Sorry, Charlie!

The Twin Cities mark the occasion of Charles Schulz's retirement by scrambling to turn him into a hometown hero

David Mruz is leaning into the passenger side of the parked car, rummaging through a canvas bag laden with his books and flyers. "I'm just going to do something crazy," he says in a giddy whisper. "I'm going to ring the doorbell and see what happens."

Ninety seconds later we're standing inside the front door of the little stucco house at 473 Macalester St. in St. Paul. The cozy living room is made cozier by an enormous Christmas tree looming in one corner. Like the tree, Mruz himself seems a tad too large for the room; at six-foot-three, he has a round face and round body that shake in time with his wildly gesticulating hands. He's bubbling over with information.

"Do you know whose house this used to be?" Mruz asks, excited. Owner Charlie Weier, stroking a large gray cat, says he learned about the home's quasi-historic value shortly after he and his family moved in about a year ago. Mruz hands him a sketch he photocopied from a cartoon anthology; it's a black-and-white drawing of a boy with glasses and a little Snoopy smirking in the background. "Charles Schulz was here!!!!" the paper shouts. It's a self-portrait, Mruz explains, drawn by the famous creator of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, and the rest of the Peanuts clan.

Tony Nelson

"Take a look at this," he says, handing Weier a copy of Peanuts: A Golden Celebration, a new coffee-table book published in honor of the comic strip's 50th anniversary this coming October. Then he launches into the history: After the Schulz family moved briefly to Needles, California, when Schulz was a child, they returned to St. Paul and lived in the Macalester home until Schulz's mother was diagnosed with cancer. When her pain worsened, the family moved to an apartment above a pharmacy on the corner of Selby and Snelling avenues. Mruz has told this story countless times, many of them during the days and weeks since Schulz's December announcement that he would retire the strip to concentrate on his battle with colon cancer; by now the dates and facts seem to turn somersaults with each other. But his enthusiasm, his affinity for Schulz and Peanuts, is so infectious that the details don't seem to matter much at this moment.

"Are you a fan?" Weier asks, obviously bemused by the visitor. Mruz laughs. "I'm sort of a fan. I ended up being the keeper of the faith." Then, in a moment of true Peanuts evangelism, Mruz tells Weier to keep the Peanuts book. At that, we make our way back out into the cold January evening.

This is the last stop on our Charles Schulz Twin Cities tour. By "keeper of the faith" Mruz means that for a quarter-century he has studied the history of cartooning in Minnesota and has an unusually expansive knowledge of Schulz and his local ties. Mruz, dressed a little like a Peanuts character himself in sneakers and jeans, chatters without pause about Schulz and the Lake Harriet trolley he used to ride, Schulz and his award for best caddy at a St. Paul golf course, Schulz and all that he's done to engender respect for cartoon artists.

We've already been to the site of the correspondence art school where Schulz learned and later taught his craft (it's a parking lot today). We've been to the Highland Park Golf Course, where Schulz worked as a young man. We've been to O'Gara's pub at Selby and Snelling (the original bar has taken over the space where Schulz's father Carl had a barbershop, and upstairs, in Apartment 2, Schulz drew the first Peanuts characters). We've been to the former ice rink in Minneapolis where Schulz would come to watch skaters rehearse for the Ice Follies (it's now the Uptown Rainbow Foods).

And we've been to the intersection of Ninth Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, the site of the apartment building where Schulz was born (the house has been torn down to make way for parking lots and a construction site). There, Mruz taped up his flyers on a nearby telephone pole. That corner is where he'd like to see a statue erected, perhaps of Carl and Dena Schulz with their little son Charles. He says he's tried for years to get the City of Minneapolis interested in such a marker, to no avail. In fact, Mruz says, he's tried more times than he can count--always unsuccessfully--to get some sort of public recognition of the cartoonist in his hometown.

Mruz says he has campaigned to have the Selby apartment and the site of Schulz's birth registered as historic places, with no luck. He also talked to the St. Paul government a couple of years ago, when Schulz turned 75. "We wanted the City of St. Paul to do something," he remembers. "They were really disinterested."

Even as far back as the 1970s Mruz and other local cartoon historians asked the Minnesota Historical Society to recognize the lasting lines Schulz has drawn on popular culture. "I was hoping eventually there'd be some permanent display recognizing that Charles Schulz was from here," he explains wistfully. "One little tiny wall, or one tiny photograph, even a mention that Snoopy was created here." The museum, he chortles indignantly, even has an exhibit recognizing the creator of the children's game "Cootie"! (Little does Mruz know that the same exhibit does offer a minor indication that the creator of Peanuts, the world's most popular comic strip ever, hails from the Twin Cities: a palm-size white yo-yo with a "campus cool" Snoopy on it, on the floor of a modest display case.)

Fans laud Schulz as the man who changed cartooning forever, who spoke to human nature with his cast of introspective children. Yet while Snoopy may be one of the world's most recognized images, the man who crafted him has gone all but unnoticed in the Twin Cities. Lindbergh has his airport terminal, and Fitzgerald his theater, but the Twin Cities have done next to nothing to publicly embrace Schulz.

Until now. After the cartoonist's decision last month to retire, Mruz suddenly found that his decades-long quest had transformed into a popular cause. Around the Twin Cities, and especially in St. Paul, citizens and city officials are scurrying to lay claim to Schulz as a hometown hero. Which, of course, raises the question, Why now? Why hasn't this place, suddenly so eager to grab hold of its forgotten son, embraced the Peanuts creator before? After all, Schulz has always been from here, and Peanuts has been a cultural mainstay for decades. Could it be that we simply want to be part of the legacy, of something that mattered to so many? Or could this newfound enthusiasm be less a matter of paying homage to Schulz's success, and more a way to exploit the moment to our best advantage?

 

On December 14 Charles Schulz, from whose hand and mind sprang Charlie Brown's round head, Snoopy's World War I flying ace, Linus's security blanket--and a slew of characters recognized and loved virtually around the globe--announced he would end an almost 50-year run of Peanuts in daily newspapers. The news was instantly the top story around the nation. His last new daily comic ran January 3, and the last new Sunday cartoon will run February 13. In the days that followed the announcement, hundreds of writers at publications around the nation paid tribute to the cartoonist in prose tinged with fondness for the gang of wise, world-weary kids, sadness at the end of an era, concern for Schulz's health.

Before that media onslaught, many Twin Citians didn't even realize that Schulz was from here. "If 50 percent of the people in St. Paul were aware that Charles Schulz was from St. Paul and had a history here, I'd be surprised," declares Erich Mische, Mayor Norm Coleman's director of strategic initiatives. "We all know Prince is from Minnesota because Prince is out there, he's The Artist. Charles Schulz was never out there, publicly performing. The interest level in the artist isn't nearly as high as in his product."

But in the wake of the announcement and with the media's gaze trained on Schulz, Mische--who has an uncanny knack for seizing nearly any opportunity to boost the city's profile--has kicked into high gear: He's leading the charge for St. Paul to honor the native son it never much bothered to claim before.

For that matter Charles Schulz never much bothered to celebrate the incidental fact that he hails from the Twin Cities. (He has returned a couple of times, including a visit to the opening of Camp Snoopy at the Mall of America in 1992). He was born in Minneapolis, in an apartment behind his father's barbershop, on November 26, 1922. According to the biography Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz, Schulz's family moved to St. Paul, where they stayed for most of his formative years (except for their brief relocation to California when Schulz was six). Interested in drawing throughout his childhood, Schulz enrolled in 1940 in drawing-by-mail classes from Federal Schools, a Minneapolis institution still doing business as Art Instruction Schools. Only after a stint in the army--he entered in 1943, and his division fought in Germany and Austria--did he return to St. Paul and start searching for jobs as an artist.

Eventually, he worked as an instructor at his alma mater and did lettering for Timeless Topix, a comic magazine owned by the Roman Catholic Church. Between 1948 and 1950, he sold several panel cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post, and also during that time created the cartoon L'il Folks for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The cartoon ran weekly for a couple of years, in the women's section; when Schulz asked for a daily commitment, the paper refused.

In 1950 Schulz went to New York to meet with the United Feature Syndicate (now United Media), which had the good sense to promptly snap up L'il Folks, change its name to Peanuts, and start marketing it around the nation. The strip debuted October 2, 1950, in seven newspapers, the Minneapolis Star among them. (Syndication rules allow only one newspaper in a metro area to run a cartoon; United Media officials say the Pioneer Press was offered Peanuts first, but chose not to run it, and never has.)

During the early years of the strip, Schulz married Joyce Halverson. The two first lived with Schulz's father, who had remarried, then moved briefly to Colorado Springs in 1951. After a year they returned to Minneapolis, where they lived for six years before settling in California in 1958. Schulz has since divorced Halverson and married his wife Jeannie, and still lives in Santa Rosa.

By the time he relocated to the coast, Peanuts was already taking off in popularity--not just the newspaper comic, but the merchandising. By 1984 the strip had been sold to its 2,000th newspaper and recorded as the most popular strip of all time in the Guinness Book of World Records. Today the Peanuts merchandising business--clothes, calendars, toys, videos, knickknacks--pulls in $1 billion each year.

 

In the month since the St. Paul mayor's office put out the call for ideas on how best to honor Schulz, it's gotten hundreds of suggestions via e-mail and phone calls. (The Minneapolis mayor's office, on the other hand, says there has been no interest whatsoever expressed in honoring Schulz.) But before pressing forward, the St. Paul staff--led by Erich Mische--wants to know how Charles and Jeannie Schulz might feel about a hometown tribute, and what might be appropriate. To get a better sense of that, Mische has called into action a few constituents who know the couple.

Their first meeting takes place in late December at the St. Paul Tivoli Too design and sculpture studio, where company president Randi Johnson and her staff of 40 create, among other things, prototypes for the Peanuts sculptures and figurines that manufacturers will mass-produce. Johnson has been a friend to Schulz (she refers to him as Sparky, the nickname given him when he was two days old) and his family for years, since she first got a license to create Peanuts jewelry and went out to visit him in his California home.

The group casts about for a fitting salute: A Charles Schulz section of the Children's Museum? An interactive Peanuts picnic area downtown? A statue in Rice Park? A street name? A scholarship? "Obviously, we want to make sure it's tasteful, dignified, that it reflects his history, as well as St. Paul's," Mische says. "The sky's the limit on this one."

The sky's the limit? Mische says the tribute is a high priority for the city--Schulz's looming illness does press a certain urgency on the project--though it's unclear how fast it might come together even with all the sudden scrambling about. But why hasn't it happened before? The strip, after all, has been successful for almost half a century. As Mruz points out, such far-flung places as Paris and Rome have exalted the cartoonist with national art exhibits and birthday jubilees.

"There's always the sense that someone else has taken care of it," Mische admits. His explanation: "You wake up in the morning, and you have had the idea in the back of your head, and you read the paper and see that this guy you've taken for granted--not just St. Paul, but the world--is retiring. You realize we're all mortal, and it turns on a green light."

That explanation doesn't satisfy critics. When it comes to St. Paul's late push to claim Schulz as its own, some suggest that the city simply bided its time until Schulz was making headlines, then glommed onto the acclaim. "St. Paul is seeking for fame, which is not easily found," says Marshall Fishwick, a Virginia Tech professor of American Studies who specializes in the study of heroes. "We, as human beings, identify with fame--you know, touch the hem of the garment. That's this process that's going on."

 

A few years back, Dan O'Gara was tending bar at his family's pub in St. Paul. One of the servers came to him, he recalls, and said, "There's an old guy down at the end of the bar. He says he used to live here." He wanted to go into his dad's old barbershop, O'Gara remembers. He said he lived in Apartment 2.

"I still had no idea," O'Gara says. "We walked through the apartment. He said it was much smaller than he recalled.'' Then the tall man, dressed in corduroys and a flannel shirt, called his family together in the kitchen and said, "This is where it all started."

Today at O'Gara's the walls are covered with framed cartoons and photos paying homage to the Peanuts creator. For the most part, the reverence for Schulz has been personal and private, displayed in reminiscences around the kitchen table and on the walls of the odd watering hole rather than exhibited in city parks or civic institutions.

Still, the regard for Schulz--as a cartoonist, and as a thinker--runs deep. "He has totally changed how people look at cartooning and comic strips," Mruz says, in an awestruck tone. "He's a giant," he pauses, "on whose shoulders others are going to stand. The word hero isn't big enough for him."

With his simple drawing style, Schulz dramatically influenced the comics, creating a strip in which the stories weren't overshadowed by the art, says Ted Rall, a New York-based cartoonist. "It was always a dark little strip. It's a depressing strip. No one ever gets what they want," Rall muses. "But it still kicks the ass of everything on the comics page."

And out of those brooding, often fatalistic vignettes grew an uplifting philosophy, says M. Thomas Inge, professor of humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. Ultimately, Schulz's legacy voices itself through his characters, his day-in-day-out comic strip over the decades, he says. Inge has interviewed Schulz many times and plans to release a book, Conversations With Charles Schulz, this fall. Especially now, as the world reflects on the celebrities of the century, Schulz has earned a special place among the philosophers and scientists who have shaped the past 100 years--luminaries like Darwin and Einstein, Freud and Marx, who expounded on the forces in society that press upon humans and mold their existence.

"Charles Schulz comes along and says we have got to believe in ourselves nevertheless. We've got to believe in our ability to do something," Inge marvels. "It's an effective countervoice to all those negative attitudes."

 

Who are the heroes the Twin Cities have chosen to embrace? By the looks of things, St. Paul has generally been pretty haphazard in recognizing its success stories. Take the example of Union Depot. The names of some of the city's native sons were engraved awhile ago on plaques embedded in the front sidewalk. Schulz is there, along with Charles Lindbergh, Hubert Humphrey, Herb Brooks (who coached the 1980 men's Olympic hockey team to a gold medal) and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or perhaps it should be said that the names were there: its seems that a drainage problem damaged the walk of fame and forced the city to rip up the concrete; the plaques, according to local lore, are still in storage somewhere.

Fitzgerald is arguably the city's most acclaimed native. But appreciation of him, like that of Schulz, took its time. It was only in 1996--100 years after the author's birth--that St. Paul celebrated him, with readings of his work, programs for high school students, even the unveiling of a statue of him in Rice Park. That weeklong centenary tribute was a few years in the making, and, says Page Knudsen Cowles, founder of the Hungry Mind Press and co-chair of the Fitzgerald celebration committee, the effort was aided by the prominence--as Cowles puts it, the "celebrity status"--of one of its biggest proponents, Garrison Keillor. As part of the commemoration, the World Theater, where Keillor hosts his Prairie Home Companion radio show, was renamed the Fitzgerald Theater in 1994.

And certainly, it complicates a city's claim to fame when a celebrity spent only his earliest years there. Fitzgerald, for example, left St. Paul at a young age for a New Jersey prep school and then Princeton. Schulz, too, departed the Cities for California, and that's where the main Peanuts tourist draw has been.

Cowles muses a moment on the significance of such tributes to hometowners who've long since left their early haunts. "If a person is from a particular area and chooses to make a life outside that area, why should the hometown keep saying, 'Hello! You're from here!'? On the other hand, in a busy, busy world, sometimes you have to have a hook like retirement, or a hundredth anniversary." And that, she stresses, is neither unusual nor inappropriate. "If we don't take time to stop and acknowledge people and events and ourselves for what we've accomplished...we're losing an opportunity to create meaning in our lives."

The fact that it's taken St. Paul nearly half a century to voice its adulation of Schulz may to some make all the recent commotion seem a bit, well, opportunistic. Then again, St. Paul has had other recent trouble paying tribute to those who've made their mark elsewhere. For years Mayor Coleman has been determined to create an art museum for LeRoy Neiman, the contemporary artist who came from St. Paul but went on to study art in Chicago before moving to New York. But the idea--which Mische declares is still alive--has gotten snagged on political obstacles, including a resounding failure to raise funds, protracted negotiations with Neiman's advisers, public disdain for his art, and the artist's eventual (and some say bitter) withdrawal of his support for the project.

Mische says that at this early stage it's unclear whether a Schulz monument might well run into some of the same complications. At the initial meeting to discuss plans, however, he mentioned a number of parties who are likely to get in on the hoopla, including corporate sponsors. At the moment St. Paul's most development-savvy mayor is at the helm, steering a much-touted revitalization of the city's downtown and riverfront, with such projects as a $75 million convention center, a spiffy new science museum, and a state-of-the-art hockey arena. It isn't hard to imagine St. Paul's leaders seizing on the wisdom of incorporating some sort of Schulz tribute as part of the civic-booster boom.

That will depend on whether the salute becomes a spectacle, says Karal Ann Marling, professor of popular culture at the University of Minnesota. If the city chooses to venerate Schulz in a splashy way, with a big statue in front of city hall, say, then the overture is less for Peanuts than for the glorification of politicians, the chamber of commerce, and the city chiefs, she adds, not for Charles Schulz.

The manner in which a city celebrates a local hero tells volumes about the relationship between them, Marling notes. One way is for the community to pump itself up by advertising that its soil nurtured this artist--that it in some way deserves credit for the geographical happenstance of birth. "I think it's kind of bush-league to single out a great hero that came from your locale," she says; but such remembrances can be genuine--and touching--if they instead take up the call of revealing who that person was, to understand his or her values and share those with future generations. Such an approach is different, she says, "from saying so-and-so was born up the road here, and doesn't that make us great."

 

A handful of kids are jumping around the plastic playpen at the entrance to Camp Snoopy in the Mall of America's core. As they bounce, the 50-foot inflated Snoopy wriggles and waves. Down the path kids are getting ready to embark on the Snoopy truck ride, while across the seven-acre indoor park the kite-eating-tree ride whirls as the youngsters shriek with glee.

The amusement park opened along with the mall in 1992. Developers had wanted to include Camp Snoopy because of its family nature; mall officials say it was only after the fact that they realized the extra bonus that Schulz was from here. It's quiet on this weekday afternoon, as dusk falls across the skylights. But wait, what's that around the corner?

An actor clad in an oversize, polyester-plush Lucy costume, replete with red coat and hat, waves at passing shoppers. A moment later Snoopy appears, big, soft, fluffy, in striped stocking cap and scarf. A little girl races up the trail and jumps into the beagle's arms, burying her laughter in the famous pet's squishy belly.

Perhaps pop culture expert Marling is right about this place, when she suggests it might be the Twin Cities' greatest possible tribute to Schulz. "It's a place of pleasure--for kids and family. That it alighted near St. Paul must have been fortuitous," she remarks. "It's as if fate is holding Schulz to this area, through he hasn't been here for many years."

In the ephemeral world of pop culture, it's hard to know what icons and images (if any) will last through the ages. Schulz, Marling says, was always at one with his work--and "that's what makes the strip so successful. To make Charles Schulz into a media idol seems to me to diminish him. If in ten years we slip a Snoopy into a park, he might like it better, and ultimately, we might, too. This is a man of shyness, invested in his art. We'd be false to Schulz to make a big deal of this." At that she pauses, and after a moment adds, "It would be a pleasant surprise if you were walking around a bush in Minnehaha Park and there were Snoopy."

Perhaps the fact that the strip--Schulz's life work--has so resonated with the public is already enough recognition, suggests Marling. "This is a person who has been honored. His immense popularity and presence around the world might be quite sufficient," she says. "Maybe a man's work is its own legacy."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Minnesota Concert Tickets
Loading...