How old were you when you portrayed Violet in A Charlie Brown Christmas?
How Peanuts is this?Where were you living at the time?
Were you already a Peanuts fan?
I don’t really remember, actually. My sister worked for the producer, Lee Mendelson, so Peanuts was a topic of conversation in the household because Lee had been persistently approaching Charles Schulz to allow him to produce children’s specials. Schulz had said no repeatedly. But then he called Lee and said “It has to be on my terms—[the show] has to be Christmas.”
How were you hired?
Nepotism. One of the conditions for Charles Schulz was that for the most part they used real kids—not professional movie stars—so it would sound genuine. Someone asked Lee to take reel-to-reel around to schools in the area. My sister came home that evening and said “Might as well take Sally’s voice, too.” Whether they took me as Violet because of that, I don’t know. But then I was promoted to Lucy because my voice had a crabbiness to it.
Doesn’t seem to anymore!
Oh yeah it does! (laughs)
Too obvious to cast you as Sally?
Oh yeah! But [it’s caused] confusion all my life.
How old was your sister?
She was 19 when she went to work for Lee. She’d been his best babysitter ever and he was starting a production company in Burlingame because he didn’t want to be in L.A.
What other shows had you appeared in?
That was the first show I had appeared in.
Why did you change from Violet to Lucy for Great Pumpkin?
Because they asked me to.
At the time, did you have an opinion on which character you would like to be?
Not really. I knew Lucy was crabby and was okay with it. When I was a teen, I was kind of embarrassed by it, but now I embrace it.
Looking back, did you like playing one character more than the other (though I suppose the answer is obvious)?
Lucy, of course. More lines.
How did your experience differ between Christmas and Great Pumpkin?
I remember thinking how great it was to not have to go to school that day. I felt a bit like a celebrity. [After the Great Pumpkin recordings], they always took us out for hamburgers. I don’t recall any of that the first time around. I can’t remember how many times they took us from Burlingame to San Francisco (about 30 minutes apart), but probably a few for Great Pumpkin.
Any funny stories from the experience?
I’m not sure which show it was, but we were in the studio and Jefferson Airplane was also there recording. We were excited about seeing them and they were excited about seeing us. It may have been on one of the later shows.
Was anything hard about the process?
Oh no. (laughs) They made it pretty easy. They’d say a line, we’d repeat it until we got it to their satisfaction.
Did each of you record alone?
Typically a group of us went to the studio together—all young, wild kids running down the halls—but we’d record one at a time.
Tremendous. Kind, dear, quiet man. He left a huge impression on me. We went up to his property when they were working on a book or something to take photos with him, and he had invited me to come to his office, if you will, and watch him draw for a few minutes. I got to stand next to the drawing table in his office. It’s a vague memory but in his museum they have his office set up like it was, and when I saw it, it was the same.
What did you think of the finished shows?
I thought they were wonderful and entertaining. It was a little odd—you feel removed from it. At the time, I couldn’t relate that it was my voice. But the neighbors said they’d know that voice anywhere.
What did your parents think?
My father was no longer in the picture. I think my mother enjoyed it but was very protective—and overprotective.
Wanted to make sure that we [the kids] were well taken care of [at the studio]. But she was pretty proud of it, and proud of my older sister who became a tremendous production assistant for Lee Mendelson and had opportunities to meet movie stars and do great things.
Is she still doing that work?
No, she retired when she started a family in the 1970s.
Was your mom not with you at the recordings?
No, and that wouldn’t happen today, would it? My sister would drive me up to San Francisco, and she picked up the other kids as well. Those were the days!
That must have been a fun road trip.
Except Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) was not part of our group, the Northern California group, because he was a professional actor in L.A.
What did your friends think of the shows?
I don’t know, honestly. I think they probably thought it was interesting. It wasn’t a big deal at all. I’m still good friends with a friend from that time. My partner just said that this friend [of ours] said I have a lot of Lucy in me. I didn’t know that! (laughs)
What were you paid?
It was about $100 per show, no royalties. Scale for the day. But I became a member of the Screen Actors Guild and they paid my dues. [What I was paid] was a huge amount of money for doing very little. I kept all the pay stubs until very recently—about a year ago. I should have saved some!
I was just going to say that! Which Peanuts special you worked on is your favorite, and why?
Great Pumpkin because it’s the only one you see anymore, and Christmas is a classic, of course. All-Stars (the second special, 1966) was fun.
Did you or your family stay in touch with anyone else from the cast?
No, not really. The first group of kids—all our voices changed at the same time for the most part, which was a challenge. Schulz had not anticipated [these specials] would catch on and people expect characters to sound the same [from show to show]. The second or third batch of characters did not sound like the first so then they tried to find kids who sounded like the originals.
My sister, though, stayed in touch so I would hear how the others were doing if they recorded after I did. I know of them. I opened a picture frame business in my early 20s in Burlingame, so the parents of some of the other kids would come in and I would sort of keep in touch that way. Small community.
Have you had any fun Peanuts moments since (a reaction when someone you meet discovers you had a role in it, Halloween costume, etc.)?
Surprisingly enough, it happens all the time. We have a store in Jerome, AZ, called Nellie Bly—it’s the largest kaleidoscope store in world. We sell art glass. Most all is made by artists here in the States. Kaleidoscopes are an American art form.
We also sell the two books on the making of Great Pumpkin and Christmas, so when people find out, they come in and get an autograph. It’s always a highlight of my day when they say they want to meet Lucy. Sometimes we give the books away.
We live in a town of 450 people and we get a million and a half tourists a year.
No, to shop here for kaleidoscopes. [Otherwise] it’s a ghost town. But it’s real. It was a copper miners’ town. The mines were closed in 1955. My people—the hippies—came in the ‘70s and ‘80s and turned it into an artists’ community.
Did you do other voice work/acting after Peanuts?
When my voice changed, they let me down easy and made me Patty (not Peppermint Patty) in A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). I did a voiceover for Stanford Hospital for the children’s unit, I think. It was a promo for the hospital. And that was it. I was 12.
In addition to the store, what are you doing these days?
I do optical sculpture—kaleidoscopic in nature. I also volunteer at the Humane Society and I do the anesthesia for surgery. Dog lips are not poison!
(laughs) Did you need certification to do that?
No, a vet trained me. I’ve been working with her for 12 years, since I moved to Jerome.
What has been your career highlight so far?
I don’t think I’ve had it yet! I’m still exploring. I get to do a little medicine, a little sculpture, animal rescue, display at the store, rescue dogs—we have four rescue dogs and eight rescue cats. I’m not so much of a dog whisperer…more of a dog yeller.
What was your partner’s reaction when she learned you were part of this cultural institution?
(she asked her partner, with a laugh) “Hmmm,” she said. Her name is Mary; she started the store 25 years and I started 15 years ago.
She must have watched the shows, right?
Yeah, but I don’t know that it was anything unusual. But she’s a great supporter and advocate.
No. Two wonderful nieces.
What did you think when you first heard from me?
I thought that would be good. I was happy to jump on board.
Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?
Off and on, and then we were invited to Comic-Con a few years ago, when Warner Bros. bought the property. I thought that’s just ridiculous because they’re all there to see Darth Vader, but we created a stir. It was great fun to see other cast members again.
The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas (2001)
(Last name misspelled. Good grief!)
Did you stay in touch since then?
No. Haven’t had time, I guess. [But we did] exchange emails.
Do you still have any ongoing connection (professionally or personally) to Peanuts?
No, not so much. We’re still friends with the Mendelson family but I haven’t spoken with Lee in a while. One of the Mendelsons did come to the store.
How do you look back on the experience?
Anything you’d like to add?
Not that I can think of.
Next: Todd Barbee—Charlie Brown (Thanksgiving).