No comic strip was more in touch with American pop culture in the 20th century than "Peanuts," drawn and written by the late, towering and much-revered cartoonist Charles Schulz. That his daily strip, so filled with unflinching sarcasm and childish wiles, would be roasted on "Saturday Night Live," spoofed on "South Park" and emulated on "Arrested Development" is proof of the familiar warmth and emotional depth supplied by Charlie Brown and his gang.
Schulz's ability to riff on American movies, television, events, fashion and trends — from Beat culture to 1950s 3D glasses and "ghetto blaster" boom boxes — are captured at an ambitious new exhibit at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood titled "Charles M. Schulz: Pop Culture in Peanuts." If Schulz wasn't drawing Lucy snatching a football from Charlie Brown for the umpteenth time, he would be filtering his shrewd references through the security-blanket-hugging Linus, the piano virtuoso Schroeder, the perennially smelly Pig Pen, the D-minus student Peppermint Patty, the exuberant beagle Snoopy and even Woodstock, a bird whose speech bubbles resembled chicken scratches.
"His characters lived in an adult-free zone," says Jane O'Cain, curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., who loaned 70 authentic "Peanuts" drawings for the Hollywood museum's summerlong exhibit. (The show will open Saturday with a Snoopy Jazz Party, featuring music by Miami alto-saxophonist Joe Donato.)
"There's something in Schulz's characters for everyone to relate to," Cain says. "He was so attuned to the culture around him, and his genius came with taking all those cultural artifacts, like flying saucers and Davy Crockett coonskin hats, and making them entertaining within the context of his characters."
The strip's nods to American obsessions and pop-culture touchstones are wide and exhaustive, says O'Cain, but Schulz was especially keen on tapping into blip-on-the-radar fads . The 70 drawings are split into six categories — "Language and Slang," "Fashion," "Fads and Trends," "Sports," "Sign of the Times" and "Latest in Technology" — tracing, for example, Schulz's early integration of beatnik slang ("Daddy-o" becomes "Mommy-o") and surfing counterculture. Of the latter, a 1965 strip shows Snoopy shout-thinking, "Cowabunga!" as he hot-dogs across a wave to impress a female beach-beagle. A 1985 strip reinvents the "ghetto blaster" as a "beagle blaster"; a 1980 strip shows Marcie commenting on Peppermint Patty's "new Bo" Derek hairstyle of beaded cornrows (as Snoopy jumps in fright); and a 1999 comic has Sally Brown penning a letter to Harry Potter, just as the books surged in popularity.
"He wasn't using the comics as a soapbox to put across his own viewpoints, but to reflect the culture back to people," O'Cain says. "I would read a 1960 strip where Charlie Brown goes, 'That's the only dog I know that worries about his cholesterol level' and think, 'Oh, my gosh.' Schulz was reading so much research. He was a voracious reader and it made him seem prophetic."
Schulz's four-panel cartoons appear on framed art paper measuring about five times bigger than a newspaper strip , which the cartoonist would initially draw large-scale on his drafting desk. The Sunday strips, which are larger still , are also in black and white, as Schulz worked with colorists to illustrate the characters.
"I think a lot of people might be coming to the exhibit expecting to see these tiny, tiny newspaper strips. Like everybody who visits gets a free magnifying glass," O'Cain jokes. "But people will be in awe of Schulz's pen work, so freehand because he believed in the immediate free flow of expression and feeling, right down to the dirt on Pig Pen's face."
Art and Culture Center curator Jane Hart, who has been assembling the "Peanuts" show for a year, spent as much time trawling eBay for rare memorabilia referenced in the strips. The result: More than 100 pieces of pop-culture ephemera are on display, including a "ginormous" 1980s-era cell phone; macramé kits; Nirvana cassettes and T-shirts (because Schulz mentioned grunge); Del Close's spoken-word comedy album "How To Speak Hip" (because of the beatniks, man); CBGB T-shirts and Sex Pistols buttons (because Schulz was hip to punk); a longboard ("luckily, I have a brother who surfs," Hart quips); Swanson's TV dinner ads; incense and crystals (a nod to New Age mysticism); and mood rings. Hart, obsessed at this point, nearly bought a 1970s waterbed, but then dismissed the idea.
"It's a trip down memory lane for parents, and a new experience for young kids. And if you really read into 'Peanuts,' you'll even see the psychology of the human condition," Hart says. "It's the most-popular comic strip of all time, and it transcends all the little subjects of the day."
Using exact dimensions supplied by the Charles M. Schulz Museum, Hart hired a Hollywood woodworking company to build a Snoopy doghouse for display, fitted with a working television, a cheeky print of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and Snoopy's favorite snacks — chocolate-chip cookies and root beer. In another gallery, several animation cells from Bill Melendez, original animator of the "Peanuts" TV specials, are on consignment from the Connecticut-based Barker Animation Art Gallery.
"I would say, in some respects, that this is the most-ambitious exhibit we've ever done," Hart says. "No other institution has presented original Schulz strips with all the memorabilia, music and animation cells, and that makes this the most-valuable body of work in its totality that we've ever had."
Charles M. Schulz: Pop Culture in Peanuts
When: Saturday through Sept. 1
Where: Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St.
Contact: 954-921-3274 or ArtAndCultureCenter.org