The leap from newsprint to broadcast was ''evolutionary,'' says ''Sparky,'' a.k.a Charles Schulz, creator of the ''Peanuts'' cartoon strip. The characters were first animated as part of an ad campaign to sell Ford Falcons in the early 1960s. The idea for an animated series grew out of a documentary on Mr. Schulz being done by producer Lee Mendelson.
''It's not as if one day I thought, let's animate Charlie Brown,'' Schulz says. One thing gave rise to another and it seemed like a good idea. Now, he says, animation has worked well for his characters. ''It's added a lot,'' he reflects, noting that he and animator Bill Melendez have had a good relationship because ''we both appreciate what the other does.''
When the first special aired, back in 1965, ''Peanuts'' was not nearly as well known as today, Schulz points out. He says the animated specials raised awareness of the cartoon strip. But today, he observes with no small pride, that his strip has a steady constituency of over 100 million daily, ''the biggest in history. And, if anything, it's growing.'' At the same time, he adds, the appetite for new ''Peanuts'' TV specials ''seems to have dried up.''
Longtime producer Lee Mendelson attributes the change to a number of factors. ''The studio has a library of holiday classics now. They don't need new ones. Also, animated specials were big in the '60s and '70s. They're not now,'' he theorizes.
Which raises the question, are Snoopy and Charlie Brown as relevant to today's generation as they were to the baby boomers? Schulz dismisses the notion (''We're as relevant as ever.'') and points with pride to the numerous serious topics the ''Peanuts'' gang has tackled. ''What have we learned, Charlie Brown?'' winner of the 1983 Peabody Award, brought the ''Peanuts'' crew to Normandy for a Memorial Day tribute. ''This is America, Charlie Brown,'' was a first-ever, eight-part animated history lesson of the United States. And in 1990, ''Why, Charlie Brown, Why?'' the characters coped with a life-threatening illness of one of their friends.
The father of five says the world's kids see today, in Saturday-morning cartoons, ''all that superhero business. [It] is a terrible thing. It's so foolish. All that kicking and fighting, that's not what life is about.''
While CBS may not be buying any new ''Peanuts'' specials, the various holiday shows are a staple of the network's library. And the rest of the 65 ''Peanuts'' shows over the past three decades can be seen regularly on The Disney Channel.
Schulz's only regret is that his specials with animator Bill Melendez have ''never really had the big budgets. We've always had to work right up to the last minute.'' He still conceives and draws all his own work, maintaining a faithful 9-to-4 schedule with ''a few days off for golf.'' And if the current trend seems to be away from animated specials, it doesn't worry this veteran. ''Everybody loves cartoons. There will always be a special place for the funny papers.'' Animated or not.