Snoopy plays Rembrandt, while the little bird plays artist's model.
Charles M. Schulz once summed up his comic strip thus: "All the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away."
Although much of life in his comic strip Peanuts is met with a disappointed sigh, the new museum built to preserve the memory and legacy of its creator won't be. The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which opened in Santa Rosa, Calif., in August, is a deft reflection of a man who wore his enormous personality lightly. On the one hand, Schulz received unparalleled recognition: He was the most widely syndicated cartoonist of all time—at its peak Peanuts was read by 355 million people in 2,600 papers in 75 countries and 21 languages daily—and he was the only American comic strip artist ever to have a retrospective at the Louvre in Paris. Yet Schulz was also a humble homebody who never outgrew his childhood nickname, "Sparky," and took two meals a day at the Warm Puppy coffee shop in the Redwood Empire Ice Arena (now across the street from the museum), which he built in 1969.
Schulz passed away from colon cancer at age 77 on February 12, 2000.
Trying to reconcile the opposing aspects of Schulz's life in one building was no mean feat for architect C. David Robinson. "We wanted to build a place he'd be comfortable in, yet that would somehow be emblematic of the impact he has had on the world," Robinson says.
Because the popularity of Schulz's characters made him a very rich man (he reportedly earned more than $30 million a year), his heirs could afford to create a first-class space. They installed slate floors, gridded cherry ceilings, and a copper roof, all meant to create a warm feeling rather than a cold, antiseptic one. Just as its designers hoped, the 27,000-square-foot museum has the feel of an oversize house. It features a Great Hall, 6,000 square feet of gallery space, education and research rooms, and outdoor areas in front and back.
But what to put in it? Rather than promote all the licensed products Schulz's characters spawned—"That stuff wasn't Sparky," says his widow, Jeannie Schulz—this museum was built to feature his art, which isn't like the art found in any other museum. "How can you make something that is black-and-white and uniform look new and fresh to people, so they'll come back in five years?" Jeannie says. "That was our challenge."
As a stroll through the main gallery downstairs reveals, comics aren't all that uniform. Among the museum's fascinating permanent exhibits is a changing display of nearly 100 original Peanuts strips (of the roughly 7,000 in the archive) showing the development of Schulz's line and characters, and another exhibit examining the comic strip world that Peanuts invaded half a century ago. Visitors under a certain age may be shocked to realize how groundbreaking the strip was when it debuted in 1950. Schulz, the only child of a St. Paul, Minn., barber, peopled his strip with small children who experience the same kind of slights he endured in youth, yet who somehow remain philosophical and optimistic about life. Among Schulz's more famous disappointments were that his high school yearbook rejected the drawings he submitted and the red-haired girl he fell in love with turned down his offer of marriage. Set against a funnies page full of visually detailed slapstick strips and serial dramas like Prince Valiant and Little Orphan Annie, Schulz's spare line, slight humor, and themes of alienation, loss, and rejection were revolutionary. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau once called Peanuts "the first Beat strip" because it "vibrated with '50s alienation."
Not everyone embraced it. Among the treasures in the museum's research center and library (accessible by appointment only) is the collection of letters United Feature Syndicate received calling for an end to the "boring" and "stupid" new strip. The center houses a number of other gems, including a collection of Peanuts books from 26 different countries (as well as a few in braille and Latin) and 103 of Schulz's original Li'l Folks panels. He drew these for The Saturday Evening Post and St. Paul's Pioneer Press for three years before United Feature picked up the strip in 1950 and changed its name to Peanuts, a title Schulz never liked. Visitors can also learn about the world of licensing, which changed forever in 1961 when Connie Boucher, a San Francisco housewife, approached Schulz about creating and marketing a Peanuts calendar.
Two motifs recur throughout the building: circles, intended to evoke the strip's caption bubbles (or perhaps Charlie Brown's impossibly round head), and squares, representative of the four strip panels Schulz had to fill every day. To get a sense of what four squares a day for 50 years looks like, you need only step into the Great Hall. There, you'll find two large commissioned works by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani, who designed the Snoopy Town theme park in Osaka as well as several Snoopy Town shops around Japan. On the west wall is Otani's 17-by-22-foot image of the eternally optimistic Charlie Brown running toward Lucy as she holds the football. Only upon closer examination is the real genius of the work apparent: It is made up of 3,588 two-by-eight-inch ceramic tiles, each one printed with a different Peanuts strip. It's an astonishing display, especially when you realize that it represents only about one-fifth of Schulz's career output.
Upstairs, in the recreation of his wood-paneled office are more manifestations of his professional longevity, including the crow-quill pen and the drawing board he used every day. Nearby is one of the museum's most unusual acquisitions: a wall from the Colorado Springs house where Schulz and his family lived briefly in 1951. When his daughter Meredith was 2, Schulz filled one of the walls in her room with painted images of storybook characters and early versions of some of the Peanuts principals including Charlie Brown and Snoopy on all fours. After the Schulzes moved out, the new owners repainted the wall. In 1979, Polly and Stanley Travnicek bought the house and, after hearing about the wall from a neighbor, painstakingly stripped away the paint covering the artwork. When they learned of Schulz's cancer diagnosis years later, the Travniceks, both cancer survivors, donated the wall to the museum. Getting it to Santa Rosa proved no easy task, requiring the services of a mural conservationist, an architectural conservationist, an art shipping manager, several movers, and a climate-controlled truck. But it's one homey touch Schulz would have appreciated.
Another is a video nook tucked between the first floor's Great Hall and main gallery. Furnished with beanbag chairs, it makes a perfect space for viewing the animated Peanuts features and TV specials that run continuously on a big-screen television.
As befits the man who introduced the expressions "security blanket" and "Happiness is a warm puppy" into the lexicon, Schulz's museum is an informal, relaxed place that both reveals whimsy and inspires awe. But Jeannie Schulz says the true test of whether it is a reflection of his spirit will come on some bitterly cold, rainy day, when people are lining up outside half an hour before the museum opens. "Sparky would have said, 'Let them in now—there's no reason for them to be standing in the rain,' " Jeannie says. "That's just the kind of person he was."
The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center is located at 2301 Hardies Lane in Santa Rosa, Calif. For more information, call (707) 579-4452 or visit www.schulzmuseum.org.
Illustration: Peanuts © United Feature Syndicate, Inc.
This article was first published in September 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.