Still Drawing After All These Years

At 74, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz has fame, fortune, and a funny bone. So why does he dread getting out of bed?

"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."

And so, Caswell remarks, is the merchandising. "Greeting cards, mugs, T-shirts -- there's an incredible amount of merchandise all over the world," she says. "It's just impossible to know how many millions of people over the years have been consumers of these products."

Among other things, the money has allowed Schulz to control his environment. A self-described agoraphobic, he's used some of his cash to insulate himself from the outside world.

These days, the environment that Peanuts built is orderly. Schulz works in a redwood-sided studio off a quiet street near downtown Santa Rosa. Next door sit a baseball field and a parking lot, both of which Schulz also owns -- "how many people do you know who own their own parking lot?" -- and, across the street, an ice skating rink.

Schulz built the rink in 1969, and, he says, it costs him over $1 million a year to run. The rink, which is called the Redwood Empire Ice Skating Arena, has a snack bar at the front entrance; a table near the window remains reserved at all times, in case Schulz decides to stop by. Outside, the names of ice skaters who have visited the rink are drawn in concrete -- Peggy Fleming Jenkins was the first to sign the sidewalk, in 1976. Her signature, loopy and graceful, is next to Schulz's own, a picture of Snoopy in a wool cap and ice skates, whirling in a circle. Down the lane stands a museum and gift store, which is so full of Peanuts items that even the walls are carpeted with images from the strip. Along the top floor's back wall hang awards, photographs, and cartoons given to Schulz -- including a watercolor drawing by Picasso's grandson and a winningly low-key drawing by Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, whom Schulz met recently in Rome.

Schulz regularly joins the Diamond Icers, an over-70 hockey team, skating at least once a week with the team, which recently trounced a similarly vintaged squad from Japan. Schulz got two assists in the 5-2 victory. But while he enjoys the rink, for some reason it's a touchy subject with him.

"People say, 'Oh sure he built that arena so his daughters could skate' or 'He built that arena because he loved hockey,' but that didn't figure into it at all. We built it for the community."

"People see the building and they think it was built for some selfish reason," Schulz continues. "It was not built for a selfish reason. Like I said, it costs me at least a million dollars a year to run. That seems kind of unselfish. And it brings so much joy. Literally thousands of people have learned to skate at that arena who would probably have never seen ice. You just do different things that you're capable of doing."

Meeting Sparky Schulz for the first time, writer Anne Lamott says, "is like getting to be friends with one of the writers of the Old Testament. I don't remember ever not knowing about Snoopy or Charlie Brown."

Just drawing pictures every day for 45 years has given Schulz a particular place in popular culture. The artist is unique in big-time modern cartooning because he still draws the strip himself. And he has literally put his life out there on the page, day after day after day.

Like Schulz, Charlie Brown is the son of a barber. Like Schulz, Shroeder loves classical music, especially Beethoven. Like Schulz, Snoopy knows the battlegrounds of World War II.

But drawing the funnies has hardly made Schulz happy-go-lucky.
It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Schulz is sitting at a big wood and glass desk in his Santa Rosa studio. Scraps of paper lie all around, jotted with ideas for the strip. The question comes up: Why is there so much grief and loss in Peanuts?

Again the answer lies in the life of the artist. When Schulz's mother, Dena, was 48, he says, she fell mortally ill with cancer. The war was on, and one day, word came that Schulz had been drafted. His agoraphobia -- fear of the unknown, fear of the outside -- was just beginning, he says. In boot camp, the young draftees had to sleep outside. One night, it rained. He lay on the ground in the rain, dreaming of home. He dreamed about his mother walking through the house in her bathrobe, holding it around herself, dying as she passed from room to room.

That's loss. And in his strip, Schulz says, he finds ways to bring up strong emotions and big ideas. Schulz calls the recurring ones his "themes." Symbols, devices, props -- whatever -- these are the continuing plot lines that give the strip continuity. As enumerated in Schulz's biography, Good Grief, by Rheta Grimsley Johnson, the themes are: the kite-eating tree, Schroeder's music, Linus' blanket, Lucy's psychiatry booth, Snoopy's doghouse, Snoopy himself, the Red Baron, Woodstock, the baseball games, the football episodes, the Great Pumpkin, and the little red-haired girl.

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