In May of 1999, Cindy and I took a trip from L.A. to San Francisco via the Pacific Coast Highway and continued up north into the wine country of the Sonoma Valley. We didn't really have a plan, other than when the sun started to go down, we needed to look for a hotel.
We stopped off in Santa Rosa, CA to check out the local tourist information booth to see if they had any info on wineries, hotels and restaurants in the Sonoma Valley. The Santa Rosa Visitors Center was located in the downtown area in what was the old train station. It was pretty cool, actually. They did have some information that we were looking for and we were getting ready to leave.
Suddenly, I turned and saw a bunch of "Peanuts" memorabilia. Something just clicked in my head. I turned to the lady and I said, "Is this where Charles M. Schulz is from?"
She said, "Why yes. Actually, he has a museum here that's next to the hockey rink he built for the city of Santa Rosa a few years ago. There's a little coffee shop in the hockey rink and..." She glanced up at the clock - it was a quarter to 4 in the afternoon. "...he's probably in the coffee shop right now. He always goes up and has a cup of tea and a cup of soup about this time every day."
She gave us directions to the Charles Schulz Museum so we went over. We parked in the parking lot to the west of the Redwood Empire Ice Arena and walked over toward the museum. We saw the Warm Puppy Cafe and, sure enough, sitting inside by himself was Charles M. Schulz. Cindy said, "Will, that's him right there!"
So we went in and he was sitting there at a table by the window, having a cup of minestrone soup and a cup of tea, just like the lady said he'd be doing. We were reluctant to walk up to him right away, so we took a look around the ice arena. It looked like a big Austrian chalet. Lots of dark walnut paneling. It probably sat 1500 to 2000 people in the rink. As far as hockey rinks go, it was actually pretty neat in there. There were kids just skating around, some kids were passing a hockey puck back and forth, and a couple girls were working on figure skating.
We looked back at Chalres Schulz and he had finished his soup and was just sitting there. Finally, Cindy said, "This is ridiculous. Let's go talk to him."
So we went over and I said, "Mr. Schulz? Hi, my name is Will and this is my wife, Cindy. We're from Davenport, Iowa, and I just have to say that I literally grew up with Peanuts."
He kind of gave us a pained look. He said, "Davenport, IOWA!? What are you doing out here?"
I explained that we were going to explore wine country and we just happened to stop in to Santa Rosa and found that this was here. I said, "Actually, I thought you lived in Petaluma."
He gave me another pained look and sort of said with disdain, "No, where did you get that? I don't live in Petaluma." And he said that with kind of a sarcastic tone - sort of like you'd say, "No, I don't live in East St. Louis."
We kind of made small talk with him and finally Cindy said, "You don't like this when tourists come up and bug you, do you?"
He sort of stopped and probably realized that he was being kind of a jerk to a couple of long-time fans who were just trying to be nice. He said, "You know, you folks aren't that bad. But imagine the scene in here when a busload of Japanese tourists came here. At 7:30 in the morning. And they all wanted Snoopy drawn on a napkin. That's when it gets to be a little too much."
We thanked him for his time and for the years of enjoyment he'd given us. And we went over to the museum.
The museum was really cool, too. Lots of historic photos, line art, Peanuts memorabilia, and knick knacks lying around the place. They also had a hockey shop in the place, selling hockey gear. It sort of looked out of place.
Cindy picked up a book in the gift shop and said, "I'm going to take this back and have him sign the book for Eric (her son)."
I said, "Cindy, leave the man alone. We've bugged him enough."
Cindy said, "Will, we've come this far, the worst that could happen would be if he said no."
So we go back into the Warm Puppy and by the time we'd left to go to the museum he was now joined by a table full of middle-aged guys sitting around and talking about the hockey league they were in. We heard them talking about the "Red Barons" and the "Ice Monkeys". It was kind of funny.
Once again, I was reluctant to bother him, but we saw that he was just sort of sitting there and listening, not really taking part in the conversation. So, finally Cindy went over and handed him the book with a pen and asked him if he'd sign the book for her son.
He took the book, opened up the front cover and began to write. He stopped and said, "What's your son's name?"
Cindy said, "Eric."
He said, "Is that with a 'c' or a 'k'?"
Cindy told him with a 'c'. And in a very awkward fashion, he began to write, "To Eric, Charles M. Schulz." It was somewhat similar to his signature in his comic strips, but his hand was shaking so much that the signature was somewhat squiggly.
He handed the book back to Cindy and she said, "Thank you."
He said, "Thank you for coming, folks." And we left.
Cindy had tears in her eyes going out to the parking lot. She said, "I just can't believe that we just met Charles Schulz."
Turned out that later in the year, he retired because he was suffering from cancer. He died about nine months after we met him.
Given the horrible time he had writing out the inscription in Eric's book, I would have bet the family farm that he didn't do his comic strips any longer. But in a 60 Minutes piece on him not long after he died, they said that he did his comic strip everyday - with no outside help. But, you know, I got to looking at the strips in the late 90's versus the ones he was doing in the 70's and they were much more crude looking in the 90's than they were in the 70's.
Looking back, I can kind of understand why he was a little surly as he really guarded his privacy in real life. And, the fact that he was probably in the initial throes of cancer taking over his body when we were there. Still, Cindy and I think it was pretty neat to be able to meet him.