On June 22, 1970, Schulz officially christened Snoopy’s little yellow friend Woodstock, naming him for the massive counterculture music festival that was staged 50 years ago this week on the farm in Bethel, New York.
Schulz was not particularly a fan of rock music – his record collection leaned toward classical and country-western – yet Life magazine’s coverage of the event caught his eye. The Minnesota-born cartoonist lived in the Bay Area, which had been the locus of the “Summer of Love” a couple of years before, but the tumultuous decade was mostly reflected only glancingly in the strip, through the mostly warm and fuzzy filter of situational humor.
Yet something about that word, amid the generational rise of a new youth culture, rather fascinated Schulz.
“I can see him saying: ‘That sounds like a bird species name,’ ” Benjamin Clark, curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California, says of choosing Woodstock.
“The character was pretty well-established – the character we had come to love – so he’s going: ‘OK, we’re going to need a name so I can go forward,’ ” he added.
Schulz – who collected words that amused him – was continually experimenting with his cast of characters, and one canary-yellow bird kept emerging as a fun foil to Snoopy, the beagle prone to flights of fancy. So what about the Woodstock name and its associations made it worthy for the cartoonist’s star bird?
Schulz, it turns out, was “kind of cryptic” about that, says Clark, who guided the museum’s current exhibit, “Peace, Love and Woodstock,” which runs through March. In one interview, the cartoonist said that the name would “be good for people who like that sort of thing,” says Clark before posing the question: Was he being a savvy businessman?
“I think it’s much more than that,” the curator continues. “He’s middle-aged and looking at these young people behind him, protesting, and [asking]: ‘What’s that about?’ “
Schulz, who served in the Army during World War II, began pulling back some on the war-themed strips during the Woodstock era, including Snoopy’s dogfight scenes piloting his fantasy plane, the Sopwith Camel. (The Royal Guardsmen had released the hit novelty song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” in 1968; the tune can be heard in Quentin Tarantino’s new 1969-set film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”)
The June 1970 “Peanuts” strip that named Woodstock for the first time. Charles M. Schulz / Peanuts Worldwide via Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center
Yet “Peanuts” did sometimes reflect the changing times, including nods to civil rights and the Vietnam War. In one story, Snoopy gets invited to give a commencement speech at Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where there’s a tear-gassed demonstration over the enlistment of dogs being sent to Vietnam.
And in the summer of 1968, Schulz integrated “Peanuts” by introducing Franklin, after a California schoolteacher – while grieving the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination – wrote a letter urging the cartoonist to create a black character. Franklin, whose father is serving in Vietnam, begins by sharing a beach day with Charlie Brown.
Beyond the symbolism, “Schulz didn’t really take a strong, definite stance on some issues, but you know he was thinking about it,” Clark says. “He couldn’t quite come out and be an anti-war protester.” Still, in “Peanuts” strips of the era, Schulz drew birds holding protesting signs that sported only perplexing punctuation marks. Snoopy, perhaps as the cartoonist’s avatar, observes the action with a wary but curious eye.
For the “Peace Love and Woodstock” exhibit, the Schulz Museum borrowed some historic festival memorabilia from New York’s Museum at Bethel Woods, including the original art for the “Aquarian Exposition” poster that features a white bird perched on a guitar neck. For his “3 Days of Peace & Music” paper cut-out artwork, Arnold Skolnick had been influenced by a Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
The Schulz Museum cannot say for sure whether the cartoonist ever saw that poster. But the naming of Woodstock continued the evolution of this particular bird character, who at one point had been Snoopy’s female secretary.
Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer of the classic “Peanuts” TV specials, including “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” says that as Woodstock emerged as a sidekick, he became especially useful on screen. “Woodstock gave the animators a chance for action, gave Snoopy someone new to get involved with – and gave viewers a new friend.” At times, Snoopy and Woodstock became like a pantomiming comedy team.
A “Peanuts” strip from the Woodstock festival era. Charles M. Schulz / via Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center
Mendelson believes the animated Woodstock reached a creative zenith in the Emmy-nominated 1980 special “She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown,” in which the bird provides the impromptu musical accompaniment for Peppermint Party’s competitive figure-skating routine. Champion whistler Jason Victor Serinus provided the “voice” of Woodstock by recording Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.”
Serinus thinks Charles “Sparky” Schulz found a sweet spot of appeal with Woodstock. The key ingredient, he says, is the character’s charm.
“Sparky had a way,” Serinus says, “of capturing the innocence and naïveté, as well as in some ways the dark side, of humanity that speaks to people.” Schulz, for example, said that Woodstock wrestled with feeling small and inconsequential. (Serinus notes, too, that Schulz once told him he initially intended the character to be a baby bald eagle.)
Sarah Boxer, the writer and graphic novelist (“In the Floyd Archives”), takes a more skeptical view of the rise of Woodstock. By the 1970s, she says, Snoopy had become the rock star of the strip, necessitating a shift in character dynamics.
“Woodstock evokes two things at once,” says Boxer, a contributor to the forthcoming anthology “The Peanuts Papers.” “At his best, he reminds us of what Snoopy used to be in the strip — the id, the sole being who communicates only with gestures, noises and thoughts.”
Snoopy had spent the early years of the strip walking on all fours, behaving more like an actual dog, but he increasingly assumed human characteristics.
“But at his worst,” Boxer says, “he reminds us what a huge commercial success Snoopy came to be, and how all superstars need acolytes flitting around them” — as Woodstock indulges Snoopy’s various guises of coolness and expanding sense of self.
Some readers have long wanted to find aspects of Schulz’s personality within such main characters as hard-luck Charlie Brown and the ever-charming Snoopy. Yet was there part of Sparky in the small bird that couldn’t fly straight, yet kept seeking to elevate his life?
“There’s this idea of mattering – it’s so easy to feel insignificant,” the museum curator says. “Schulz himself struggled with that, and thought about that a lot.”
And Steve Martino, who directed “The Peanuts Movie,” says that sense of insignificance is essential to the character.
“I think the secret to capturing Woodstock’s essence is to always feel ‘the struggle of the little guy,’ ” he says. “No flight path can be straight, and everything he does takes great effort, but he gives it his all.”
(Disclosure: The author wrote the foreword for the Peanuts collection “Celebrating Snoopy.”)
This article was written by Michael Cavna, a reporter for The Washington Post.