Ever since the early ’50s beginnings of “Peanuts,” creator Charles Schulz feathered his beloved comic strip with anonymous birds that popped in with mischievous, chirping whimsy. Yet it was two decades until a winged “Peanuts” creature finally got a name, becoming a fully nested character.
On June 22, 1970, Schulz officially christened Snoopy’s little yellow friend Woodstock, naming him for the massive counterculture music festival that was staged 50 years ago.
The Minnesota-born cartoonist was not particularly a fan of rock music — his record collection leaned toward classical and country-western — but Life magazine’s coverage of the event caught his eye. Something about that word, amid the generational rise of a new youth culture, fascinated Schulz.
“I can see him saying: ‘That sounds like a bird species name,’ ” Benjamin Clark, curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., said of choosing Woodstock. “The character was pretty well-established — the character we had come to love — so he’s going: ‘OK, we’re going to need a name so I can go forward.’ ”
Schulz continually experimented with his cast of characters, and one canary-yellow bird kept emerging as a fun foil to Snoopy, the beagle prone to flights of fancy. So what about the Woodstock name and its associations made it worthy for the cartoonist’s star bird?
Schulz was “kind of cryptic” about that. In one interview, the cartoonist said that the name would “be good for people who like that sort of thing,” said Clark, who then wondered aloud: Was he just being a savvy businessman? Clark thinks there was more to it than that.
“He’s middle-aged and looking at these young people behind him, protesting, and [asking,] ‘What’s that about?’ ”
“Peanuts” did sometimes reflect the changing times, including nods to civil rights and the Vietnam War. Schulz, who served in the Army during World War II, began pulling back some on the war-themed strips during the Woodstock era, including Snoopy’s dogfight scenes piloting his fantasy plane, the Sopwith Camel. And in the summer of 1968, he integrated the all-white cast by introducing a black character, Franklin.
“Schulz didn’t really take a strong, definite stance on some issues, but you know he was thinking about it,” Clark said. In “Peanuts” strips of the era, Schulz drew birds holding protest signs that sported only perplexing punctuation marks. Snoopy, perhaps as the cartoonist’s avatar, observes the action with a wary but curious eye.
The current exhibit at the Schultz Museum is titled “Peace, Love and Woodstock.” For it, Clark borrowed some historic festival memorabilia, including the original art for the “Aquarian Exposition” poster that features a white bird perched on a guitar neck, although he cannot say for sure whether the cartoonist ever saw that poster.
A likable sidekick
Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer of the classic “Peanuts” TV specials, said that as Woodstock emerged as a sidekick, he became especially useful on screen. “Woodstock gave the animators a chance for action, gave Snoopy someone new to get involved with — and gave viewers a new friend.”
Mendelson brought in champion whistler Jason Victor Serinus to provide Woodstock’s “voice.” Serinus said Schulz (whom he referred to by his nickname Sparky) found a sweet spot of appeal with Woodstock. The key ingredient, he said, is the character’s charm.
“Sparky had a way of capturing the innocence and naiveté, as well as in some ways the dark side, of humanity that speaks to people,” Serinus said. For example, Schulz told him that Woodstock wrestled with feeling small and inconsequential.
Some readers have long wanted to find aspects of Schulz’s personality within such main characters as hard-luck Charlie Brown and the ever-charming Snoopy. But was there part of Sparky in the small bird that couldn’t fly straight, yet kept seeking to elevate his life?
“There’s this idea of mattering — it’s so easy to feel insignificant,” Clark said. “Schulz himself struggled with that, and thought about that a lot.”
Steve Martino, who directed “The Peanuts Movie,” said that sense of insignificance is essential to the character.
“I think the secret to capturing Woodstock’s essence is to always feel ‘the struggle of the little guy,’ ” he said. “No flight path can be straight, and everything he does takes great effort, but he gives it his all.”