"A brush with fame" was how my Voice colleague Russ Cohen introduced Lee Mendelson at last night's Historical Society meeting. As a San Mateo High School graduate, USAF veteran ("worst navigator ever") and television producer for more than 50 years, Lee is perhaps best known for the Charlie Brown shows that are still hugely popular today. He admitted to being nervous in front of the crowd because his family, neighbors, classmates and his first attorney were all in the audience. I can't relay all of the funny and impressive stories Lee told but here are three:
His first brush with real fame came when he convinced Willie Mays to allow him to follow The Say Hey Kid around with a camera and produce a documentary. Willie would only do it if Henry Fonda would narrate. When Lee expressed some doubt about being able to get Fonda, Willie picked up the phone, called Fonda and sealed the deal in a minute.
Mendelson got the idea to do a Charlie Brown show while reading the cartoon strip in Towle's (now The Melt on the Avenue). He called Charles Schultz up and while trying to convince him to do it, he mentioned the Willie Mays piece. Schultz said, "If Will Mays can trust you with his life, I guess I can too." He sold the idea to Coca-Cola (as a sponsor) before it was even written and when Schultz asked how they would do it, he replied "It's something you are gonna write tomorrow". Schultz said yes as long as Linus got to read from the Bible in the script.
Another idea was to do something with John Steinbeck, but Lee was afraid to call him until his son, local guy Glenn Mendelson, said "you weren't afraid to call Willie Mays or Charles Schultz, why are you afraid to call John Steinbeck?" That got the phone into Lee's hand.
There's more, lot's more and the Historical Society filmed the talk, but these were some of the highlights for me. Here's Lee and the crowd last night in the Lane Room.
Lee is hard at work on the 50th anniversary show of Charlie Brown's Christmas, so we all have something to look forward to.