Published in The Bellingham Herald on Dec. 15, 2015
Now a librarian at Squalicum High School, Shaw provided the voice of Lucy Van Pelt in the beloved Christmas classic, which first aired 50 years ago this Wednesday, Dec. 9.
“It wasn’t any real big deal when I did it,” she said, “…(but) the older I’ve gotten, the more of a big deal it really has seemed to become.”
At the time, Shaw was a 10-year-old child actress with the last name Stratford, having appeared in episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “Bonanza,” “The New Loretta Young Show” and several Bob Hope specials, among them commercial and movie roles.
Shaw grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley. Her sisters modeled. By the time she was 2, her mother had gotten Shaw an agent and started her acting career.
She originally voiced Lucy in a 1963 documentary about Peanuts creator Charles Schultz. It never aired, but the animated strips from it were part of the catalyst for the Christmas special two years later.
Despite concerns about whether “A Charlie Brown Christmas” would work, nearly 50 percent of TVs were tuned to CBS the night it premiered.
Special expected to flop
Before it aired, Shaw said many people involved with the special’s production, including producer Lee Mendelson, thought the show would flop for many reasons. Among them: Vince Guaraldi’s now iconic jazz-based soundtrack and the inclusion of Linus reciting Bible verses.
The creators also decided to use children with no acting experience to voice most roles, but they went with child actors for Linus, Lucy and Charlie Brown.
Shaw and the two other child actors worked with director Bill Melendez, recording lines in a Los Angeles recording studio by reading scripts with no sketches to aid them.
Chris Shea, the 6-year-old who played Linus, couldn’t read and was coached his lines by Melendez, who voiced Snoopy.
Despite concerns about whether “A Charlie Brown Christmas” would work, nearly 50 percent of TVs were tuned to CBS the night it premiered. The special went on to win both an Emmy and Peabody Award, and trails only “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the title of longest-running Christmas special.
Shaw, now 60, said watching it was never a tradition in her household, even as she raised her own two daughters.
Once, when her oldest daughter was 3, they stumbled upon the special on TV and began watching it.
“I asked her, ‘Do you know who that is?’ Shaw recalled. “She said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘That’s me.’ She looked at me and said, ‘It is not!’”
Learning from Lucy
Shaw voiced Lucy for nearly another three years, but only in commercials. When she was 12, she was told her voice was “too old” to continue with the role.
As for the privilege of being the first of more than two dozen people to voice Lucy, Shaw said she still gets autograph requests in the mail.
She learned some things from Lucy’s character, including the importance of speaking her mind when she feels strongly about something.
Shaw also says she looks more at Lucy’s strengths than her meanness, citing her psychiatry booth as an example.
“She’s not just trying to ‘fix’ people,” Shaw said, “she’s actually trying to help people. But she is just so pedantic in the way that she does things, it comes out bossy.”
Shaw worked in show business until she was a teenager, but after more movie and musical roles, real life took over.
“I thought about it for a while,” she said of continuing as an actress, “but selling myself has never been a comfort zone for me.”
The road to Bellingham
Shaw eventually married, started a family and moved to Eastern Washington. She spent 18 years as a paraeducator in Leavenworth, starting a K-12 drama program and working as a librarian.
During summers, she directed and acted in local theater productions, and often ran the concession stand to raise funds for her own program.
“I really found out I liked directing more than I actually liked acting,” she said.
In 2005, her husband’s work in water treatment brought the two to Bellingham, where Shaw did an internship at Bellingham Public Library while finishing a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Washington.
In 2006, she started working as a librarian at Squalicum High, where she also taught drama for several years.
As for why “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has endured so strongly after a half-century, Shaw said it’s because of relatable characters and a reminder of what Christmas is really all about.
“It’s very simple,” she said. “It’s about love. And I think that’s the main thing that comes through. It’s not about the trappings, or what you buy or what you decorate or anything like that. It’s just about love and about being together.”