Bill Melendez, Comics Creator, Businessman and Peanuts Animator

October 31, 2008

    In early September 2008, the era of the Charlie Brown and Snoopy was pushed another step further into the past. The only other person Charles Schulz entrusted with the meticulous care of animating his Peanuts characters was Bill Melendez. The great creator and cartoonist passed away on September 2, 2008, ending a distinguished arts career spanning almost 70 years.

    Bill Melendez lived a long and successful life in the business of creation. Born in the town of Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico on November 15, 1916, his parents named him Jose Cuauhtémoc Melendez. He was talented with the sketch pen from the start, drawing anything and everything, said the New York Times in September of this year. The family moved to Arizona when Melendez was about 12 years old - since he knew little English, he was humiliatingly placed in a kindergarten class. He learned English as fast as possible.

    Moving to Los Angeles, the young Melendez held odd jobs. He was interested in becoming an engineer, but the Great Depression put a stop to his plans.

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    Instead, a friend suggested that Melendez show his art work to the Walt Disney Company. Disney must have seen the talent within, and recommended a short stint of art training to Melendez. On completion of studies at the Chouinard Art School, the young man was hired by Disney in 1938. Melendez put his skills to work on what are now considered Disney classics: Mickey Mouse, Fantasia, Pinocchio and many others. He was dubbed "Bill Melendez" for the movie credits, the Disney Company citing the name "Cuauhtemoc Melendez" as too wide for the screen.

    After organizing an animators' strike against Disney to gain unionization in 1941, Melendez left the company and joined the Leon Schlesinger Production Company, later Warner Brothers.. Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and other famous Warner characters were brought to life under the pens of Melendez and his colleagues. It was all good training for his future.

    Working for the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency in the 1950s, Melendez was assigned to create a television advertisement for the new Ford Falcon car. The Peanuts characters were suggested, and the reticent Charles Schulz was contacted. Melendez gave an "audition" of his work (something he was not familiar with doing at all), using Schulz' creations in their traditional two-dimensional form. Schulz was pleased. The ad went forward and the two men became friends as business associates. Such good associates that only Melendez could animate the Peanuts gang. No one else was good enough in the eyes of Schulz. Melendez enjoyed creating ads and "the quick turnover of ideas," he mention in a long-past interview with LA Times.

    In 1964, Melendez opened his own production company with another creator, Lee Mendelson. One of his first jobs was to create "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in 1965. With a great script, the popular Peanuts Gang and using his own inventive ideas, the half-hour film came to life - and then the television executives didn't like it. It used jazz music, of all things! It used the voices of real kids! And the animation was flat, and even worse - there were Bible verses! The network were positive audiences would hate it. But since there were only a few days until the special was to air, the show had to go on. And wouldn't you know it, audiences loved it. The music, the storyline, the verses from the Bible, and Snoopy's voice created by Melendez himself all wrapped up into a wonderful Christmas special that is beloved and awaited every year even still. (It's just not Christmas without Charlie Brown.)

    Bill Melendez enjoyed his relationship with Charles Schulz, and tried to make suggestions to make the cartoonist's life a little easier, since Schulz did every step of the popular cartoon himself. Melendez once said in an interview on AWN.com , "At least get someone to do the lettering for you", but Schulz did not agree. "He looked at me with those cold blue eyes and asked, 'Would Arnold Palmer ask his caddy to do his approach shot?' I never questioned his work habits again."

    With up to 40 employees in his animation studio, Melendez Productions has since participated in 70 Peanuts television specials, four movies and several hundred Peanuts commercials, including the Metropolitan Life Insurance ads featuring Snoopy. The company and Melendez have worked on bringing several other cartoon specials to life: "Cathy", "Garfield on the Town", "Babar the Elephant" and others. Another of their television production feats was the captivating special, "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis. The commercials for all companies add up to over 1,000 in number.

    Recognized for his wonderfully inspired work, Melendez and his company earned eight Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards (an award for excellence in radio and television broadcastings), and over 150 awards in the advertising division. The Venice Cup was presented to Melendez for "over-all animation excellence" and the National Cartoonists Society honoured him in 1982 with the Animation Award. Melendez was a ground-breaker in his time, being one of few Hispanics in the early cartooning field.

    On September 2, 2008, Bill Melendez died in St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California of natural causes after suffering a fall the year before. He left behind his wife Helen of 68 years (they were married in 1940), two sons, six grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren. Melendez was 91 years of age.

The world is a better place for having had a full bite of the delightful work of Jose Cuauhtémoc "Bill" Melendez. His creations will continue to bring smiles and joy for a long time to come.

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© Susanna McLeod 2008
TheCartoonists.ca