A museum portrait of the 'Peanuts' gang

Charles Schulz never dreamed how popular his drawings of an imaginative beagle and a forever-hopeful boy would become when the first Peanuts comic strip appeared on Oct. 2, 1950.

But his cartoons struck a powerful chord. During a 50-year run that ended only with Mr. Schulz's death last year, he drew 17,897 strips. "Peanuts" appeared in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries. (And don't forget the numerous TV specials, two plays, and four feature-length films.)

A new exhibit celebrating Schulz's life and work, called "Speak Softly and Carry a Beagle: The Art of Charles Schulz," is on view at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., through May 31. It will then travel to Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Kansas.

The exhibit chronicles the development of each character through Schulz's original sketches and sample four-panel strips, which were drawn 14-1/2 inches tall and 30 inches long.

Smile at the early Snoopy of 1950, when his ears were bigger and blacker. Shake your head at Charlie Brown's persistence as Lucy pulls away the football or his baseball team loses yet again.

Schulz was inspired by the cartoons of his day, such as Popeye and Krazy Kat, but he drew on his ordinary childhood to create an entirely new comic strip. Charlie Brown was the American Everyman, modeled on Schulz's own "round, ordinary face." He thought up Peppermint Patty when he walked through his living room and saw a dish of the candies on a table.

Cartoon animals were part of Schulz's life from his boyhood in 1920s Minneapolis. His uncle nicknamed him Sparky, after a comic-strip horse. His first drawing was published when he was 15: a portrait of the family dog, in "Ripley's Believe It or Not" magazine. After high school, Schulz took correspondence courses in art and served in the Army.

Unlike other cartoon strips that had detailed drawings and story lines, Schulz's art and dialogue were spare. A dozen recurring devices made his cartoons unique, including Linus's blanket, Snoopy's doghouse and Red Baron fantasies, and Lucy's counseling booth.

Quietly, Schulz also chronicled the nation's social changes. Franklin, the first African-American character, made his "Peanuts" debut in July 1968 - the summer of the worst race riots in American history.

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