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Just before the T. family headed back to Oregon after a week in Northern California last month, we made a visit to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. Open for five years now, it's a modest and tasteful place, presenting exhibits with a keen eye for telling details about Schulz's body of work and creative process. Here's a video featuring some of the permanent exhibits there.
The above artwork I posed by is on display in the museum atrium. It's a collection of Schulz's Peanuts comic strips which together form one of the great iconic images in popular art: a determined and hopeful Charlie Brown heading for another inevitably futile attempt to kick the football that Lucy is holding for him. Near there I met Schulz's widow Jean, who happened to drop by the atrium when I was present.
I complimented her on the museum and the attention to detail in documenting her husband's work. Something about "attention to detail" must've led her to reply that Sparky (as his friends knew him) was a simple man, yet was a complex man as well.
Interesting analysis from one who should know. Unfortunately my reply seemed rather banal, about how great it was that Schulz's work often got beneath of the surface of things. This earned me a moment of potential dead-end in the conversation, as her eyes seemed to glass over a bit, but I recovered quickly. I told her where we were from (near Portland) and where we'd been staying that week (just up the road in Windsor.) She said that Jan Eliot, who does the Stone Soup comic, lives in Oregon.
While on the subject of newer comics, I noted another artwork near us in the museum atrium, a big reproduction of a 1999 Peanuts strip that paid tribute to Patrick McDonnell's Mutts, which Jean confirmed was a favorite of Sparky's in his final years.
The strip shows a gathering of Peanuts characters (including Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Rerun) in an art gallery. Chuck, Lucy and Linus are looking at what might be a Van Gogh or Matisse but was instead was Jean called a pastiche of classic art styles. Rerun, in contrast, is by himself looking at a drawing of Earl The Dog.
Peanuts © 1999 United Feature Syndicate, Inc.
Right away I got the symbolism of Schulz using Rerun, his "newest" major character (introduced as Linus and Lucy's baby brother in 1972-73, but not regularly shown until two decades later), to make a point about something new that he liked.
Flashing on how folks in the High Hat stable of writers have expressed a liking for Mutts, I went into geeky hyperbole mode and told Jean I was delighted that Schulz was a fan. She said that O'Donnell's work reminded her husband of the work of a comic artist who apparently helped inspire the young Schulz. She mentioned the name of the artist, a name I didn't recognize and didn't fully make out, and this was followed by another brief moment of glassy-eyed discomfort. It was time to wrap things up.
I introduced my daughter to her just before she said goodbye to other people she'd been with at the museum. She then turned around and made friendly eye contact with my wife before leaving the atrium.
On the way home, I wished I'd asked her about something I'd learned about Schulz that day that impressed me: his apparent love of classic country music. I found this out while upstairs at the museum, inspecting what is said to be a very accurate recreation of Sparky's work studio as it was when he announced his retirement in late 1999. It featured all the necessary art materials, plus a nice-sized library of collected books, numerous photos of family and friends, and an autographed basketball from Julius Erving underneath the big drawing board.
On a shelf near one corner of the recreated studio was a turntable and what must've been Sparky's workplace record collection. Along with some classical and jazz, he had records by Buck Owens and Lefty Frizzell, as well as the soundtrack to the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. In a 1995 documentary I saw part of in the museum theatre, he mentioned that he sometimes liked listening to Hank Williams Sr. records.
His book collection was interesting as well. As a probable glimpse of the inner man, here's a list of some of the books in Schulz's personal library:
Thurber Country by James Thurber
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
The Goebbels Diaries 1942-45
Dare To Be Great, Ms. Caucus by G.B. Trudeau
Faith of My Fathers by John McCain
Carl Sandburg's Lincoln
Broke Heart Blues by Joyce Carol Oates
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
The McCain book might've been the last Schulz ever read, as it came out in August 1999 and the century's greatest daily comic artist (for longevity, at the least, over contenders like Bill Watterson and Walt Kelly) died a little over five months later.