"Some months ago, the phone rang in our house, about 7:15 in the morning. My wife, Jeannie, answered it." In the front of the room, a man is starting to speak. He is a rich man, a famous man, a person the people in this room have traveled long distances to meet. "It was a young girl calling from the Midwest. She said, 'My friends and I are having an argument. Is Mr. Schulz still alive?'
"Jeannie said, 'I just saw him in the bedroom about 10 seconds ago.'
"So the girl said, 'Oh well, I guess I lose the bet then.' "
At the podium, Charles M. Schulz laughs. "I'm not retired. I guess I'm not dead," he says. "But I must admit that things like this are not totally lost on me."
At 74, the man who created Peanuts is silver-haired, debonair, and wry. This dinner in his honor is a $175-a-plate benefit for the Cartoon Art Museum, on Mission Street, which has mounted 45 years of Schulz's strip. The retrospective has broken museum attendance records; here, in this room, people have flown in from Japan and Chicago and Los Angeles, among other places, to hear Schulz speak. In hushed voices, they talk as if they've always known him. In a sense, they have.
Every single day for the last 45 years -- that is, for the 16,425 or so mornings of our own modern age -- Schulz's strip has appeared in newspapers across the world. It has been a constant in a half-century of constant change. When the strip started, television and jet travel were still on the horizon. These days, some 300 million people read daily about "the kids," as Schulz calls them: about Charlie Brown, and Linus, and Lucy, and Snoopy, and Woodstock, and Schroeder, and Marcie, and Peppermint Patty.
But if the strip he dreamed up as a young man has made Sparky Schulz one of the richest and most successful cartoonists the world has ever known, don't assume wealth and reverence have brought bliss. Every morning, Schulz says, he wakes up with a sense of dread. He remembers every slight, no matter how minor. He has carried a torch for an unrequited love for more than four decades, through two marriages and five children. (That's right, the little red-haired girl isn't just Charlie Brown's fantasy.)
And now, entering his own old age, Schulz jealously guards his strip, which, it seems, is a lifeline he has to his own heart. Should Peanuts retire? Perish the thought, Schulz declares. Or bury me first.
"Of course, if you think about getting older, it leads to that awful thought -- dying," Schulz is telling the diners. "Linus says to Charlie Brown one day, 'After you've died, do you get to come back?' Charlie Brown says, 'Only if you get your hand stamped.'
"And of course, if you're the kind who thinks about those things as you get older, you find yourself worrying about them.
"Sometimes," Schulz confides to the entire dining room, "I lie awake at night."
Linus: "If you work real hard, and you get everything you've always wanted, is it worth it?"
Snoopy: "Not if your dog doesn't like you."
Sparky Schulz always wanted to be a cartoonist. Nicknamed by an uncle after a cartoon-strip horse, Sparkplug, Schulz was born in 1922 and grew up in Minneapolis, the son of a barber and a housewife. Times were tough, Schulz recalls, but his father staved off the Depression one haircut at a time, and by the time Schulz was 17 there was a spare $160 to pay in $10 installments for Schulz's first drawing course, a correspondence school class advertised in a magazine his mother read.
Ten years later, Schulz was working at that same correspondence school and drawing his own cartoons, which he sent out to places like the Saturday Evening Post. At 27, he took a cross-country trip with a portfolio full of drawings, and sold his first Peanuts cartoon.
The strip made its debut on Oct. 2, 1950, with a kid named Shermy saying of a kid named Charlie Brown, "How I hate him." At the time, what have become Peanuts hallmarks -- a simply drawn gag a day -- were innovative, says comic art historian Lucy Shelton Caswell, of Ohio State University. "At that point television was just coming along and there was a big flap about comic books and whether they were too violent," Caswell says. The strip captured the world its readers knew, Caswell says, "and it really set a whole lot of things in motion as it became more popular."
Certain facts about the early years of Peanuts are well-known. Schulz has never liked the name of the strip, preferring his own title, which was Li'l Folks. The strip was pitched to newspaper editors early on as much for its versatile four-panel shape -- which could run on top of each other in a box or in a straight line across a page -- as for its content. But over the years, the subject matter of the strip has become paramount. Schulz says he sees overarching themes in his work, continuing ideas or comic devices that give the strip continuity and allow it to reach into more serious areas.
"Schulz has in a humorous way dealt with a number of very serious issues and emotions in his strip," Caswell says. "He has talked about religion over and over in his strip. It's interesting that it hasn't offended people or made them mad. He was able to do that in a way that was acceptable to people. The skill with which he has written and drawn his strip is really remarkable."