Driving past Rose Tree Park a few weeks ago, I saw the Christmas displays set up for their annual Festival of Lights. Each year it seems that more and more things are added to the display – trees, lights, holiday figures. But my eye is always looking for one figure in particular: Schroeder, the piano playing character from Charles Schulz “Peanuts” comic strip. The other Peanuts characters are there as well – Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Snoopy. But when I first visited the Festival in 1995, while the rest of the Peanuts gang was there, Schroeder was not.
I was newly divorced and had moved to nearby apartments, and was out exploring my new neighborhood with my children, then 8 and 7, when the holiday lights drew us in. The Peanuts figures were at the far end of the walkway, and as we walked down towards them, the music of Vince Guaraldi was playing. He was a jazz composer who came to public prominence in the 1960’s when he composed the music that was the theme of the Peanuts television specials. You may not recognize his name, but most people would instantly recognize the Linus and Lucy theme (click through to hear it at YouTube). You hear that piano music, and you instantly think of the Peanuts characters. We saw them, enjoyed the lights and the music, but I was slightly disappointed. Hearing the piano music, I was expecting the piano player, Schroeder, but he was nowhere to be seen. I have heard somewhere along the way that the initial figures were made and donated by the Williamson Trade School. They made the “A List” of Peanuts characters, but left out were the ones who were less prominent – Schroeder, Sally, Pigpen, Peppermint Patty, pick your favorite.
I am a piano player, and so I guess my nose was out of joint because the piano player had been overlooked. I must have said something to my children, although at this distance – 16 years later – I don’t recall the exact conversation or the timing of all that occurred next. But we decided that we were going to fix the problem by building a version of Schroeder and then bringing him to the Park and donating him. It is the type of project that fathers and their young children talk about – grand plans – but typically do not follow through with. “Why don’t we do this or that some day …” And then it recedes into memory, and at times is lost forever.
But this idea had staying power. We did nothing that Christmas season – but one of us must have remembered the idea the following fall – probably the children – and so we talked about what we would have to do. The children took books out of the school library so that we could see how Schulz draws Schroeder. We copied the pages. The existing characters had been cut out of plywood and then painted. So we bought the plywood; picked out the paint colors that matched; and then came the business end of the project – actually doing it. I am not an artist or a woodworker, and living in an apartment, I had no workshop. I was simply a father who was carried away by his children’s enthusiasm for the project. They were still at that age where they thought I could do everything, and I didn’t want to disappoint them with the truth. Let them wait until they made that discovery as teenagers.
It is said that the Pope asked Michelangelo how he created his David from a block of marble, and Michelangelo replied “I just cut away anything that did not look like David.” Great minds think alike – I used the same system. We laid the plywood down on the ground, I drew the outline of Schroeder, and his piano as best I could, and at the children’s insistence, we added another character, the small bird named Woodstock, dancing on the piano. I had no vise, and so wrestled a hand saw through the outline, as the kids held the wood tight against a table. Woodstock was going to be a pain to cut – and so after considering the problem, I decided not to cut out the actual outline of the small figure, but to leave a square piece on top of the piano and paint him into that square. When we were done, we had a serviceable piece of plywood whose outline looked vaguely like Schroeder at the piano.
The next step – drawing in the articles of clothing and the faces and such. Charles Schulz, bless his soul, used very simply line figures for his characters, and so it was not that difficult to sketch them onto the board. I think I may have primed the board as well, so we drew on a white surface. And then, as Michelangelo suggested, Schroeder and Woodstock and a piano finally began to emerge from the piece of plywood. Over the next several weeks, we painted the figures in, then gave a second and third coat, then painted a clear sealant over the whole project. And like all great artists, we signed our work. On the back we each wrote our names, and “Xmas 1996”. And we were done in time for the opening ceremonies of the Festival of Lights that year.
That night, we put Schroeder in the car, drove to Rose Tree, and there was a huge crowd. We didn’t know quite who to approach about it, so we stood around and watched and waited till the ceremony part was over, and then approached one of the speakers, carrying Schroeder with us. We explained that we wanted to donate Schroeder to the display. He told us to go down to the office and talk to the park director. We did as told, walked in the door, and asked for her. She came out – saw Schroeder – and immediately started beaming. “I always thought we needed the piano player up there.” She was thrilled to accept our gift. We had just the wooden figure, as we were not sure how they were mounted to stand up, and the director assured us that they would take care of this all, and said “come back next week – we’ll have it all done by then”. And they did. The next weekend, we went back to Rose Tree Park, and there he was – playing the piano, while Woodstock danced, and the other characters smiled at us. And he looked good – not amateurish or passable but good. Like he belonged. We were thrilled.
I moved away from Rose Tree the following spring, but each year for the next few years, we would go back to visit and make sure that Schroeder was there, and then check to see our names on the back. It is fun to take in the Festival of Lights each year, but even more so when you have a secret like this – “We made Schroeder!” But children grow up, and move away, and it has been years since we have been back.
Charles Schulz died shortly after these events occurred, in 2000. If you are ever in California’s wine country, there is a wonderful Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. Schulz was born in Minnesota, went into the military, and ended up in California after the war. He missed his Minnesota winters, and so built an ice skating rink in his adopted community, and went there for breakfast each morning. His seat at the rink is memorialized, and the skating rink is still active. His Peanuts figures are not as iconic today as they once were. There are so many other items of popular culture that now compete for attention. And as newspapers fade away, so also do the comics section of the paper. Do children today know that there is a comics section of the newspaper? But for now, and for the generation that grew up with him, Schulz, the artist, is remembered. As are his creations. His kids.
Driving by Rose Tree Park earlier in the month, I saw the lights up, and noticed that the Peanuts kids were no longer set back at the far end of the walkway, but were now front and center near the parking lot. I parked and went over to see them, and found as well that they had been repainted – though they kept our color scheme. But the back had been painted as well. Our names – once prominently displayed on the back for all the world to see – were no longer connected to the figure. While thrilled to see that they had a new lease on life in a new location, I was a bit disappointed that our names were no longer attached to Schroeder. No one would see those names scrawled on the back and wonder who we were and what our story was. I felt the pain that Michelangelo would have felt if someone scratched his name off of David!
But today we have the Internet. We can “inscribe” our name by connecting it to terms that a search engine can find. And so when this article is sent off into cyberspace, Doug Humes, and Elizabeth Humes, and Drew Humes, will once again be linked to Schroeder at Rose Tree Park in Media, Pennsylvania. And that’s the rest of the story!
For more on the Rose Tree Park Festival of Lights, visit here: http://www.co.delaware.pa.us/depts/rosetree.html