Mendelson died on Christmas Day in Hillsborough, CA, following a protracted battle with lung cancer, his family told the Palo Alto Daily Post.
Mendelson later would import comic-strips Cathy and Garfield to television success, but his signature career moment came in December 1965, when he brought Charles Schulz’s legendary Peanuts characters to the small screen in A Charlie Brown Christmas. The half-hour animated special with the $96,000 budget aired originally on CBS and would become a beloved touchstone of the holiday season, yield a bestselling jazz album and win Emmy and Peabody awards.
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Mendelson also wrote the lyrics to the 1965 special’s ethereal “Christmas Time Is Here,” with music composed by Vince Guaraldi and performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.
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Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year
Over the years the song became part of the holiday songbook and would be recorded by artists such as John Legend, Diana Krall, R.E.M, Sarah McLachlan, David Benoit, Toni Braxton, Brian McKnight and Steve Vai. Stone Temple Pilots performed the song at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas show in 1994.
The holiday-infused backdrop to Mendelson’s career added a bittersweet aura to the timing of his death, his family told the Palo Alto newspaper.
“It wasn’t great for us, but to have him pass on Christmas really ties into his history and legacy,” Jason Mendelson said of his father’s death.
A Bay Area native, Mendelson got his start in the television business with a documentary that followed San Francisco Giants icon Willie Mays through the 1963 season. For his follow-up, he settled on the idea of a documentary about Schulz, the Santa Rosa cartoonist who had introduced the world to Charlie Brown and Snoopy in 1950.
Schulz was on board with the idea, but then serendipity took the pair in a different direction. The advertising agency for Coca-Cola inquired about Mendelson’s interest in a holiday project. Mendelson got Schulz to switch gears, and then he brought in two key collaborators: San Francisco jazz composer Guaraldi and animator Bill Melendez.
The trio of Mendelson, Guaraldi, and Melendez would continue their work together for four decades while producing specials such as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; This is America, Charlie Brown; It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown; and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown! aired in 2015, winning Mendelson one of his 12 Emmys. Six of those awards were Peanuts productions.
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