Jason Mendelson J.D. ’08, MBA ’09, and His Production Company Won a 2016 Emmy for a 50th Anniversary Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
By ELIZABETH KELLEY GILLOGLY B.A.’93
When it comes to Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang, it is all in the family for Jason Mendelson J.D. ’08, MBA ’09, whose father, Lee, has worked on the popular programs since their birth in 1965. Jason grew up voicing Peppermint Patty, and after college, he came back to work for his father’s production company, Lee Mendelson Film Productions, Inc. Jason now serves as chair, co-president, CFO, CLO, and producer, writer, director, and editor for the company. Working with his brother and co-president, Glenn, Jason says they run “the day-to-day business of creating new entertainment properties and shepherding various entertainment properties, including the Charlie Brown specials, the Garfield specials, and more than 50 years of documentaries and other properties that my father helped to create.”
“We also publish the Vince Guaraldi music including the jazz music associated with Peanuts,” he says, adding that his days are split between business management and the development of entertainment and documentary film and television productions.
In September 2016, Lee Mendelson Productions won its 12th Emmy for “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!” which was named the Outstanding Children’s Program. It was Jason’s first Emmy.
His office wall must be crowded: besides his two degrees from SCU, Mendelson also earned his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University in political science and political history sociology. In addition to his work for Lee Mendelson Productions, he has had a solo practice since 2009.
Please tell me more about the project for which you won the award. How long was it in development? How did you get involved?
In 2016 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which originally aired in December of 1965, by creating a new TV special we called “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!” We worked on preparing the project for ABC Television for a couple years.
My family has worked on all the Peanuts television specials for the last 50 years, starting with my father, Lee Mendelson, who was the original producer of those specials in partnership with Charles Schulz (the writer and creator of the Peanuts gang) and Bill Melendez (the animator and director).
When I was three years old, my father employed me to voice some of the cartoon characters, including voicing Peppermint Patty, until puberty ended my run. That was how I originally got involved in this project. Since graduating college I have worked on putting together several of the Peanuts specials as well as producing/writing/directing other entertainment properties. I was one of the executive producers on this special “It’s Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown!” that also celebrated the sixty years of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang’s cultural impacts in our country and beyond.
Did you draw on your legal degree during this work? If so, how?
I was also the production attorney securing the music licenses, insurance, releases, and all the union involvement. It was quite an education for this unique special. I had produced specials like this before (even being nominated for an Emmy in the past), but it was my first real experience as counsel for a production, and it was indispensably helpful to me as a producer to also be so well trained as a lawyer. It let me really understand how all the pieces fit together behind the scenes and in a business sense. I also was able to do some of the sound and camera on parts of the documentary pieces to save some of our budget for the more lavish parts.
What was most fun about the project? What was the biggest challenge? What surprised you the most?
This project was a labor of love, and we were thrilled when the TV network asked us to create this special. We were able to pull together a ton of celebrity fans to talk about their relationship with Charlie Brown. We weren’t able to use about 75 percent of what we shot/received, because we just had an overwhelming amount of material.
Our special was hosted by Kristen Bell, and featured musical performances by Sarah McLachlan, Kristen Chenoweth, Matthew Morrison, David Benoit, Boyz II Men, and Pentatonix, performing the music of Vince Guaraldi, plus all the highlights from 50 years of Snoopy and the gang on television.
One of the most fun parts of the project was actually shooting the musical acts all over the country—in Los Angeles, and Brooklyn, and Las Vegas—and hearing from people all over the country (and the world) about their love for “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I also loved searching for a bunch of the former voice actors to get their permission to reuse their original performances from the last 50 years. Many of those actors/ former actors were the people I had done voice work with back in the eighties when we were all children. I think my favorite moment was when President and First Lady Obama contributed their beautiful sentiments about their genuine love of the show and its tradition for our special. They were so good and went completely off script (which my father had written) that it influenced and shaped some of our final editing choices for the special.
One of our biggest challenges was to create this new modern special by using 50 years of material and mixing it with brand new pieces. Technically this is not often done, and the network didn’t really have a lot of precedent for our show. It was a musical variety show, made for children and families, but also mixed in animation from the past 50 years. I think we invented some new ways to make it all look good together and not be too jarring, and I spent a lot of my pre-production time trying to come up with a plan for this, and in the end I was excited about the result.
Obviously, we were thrilled and humbled to win the Emmy a year later for Outstanding Children’s Program. It was my first Emmy, but to share it with Paul Miller (our director) and my father was an amazing surprise. My father has now won 12 Emmys on 39 nominations over the last 50 years, so in my hous ehold, it is not that big of a deal (mostly kidding).
For more information, visit mendelsonproductions.com.