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Comic relief

Grapes may lure visitors to Sonoma County, but there's also 'Peanuts' to enjoy. Get your fill of Charlie and the gang at the Schulz Museum.

September 21, 2008|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

SANTA ROSA, CALIF. — Maybe you came here, to the edge of wine country, for some grown-up fun amid the Cabernets and Chardonnays of Napa Valley. But for dessert, you get the house that Charlie Brown built.

Or rather, the museum Charles M. Schulz built. And the ice rink, the coffee shop, the gift shop, the gardens and the baseball field.

Schulz, the father of the "Peanuts" cartoon strip, lived in Sonoma County for more than 40 years, constructing an empire around the hapless Charlie Brown and the irrepressible Snoopy. Within two years of the artist's death in 2000, the Schulz family had put up the Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center here, 56 miles northwest of San Francisco. It gets about 60,000 visitors a year.

If you're one of those people who knows that Snoopy's brother Spike lives in Needles or you can identify the African American kid in the "Peanuts" gang (Franklin, introduced in 1968), this will be a sort of inky nirvana for you. And even if you're not usually a comic-strip consumer, you may want to look in, now that we grow closer to the season of the Great Pumpkin. When a guy draws a comic a day for nearly 50 years -- 17,897 strips in all, every line traced by Schulz himself -- you can't help but wonder what made him tick.

Current exhibitions cover "Peanuts" and politics, baseball as allegory and the whole Lucy-Schroeder-Beethoven love triangle. One wall of the 27,000-square-foot museum is covered with ceramic tiles bearing 3,588 comic strips, which together make a black-and-white mural. The artist's studio, desk and bookshelves are preserved in a room, and a place of honor is reserved for a wrapped-up Snoopy doghouse -- a gift to Schulz from his longtime friend Christo.

Many exhibitions also look more broadly at cartoons in American culture or American culture in cartoons. During my visit in May, one area was filled with "The Language of Lines: How Cartoonists Communicate," featuring original works from Garry ("Doonesbury") Trudeau, Walt ("Pogo") Kelly, Bill ("Calvin and Hobbes") Watterson, Mort ("Beetle Bailey") Walker and Berkeley ("Bloom County") Breathed (who will appear at the museum Oct. 18).

The museum also stages classes for kids -- fundamentals of art, basics of animation, the science of "Peanuts," making movies with Lego pieces, you name it. In the garden just outside the front door, there's a Snoopy labyrinth.

What you may not find at the museum, however, is a copy of "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography," by David Michaelis, a 2007 book that portrayed Schulz as a depressed, removed, compulsively productive figure who channeled his frustrations into art. Schulz family members have criticized the book as an unfairly dark rendering of the man, but in a Wall Street Journal review, Watterson found it "perceptive and compelling."

To catch your own further glimpse of the artist, cross the street to the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, which Schulz built as a gift to the community in 1969. (He later donated the baseball field behind the museum as well.)

Schulz was raised mostly in St. Paul, Minn., with a couple of years in Needles. (Aha!) He was the only child of a barber and a homemaker, and very shy. He went on to marry twice and have five children.

In the late 1950s, Schulz moved his family from the frozen north to Sonoma County. Schulz's last daily Peanuts strip ran on Jan. 3, 2000. On Feb. 12 of that year, at age 77, he died in his sleep. On the day after his death, the last original Sunday "Peanuts" strip was published.

In Sonoma, grab a bite at the cartoonist's favorite diner, the Warm Puppy; the priciest dish is $8.50 and you can check out Schulz's chosen table (they keep it empty) or watch the good people of Santa Rosa gliding on the ice. But you're not quite done with the "Peanuts" experience yet. Continue past the ice rink and you will find the two-story Snoopy's Gallery and Gift Shop. Here you can be reminded of Schulz's spectacular commercial success. Also, if you wish, you can lay down $3,950 for a signed, framed, limited-edition print. Or outfit your kid with a hockey stick.

You can take the cartoonist out of the frozen north. But taking the frozen north out of the cartoonist -- that never happened.

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chris.reynolds@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

SCHULZ MUSEUM

2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa, Calif.

(707) 579-4452

www.schulzmuseum.org

Fall, winter and spring hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Tuesday.

Summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day): Museum also open on Tuesdays, with same hours as the rest of the week.

Price: Adult admission is $8; children ages 4 to 17, $5.

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