The Bootleg Files: It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown

BOOTLEG FILES 662: “It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown” (1988 TV special).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is out of circulation for many years.


Following the dismal reception of his 1988 made-for-television special “It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown,” Charles M. Schulz lamented that “I wanted this to be my ‘Citizen Kane,’ but it’s not.” From an Orson Welles analogy perspective, the production might have been closer to those infamous drunken outtakes for the Paul Masson champagne – a weird, embarrassing blip in the late stages of a brilliant career.

By the time “It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown” came around, the television specials based on Schulz’s “Peanuts” characters were starting to grow stale. Offerings such as “What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?” (with an insufferable pondering of the carnage of the two World Wars), “It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown” (a lame spoof of the then-popular “Flashdance”) and “Snoopy’s Getting Married, Charlie Brown” (the less said, the better) were enervated and a bit too precious for their owngood. Schultz recognized that something different was needed, and in 1984 he considered the potential of mixing animation and live-action.

But Schulz had another matter to address: his daughter Jill Schultz was interested in becoming an actress, but was not getting any traction in launching her career. Her famous father decided that she would be the star of his new production. The celebrated cartoonist tapped his son Monte Schulz to co-write the screenplay, even though the younger man had no previous experience in this medium.

And to make things more interesting, Schulz opted to jettison his beloved primary characters from the “Peanuts” canon and center the production around Spike, a secondary character in the comic strip who was briefly seen in “Snoopy’s Getting Married, Charlie Brown” and in the short-lived Saturday morning series “The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show.”

Okay, so we have a nepotism-fueled project with girl who never acted before and a boy who never wrote a screenplay that is centered on a minor character with no great fan following. Can you guess where this is heading? Sadly, Schulz was blind to the problems in his concept – and, even worse, his efforts were plagued with costly delays that kept the production behind schedule and over budget for a four-year period. Schulz would grouse over the setbacks by stating, “What will that cost me, another four hundred thousand?”

Despite being in the title, Charlie Brown is barely present in the production. The lovable blockhead and Snoopy are briefly seen in the beginning, when Charlie Brown reads a letter to Snoopy from his brother Spike, who lives in the desert outside Needles, California. (The fact that Spike is literate and Snoopy is unable to read is never addressed.) From here, we go out to the desert – not an animated version, but a live-action version, where the animated Spike emerges from a hollowed cactus that he calls home. Spike wears a battered fedora, sports a scraggly mustache and Robert Mitchum eyes, and boasts the most emaciated physique not seen on the American mainland since the liberation of Andersonville.

Spike is mostly happy living alone in the desert, passing the time by playing frisbee by himself or learning French on an old-fashioned tape recorder. A happy distraction is a daily view of a red pick-up truck driven by a perky blonde (Jill Schulz). One day, the truck conveniently breaks down and the blonde driver gets out and asks Spike if he can help fix the vehicle. (Obviously, one always consults stray canines for assistance on defective automobiles.) Somehow, the truck starts working again and Spike joins the girl – she’s Jenny, with no surname – on a ride her home. Spike has not been in a motor vehicle before and winds up getting ridiculously entangled in the seatbelt, which Jenny doesn’t notice.

It turns out that Jenny is an aerobics teacher with a boyfriend named Jeff. He has some sort of entertainment industry job and has managed to get Jenny a movie audition. But Jenny is not happy because Jeff did that without her permission and the audition is on a day when she teaches aerobics. Jeff doesn’t take a fancy to Spike – whether he views Spike as a carnal threat to his grasp on Jenny is not certain.

This odd trio then goes to a roller disco (it was 1988, after all) and Spike somehow gets thrown out of the venue when Jenny spins him around too vigorously. Perhaps realizing that he can be in a better movie than this, Spike leaves and winds up joining a group of derelict animated dogs playing instruments under a bridge. This interlude is interrupted by a bunch of men going on a coyote hunt, and Spike is afraid that he will be shot. (He even holds up a Wile E. Coyote-worthy sign reading “I am not a coyote.”) Jenny and Jeff show up in the nick of time to save him, but Spike decides to leave his human saviors to their own devices and he returns to the serenity of his cactus home.

Director Walter Miller had few fond memories of the production, recalling that he needed to shoot a surplus amount of motionless scenery that would later be used to animate Spike into the picture. “I never shot so much plain brown dirt in my life,” he groused. And, to be cruel, it wasn’t worth it – the mix of live-action and animation was surprisingly primitive, which made the expensive production look shoddy. This was magnified by the unfortunate timing of having “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” released a few months earlier – compared to that masterwork, Schulz’s anemic offering looked as cutting edge as one of Disney’s 1920s Alice shorts.

“It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown” was broadcast on CBS on September 27, 1988, to low ratings; the show was never rebroadcast. Critics complained about the amateur nature of the acting and screenplay, which must have created sore feelings in the Schulz home. (Neither Jill or Monte Schulz went much further in show business.) Schulz never attempted another live-action/animation mix and his next endeavor, “Why Charlie Brown, Why?”, found Charlie Brown and Linus with a classmate who is diagnosed with leukemia. (Schulz had previously dealt with a child suffering from serious illness in “Snoopy Come Home,” and in both cases the child made a full recovery.)

“It’s the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown” didn’t show up in home entertainment channels until a 1996 VHS video release. To date, there has been no DVD or Blu-ray release, nor are there any plans to put it back in circulation. Attempts have been made by Schulz fans over the years to post the production on YouTube, but those efforts were mostly cease-and-desisted; at least one full-length copy from the VHS release escaped notice and remains in an unauthorized online posting. For the most part, this production disappeared into obscurity and did no damage to Schulz’s reputation or the popularity of his “Peanuts” franchise, and it would be best to keep this out of sight and out of mind.

Heads up: The Bootleg Files will be off next week, in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. We will return on November 30.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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