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Clark Gesner, 64; Wrote 'Charlie Brown' Musical

July 29, 2002|From a Times Staff Writer

Lyricist and composer Clark Gesner, who created the enduring musical "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," has died. He was 64.

Gesner died Tuesday, apparently of a heart attack, while visiting the Princeton Club in downtown New York.

The musical, which is little more than a series of vignettes celebrating the big-hearted gang from the "Peanuts" cartoon strip, was an immediate hit when it opened at a theater in Greenwich Village in 1967.

It ran for nearly 1,600 performances there and fostered several national tours. It became a staple of high school, college and little theater groups across the country.

Born in Augusta, Maine, Gesner attended Princeton University and was active in the Triangle Club, the university's theater group. After graduation, he served in a special services unit in the U.S. Army.

After his discharge, Gesner found work in New York City as a writer and composer for the "Captain Kangaroo" and "Mister Mayor" television programs. He later wrote for "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company."

While working on "Captain Kangaroo," Gesner started writing songs inspired by the "Peanuts" strip, a personal favorite.

"It was just a little private project--me and the songs and the strip," Gesner told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in an interview in 2000. He initially saw the songs being collected on a record album. But he ran into a roadblock dealing with United Features, which was syndicating the strip for its creator, Charles M. Schulz.

But after Gesner sent Schulz a tape containing several of the songs, the cartoonist gave his approval for the project. Within a year, Gesner's songs came out on an album, with performances by Orson Bean as Charlie Brown and Gesner himself as Linus.

Several months later, the play opened at Theater 80, a 179-seat converted nightclub in the East Village. The 14-song show featured Gary Burghoff--who would later achieve success as Radar O'Reilly on "MASH"--as Charlie Brown and Bob Balaban as Linus. An immediate hit, the show ran there for four years.

From there it went to Broadway, where it was far less successful, closing in less than a month. A revival in the late 1990s did better, lasting 149 performances.

His next stage effort, "The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall," a musical about an English girls school, failed miserably and lasted just one night on Broadway in 1979. The musical comedy was first produced at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Barbara in the mid-1970s.

Gesner, a longtime resident of Brooklyn, made a comfortable living from various "Charlie Brown" productions. He also served as a graduate trustee of Princeton's Triangle Club, and spent his summers acting at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont.

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