SANTA ROSA, Calif.--If you're a "Peanuts" fan, you have got to get yourself to this wine-country city about an hour north of San Francisco, the home of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center. There may well be no better place on the planet to get your fill of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the rest of the gang.
And today could be one of the best days ever to visit: it's the 60th anniversary of the famous comic strip, and what better way could there be to celebrate such an event than to take in what is surely the most complete and well-rounded collection of archival material from the six decades of the strip.
As part of my Road Trip at Home series, and to commemorate the anniversary, I drove up here yesterday to see for myself what the home that Charlie Brown built was like.
And I wasn't disappointed: it is a mecca for "Peanuts" devotees, what with its many galleries full of archival strips, terrific murals, new exhibits, and much more.
Schulz died in February 2000, my host, Gina Huntsinger, reminded me; groundbreaking for the museum took place just four months later, in June 2000. But despite being very ill at the end of his life, she explained, Schulz was aware of the project and signed off on it. The museum was the brainchild of his wife, Jean Schulz, and a couple of their friends, and opened its doors in 2002.
According to Huntsinger, Schulz himself was not all that excited by the idea of the museum, but was won over when he saw some of Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani's murals--especially "Morphing Snoopy," a bas relief sculpture that now dominates one wall near the entrance and shows all 43 different Snoopy styles that Schulz drew over the years.
Huntsinger said that Jean Schulz thought the museum--which is located on land owned by the family here--was necessary because most people have never gotten a chance to see any of the original "Peanuts" art, and because it would give the public a chance to do so, and to see an ever-changing set of exhibitions dedicated to the famous comic and its creator.
During the 50 years Schulz drew "Peanuts," he drew 17,897 strips; the museum has about 7,000 original strips in its collection. Though the public cannot view that full archive, there is currently a terrific exhibit called "Searching out new territory: Experimenting in Peanuts" on display in which visitors can see in many originals some of the ideas Schulz tried out with his famous characters.
For example, for nearly the entire history of the strip, we never saw any characters beyond children and animals. But for four weeks in May of 1954, Schulz tried including adults--at least their legs and torsos--in a series of Sunday strips. Seeing them now is jarring: they seem entirely out of place.
Another experiment Schulz tried--and clearly abandoned--had to do with how self-assured Charlie Brown was in the strip. We all know him as a perpetually insecure sad-sack, always having footballs pulled out from under him, and being left alone to wallow in his depression. But in a small series of strips in the exhibit, we see that in early years, Charlie Brown was actually full of self-confidence, so much so that he comes across as arrogant.
The exhibit also includes Schulz's early attempts at birds--which were originally much more realistic before he settled on the non-specific Woodstock--as well as odd approaches to Charlie Brown's and Lucy's eyes, and much more.
Today, about 65,000 people visit the museum annually, Huntsinger said, the majority of whom come from California. But clearly, it appeals to people from around the world, and why not? "Peanuts" was certainly one of the most popular examples of entertainment of the last half of the 20th century.
The museum also includes exhibits dedicated to the history of "Peanuts" animation, as well as new collections explaining how the strip was ahead of its time in discussing the environment.
There's even an exhibit called "Charlie Brown and the EPA," which showcases a series of strips where we saw Charlie Brown get in serious trouble with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency--so much so that he had to run away from home--after he took an angry bite out of the famous "kite-eating tree."
And it wouldn't be a "Peanuts" museum without such a tree, would it? As such, its outdoor patio area, which also includes a group of sculptures, has an actual kite-eating tree. At least, there's a tree with a kite in it.
All told, the museum is worth an hour or two of any "Peanuts" fan's time, at least those who find their way to this city along the famous U.S. Route 101.
Just beware that you don't get in the way of Snoopy, decked out as the famous World War I Flying Ace, in his hard-core pursuit of the Red Baron.