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Out of the Gate

December 11, 2010
by Randy Alfred
a cartoon of a man playing piano by candlelight

An Unusual Protest

A dozen friends and I sat around an apartment on Piedmont Avenue, celebrating the end of our grueling first term as graduate students at Berkeley in 1967. Amid the wine and merriment, we were listening to a Beethoven piano concerto on the radio.

“Say,” I remarked, “Saturday is Beethoven’s birthday.” Peter Miller added, “Schulz hasn’t said a word.”

That was unusual. Beethoven’s birthday, kite-eating trees, the coming of the Easter Beagle, and the wait for the Great Pumpkin were all seasonal rites of the Charles Schulz Peanuts strip. Every year intrepid pianist Schroeder would remind us how few shopping days remained until Ludwig’s December 16 birthday.

This particular year, though, Schulz was skipping the annual gag, and we knew it. In the spirit of Berkeley in the ’60s, I piped up: “Let’s picket him!”

We knew Schulz was living in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, because legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen often wrote items about him.

The idea was a long shot. We knew we might not find Schulz’s home. We knew that if we found it, we might not get near enough for him to see us. And even if we got that far, we knew it would be too late, because we also knew he wrote the cartoons weeks in advance for syndication to newspapers all over the world.

Only Peter and I had the next day free, because our other friends were heading east to spend the holidays with their families. Before we set out for Sebastopol, we painted a couple of impromptu picket signs.

The day was classic California: crisp and clear. Under impossibly blue skies, we drove about an hour in Peter’s Volvo station wagon. We stopped at a gas station and looked up Schulz’s address in a phone book, in an actual phone booth. He was listed on Coffee Lane (1967 was a long time ago).

We followed the gas-station attendant’s directions and found Schulz’s name on the mailbox at the end of the road. A gate announced the name of his estate: “Coffee Grounds.”

A locked gate, to be precise. Pranks are one thing, trespassing is another. Peter began turning the car around. Just then, a truckload of gardeners drove out from an adjacent gate. “Who you lookin’ for?” one guy asked.

“Schulz,” we said.

“You won’t find him up there,” our helpful friend replied, pointing to the locked gate. “That road leads to the house. He’s up at the studio, working. Go up this road. It’ll take you right there.” The worker who’d opened the gate for the truck now held it open for us.

Peter steered the car up a curving, shady lane that climbed a hill to a small, modern cottage. We pulled up and took our picket signs out of the back seat. A tall, smiling, bespectacled, crew-cut man appeared at the sliding glass door and asked, “What’s this?”

We held up our signs. One said, “ONLY 3 MORE DAYS ‘TIL BEETHOVEN’S BIRTHDAY.” Honoring Linus’s occasional biblical riffs and streak of prophecy, the other sign intoned darkly, “LEST YE FORGET.”

“It’s a picket line,” Peter explained.

“My word,” said Schulz. “I’ve never been picketed before.”

Schulz was amused and he invited us in. One side of his studio had a drawing board. Cartoon strips in various stages of completion lay on tables around the edge of the room.

Running jokes are funny, Schulz said, but not if they become too predictable. He’d decided to give Beethoven’s birthday a rest; sorry if it was our favorite. “It’s funny,” he continued. “Schroeder’s infatuation with Beethoven is comical, but Brahms wouldn’t have the same punch. It’s in the name.”

We could scarcely believe our luck. The world’s most successful cartoonist was holding forth on his art.

“Just like dogs. A beagle is funny. A terrier isn’t. A lot of humor is like that.”

Schulz asked us about ourselves. He seemed especially interested in my studies in the sociology of religion.

He showed us some of the finished and unfinished strips on the tables. Each four-panel original cartoon was about five inches high and two feet long.”

Our visit ended when Schulz reminded us that he had to get back to the drawing board. Even before saying goodbye, I was savoring how I would tell this tale in years to come. I was enjoying anticipatory nostalgia.

I think Schulz enjoyed the interlude as much as we did. Chatting with “demonstrators” was a welcome break in his routine. He turned out the Peanuts strip seven days a week on his own, and wound up doing it for half a century.

Before we left, I think Peter got his picket sign autographed. But I asked Schulz to sign a souvenir I’d brought along for the occasion. It was a black-and-white glossy reproduction of a famous oil portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven. I’d bought it just that summer at Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, Germany.

Schulz loved it, and he obliged me with more than an autograph. He picked up a green marker, quickly drew a smiling Snoopy on Beethoven’s coat, and then signed it with a flourish.

Randy Alfred, M.A. ’68, left sociology for a career in journalism, which he describes as “high-shutter-speed sociology.” Either that, or sociology is journalism with a thyroid problem. Peter Miller, Ph.D. ’74, is now an artist/printmaker in Japan.
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