SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- Sparky said he would end "Peanuts" when he finally wore a hole in the drawing board he used for 50 years. Sadly, that day never came.
The famous piece of hardwood now resides in a re-creation of his working studio at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, which kicked off its yearlong fifth-anniversary celebration the week before last. Schulz's old drawing table stands at a permanent tilt in front of his favorite leather swivel chair.
"Peanuts" fans who never set foot in his longtime studio down the road at One Snoopy Place can linger here and imagine. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Pigpen, Peppermint Patty, Woodstock and the smartest beagle ever, Snoopy, came to life on this table, born out of the mind of a shy, funny, bespectacled man known since age 2 as "Sparky."
Here, too, are old studio wall paneling and draperies, along with some of Schulz's favorite books and knickknacks. A 1963 documentary with rare footage of him drawing "Peanuts" characters plays in a continuous loop on a small TV set.
Shulz's widow, Jeannie, was surprised when the museum's staff proposed celebrating the anniversary. Her husband won his first Reuben Award, the top honor given by the National Cartoonists Society, in 1955, five years into the five-decade run of "Peanuts."
"That was pretty amazing and a great vote of confidence for the comic strip," she says, "but he had to keep working at it, to keep ahead of the competition. So I'm like Sparky: When the museum is 50 years old, we'll consider it a success."
Schulz died at age 77 on Feb. 12, 2000, the day before the last original "Peanuts" appeared in Sunday newspapers. A fresh "Peanuts" had been in the funny pages every day since Oct. 2, 1950, and those closest to Schulz believed he simply couldn't bear to see it all end.
He was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 1999 and announced his retirement a few weeks later. He had drawn enough dailies (Mondays-Saturdays) to run through Jan. 3, 2000. On Jan. 4, strips pulled from the "Peanuts" archives - which number 18,000 Sundays and dailies - started running in 2,600 subscriber newspapers.
Seven years later, "Classic 'Peanuts'" still appears in 2,400 newspapers worldwide.
"We all continue to see ourselves in the strip, in how we connect to the world and how we relate to other people," says museum director Karen Johnson. "And we see our own hopes, dreams, wishes and fears. 'Peanuts' is decent and it's funny and it's whimsical and it's everlasting, because it's just about being human."
"There are so many themes and expressions and emotions in 'Peanuts' that we can all relate to. It's timeless," says Melissa Menta, an executive with United Media, the licensing and syndication agency for "Peanuts," and a member of the Schulz Museum's board of directors.
The museum's mission from the beginning has been to preserve, display and interpret Schulz's artwork and to support cartooning in general. Since opening on Aug. 17, 2002, a quarter-million visitors have gazed upon and pondered original "Peanuts" strips, and some of them spend a little extra time at Sparky's studio, where his drawing board sits, retired.
The museum is at once classy and whimsical. It's a modern-looking building made of slate, glass and rich-looking woods with more than 6,000 square feet of gallery space and a 2,000-square-foot Great Hall dominated by Japanese artist Yoshiteru Otani's two large "Peanuts"-inspired art installations. One is a layered-wood wall sculpture depicting Snoopy as he morphs from looking like Schulz's childhood pet, Spike, to the beagle he is today. The other is a mammoth mural showing mischievous Lucy holding the football for good ol' Charlie Brown. The surprise is that, on closer inspection, the mural is composed of 3,588 ceramic tiles, each a miniature "Peanuts" strip.