaraldi’s continued involvement with Lee Mendelson, Melendez, and Schulz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” would be the last “Peanuts” soundtrack released during his lifetime.

Why the lack of follow-up? While “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a quintuple platinum record as of 2022, Bang pointed out that it was only a modest seller at the time of its release. Also: Between the premieres of the Christmas special and “Charlie Brown’s All-Stars,” Guaraldi and Fantasy entered into a messy legal tussle over his contract — not exactly circumstances that motivated Fantasy to put out more Charlie Brown records. They’d leave that to the pianist’s next label, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, which made a collection of “Peanuts” cues, 1968’s “Oh Good Grief!” its first order of business with Guaraldi. Included in the tracklist was a guitar-forward arrangement of “Great Pumpkin Waltz,” marking the song’s debut on vinyl.

Jason Mendelson offered his own theory as to why subsequent Guaraldi scores didn’t receive the album treatment: “They were making these TV shows and movies sometimes two a year,” he said. “And I think between Lee and Bill and Vince and Charles Schulz, they were always moving on to the next thing and moving on to the next thing and moving on to the next thing.” Working at such a brisk clip, there may have been no time to slow down and consider the music as something worth releasing on its own. And so more tapes were added to the archive. Guaraldi continued working with Schulz, Lee Mendelson, and Melendez on new specials and features, expanding the musical spectrum that embodied the soul and humor of Schulz’s characters until the day he died of a heart attack just a few hours after completing work on “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown.”

As the years passed and new generations made the “Peanuts” specials a part of their holiday traditions, interest in Guaraldi’s music grew. Vinyl gave way to cassettes, CDs, and digital, and Fantasy and its successor, Concord Music Group, continuously reissued and repackaged “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown.” But “The Great Pumpkin” remained lost. “Great Pumpkin Waltz” remained an exception, preserved not only on “Oh, Good Grief” but in covers by the likes of Chick Corea and Guaraldi acolyte George Winston. The version recorded for the show later surfaced on the compilation “Charlie Brown’s Holiday Hits” and some editions of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the latter capturing that jarring period in late October when stores and shops start hanging their garland even though the Halloween candy is still full-price.

In 2018, a promising silhouette rose into view with the announcement of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: Music from the Soundtrack.” But the “music from the soundtrack” part of the title was doing a lot of heavy lifting: This release wasn’t pulled from the original studio recordings, but rather the music-and-effects track of “Great Pumpkin” itself, where Guaraldi’s cues share space with the cartoon bonks and squeals of the special’s foley work. The sound of Linus dive-bombing a pile of leaves cut into “Snoopy and the Leaf / Frieda (With the Natural Curly Hair)”; “Breathless,” the eerie, flute-driven backing to Snoopy’s World War I Flying Ace fantasia written by the score’s orchestrator, John Scott Trotter, was riddled with gunfire. It was, to be frank, a disappointment — and, to Bang, possible confirmation that the “Great Pumpkin” session was truly lost to time.

The Mendelsons held out hope. Lee Mendelson had long sought out Guaraldi’s studio recordings for “Great Pumpkin” and other earlier “Peanuts” specials, and the producer passed that torch along to his sons and daughter. “My father looked for this for 30 years,” said Jason Mendelson. “I’d looked for it about seven years ago when we were doing our ‘It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown.’ There were times where we were remastering sound for the specials and we’re trying to see if there’s another source, because maybe there’s a piece that’s got a little fuzz on it or something. And we never found that.”

They just never had the time to delve that deeply — until COVID-19 lockdowns gave them nothing but time. “The only silver lining for me from this horrible pandemic was it let me stop and look at things we hadn’t looked at before,” Mendelson said. “We couldn’t do very much, so one of the things we did do is I wanted to make some really good albums out of the Charlie Brown music.” Working over FaceTime, the Mendelson and Melendez teams combed through the vault, unearthing and cataloging. Their first find was a quarter-inch reel labeled “You’re In Love, Charlie Brown,” which turned out to contain 90 minutes of music from the fourth “Peanuts” special.

“I said, ‘Holy moly, we must have had this stuff all along,’ and immediately went through everything,” Mendelson said. “I had to see what else we could find. And the next thing we found was one-third of ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin.’” After striking gold with “You’re In Love,” this partial discovery proved humbling. With so much material accumulating after so many years, some of the contents were bound to come back incomplete.

Serendipity wasn’t through with Mendelson yet. On a call with one of his counterparts at Melendez Films, he noticed some tapes on a shelf over her shoulder.

“I said, ‘What’s that?’ And she turns around and looks and goes, ‘Oh, it says it’s ‘Great Pumpkin’ music. I go, ‘What? What do you mean it’s ‘Great Pumpkin’ music?’ She goes, ‘Well, let me take a look at it.’ I’m looking at this going, ‘This is the same as all the other stuff.’ She goes, ‘No, no, that can’t be. It’s just sitting here.’”

At Mendelson’s request, the tapes were picked up to be digitally transferred. And this time, what came back wasn’t just a sliver of the special. “It was everything from ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin,” Mendelson said. “It’s the sessions, and it’s the stuff that was never used.”

The never-used material on the updated and expanded “Great Pumpkin” album, released this past August, really gets at the richness of the sounds Guaraldi and Trotter assembled for “The Great Pumpkin.” It helps that the lineup for the recording session was double that of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”; it didn’t hurt that Trotter, who’d made his name as Bing Crosby’s musical director, was coaching Guaraldi on how to more precisely time his cues to the sequences they scored, relieving Lee Mendelson and Melendez of the need to hit the breaks on an extended take mid-scene. The holiday spirit would’ve been in the air when the sextet assembled at Desilu’s Gower Street Studio, too — the sessions took place on October 4, 1966, just a few weeks before “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” premiered on CBS.

“The depth of the sound of the cues that we get in ‘Great Pumpkin’ is pretty much the best score that the entire series ever delivered,” Bang said. “It evokes Halloween just as successfully and memorably, lo these many decades later, as his music for ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ evoked Christmas.”

Midway through an alternate take of “Great Pumpkin Waltz,” Guaraldi moves from piano to celesta, and its twinkling throws an extra bit of golden-hour glow on what’s always felt like an autumn stroll in audio form, with Bailey’s brushed snare and guitarist Johnny Gray’s strums as the leaves crunching underfoot, while Ronald Lang’s flute breezes through the trees. There’s a playfulness in the robustness, too: If you miss the haunted-house sound effects of the minor-key groove that plays under the special’s main titles and trick-or-treating scenes, try the bonus “Graveyard Theme” where trumpeter Emmanuel Klein makes little cat noises between the piano licks.

And right at the top, there’s a rejoinder to anyone who’s mistaken “Linus and Lucy” for a Christmas song just because it’s on the Christmas album. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” may have introduced the tune to audiences beyond the suits who declined to sponsor “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” but it’s “The Great Pumpkin” that made “Linus and Lucy” the “Peanuts” theme. Its place of prominence was secured by the unorthodox production of the cold open, a brother-sister slapstick sequence with a giant pumpkin. “It was one of the rare cases where Melendez let Guaraldi record a full length track, not just a snippet,” said Bang, “and then Melendez animated to the music, rather than what normally happens, which is the other way around.” Klein’s fluttering fills between the familiar melodic lines put a further “Great Pumpkin” stamp on the song.

These are themes for Halloween’s dual nature. “Great Pumpkin Waltz,” “Linus and Lucy,” and “Charlie Brown Theme” for the daytime harvest season activities of carving pumpkins and bobbing for apples, “Graveyard Theme (Trick or Treat)” and “Breathless” for when the sun goes down and the sky takes on the dusky character of the special’s water color backgrounds. Jason Mendelson sees something equally important in the energy of the score, and how it helps propel Charlie Brown through what is an objectively crummy night.

“Everywhere he goes, he gets a rock,” he said. “But he never stops going, right? He always goes to the next house. He keeps persevering and the music carries him along for that ride.”

And he should know, having turned up his fair share of rocks in the search for the “Great Pumpkin” and Guaraldi’s other “Peanuts” recordings. He’s still looking, too: While much of the music from the first 15 specials has been recovered and is being prepped for release, there’s still no trace of “Charlie Brown All-Stars.” But there’s still plenty of tape in the archive.

“I have to go through hundreds more things to see what else we have in there,” Mendelson said. “I have stuff of Guaraldi’s I still don’t know what it is. I know it’s Guaraldi, I don’t know what it’s for, what it’s from, and I’m working to figure that out.”

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