When you think of the highest earning dead celebrities, names like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and more recently Michael Jackson, are probably the first to come to mind. What about Charlie Brown cartoonist Charles Schulz? As strange as it may seem, even 13 years after his death, the "Peanuts" creator is consistently one of the highest earning dead celebrities. In a typical year, his heirs have been known to earn more in royalties than the heirs of John Lennon, Jimmi Hendrix and Elizabeth Taylor combined. And if that's not crazy enough, Charles himself is believed to have earned over $1 billion personally during the comic strip's unprecedented 50 year run. Not exactly Peanuts! The story of how Schulz turned a simple cartoon into a billion dollar empire is amazing.
Charles Monroe Schulz was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 26, 1922. Just like Charlie Brown, Charles Schulz's father was a barber and his mother was a housewife. Even as a kindergartner, a five year old Schulz already knew he wanted to be a cartoonist. He practiced by drawing Popeye and by high school was submitting his own original creations to the school paper and local magazines, without much success. Unfortunately he may have focused too much on drawing and not enough on studying because he ended up flunking most of his classes. After high school he took a correspondence course in art before being drafted for World War II. Schulz spent two years fighting in Europe with the 20th Armored Division, eventually rising to the rank of staff sergeant. After the war he held a series of odd jobs that paid the bills while he focused on his true passion.
In 1949, Charles created a cartoon called "Li'l Folks" for his local paper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Eventually his cartoons caught the eye of someone at a newspaper syndication company called United Feature Syndicate (UFS). UFS offered to syndicate Schulz's comics to their national network of newspapers, but only if he agree to change the name to "Peanuts" because "Li'l Folks" sounded too similar to a strip they were already syndicating. Schulz HATED the name, but this was not the kind of opportunity a young cartoonist rejected. Much later in life, Schulz admitted he still did not like the name "Peanuts".
The very first "Peanuts" cartoon was published on October 2, 1950, a month after Charles Schulz turned 28 years old. In its first year of syndication, just seven national papers agreed to run the cartoon. Sigh. The next year, syndication picked up a bit and Schulz managed to earn $90 a week in royalties, which is equal to around $900 a week in today's dollars ($47,000 per year). By 1953, Peanuts was a hit across the country and Charles Schulz was earning 30,000 per the year, equal to $290,000 today.
Pretty soon, the popularity of Peanuts grew at a furious pace around the globe, At its peak, the comic was syndicated to over 2600 newspapers in 71 countries and 21 languages EVERY DAY! He was soon earning the equivalent to millions of dollars per year off newspaper royalties alone. Outside of newspaper syndication, Peanuts was generating a fortune from merchandise sales and endorsements. By the early 1980s, Schulz was earning $30 million per year in royalties (equal to $65 million today). That was enough to make him the highest paid celebrity in the world by a long shot, a crown he wore for many years to come. Schulz earned approximately $40 million every year between 1990 and his death in 2000. According to his New York Times obituary, Schulz personally earned more than $1 billion off royalties, merchandise, television and product endorsements between 1950 and 2000. Today, the Peanuts brand generates an estimated $2 billion in revenue every year.
Charles Schulz died on February 12, 2000. Fittingly, the very next day, his final Peanuts comic ran in newspapers around the world. During the 50 year run of Peanuts, Schulz had taken just one five-week vacation to celebrate his 75th birthday in 1997. Other than those five weeks, Schulz wrote and drew every single comic personally, even after he began suffering from a persistent tremor in his dominant hand. In his will, Schulz stipulated that no new Peanuts strips ever be drawn by another cartoonist and so far that request has been honored. And his heirs should honor that request for many years to come, especially considering that even a decade after Charles Schulz's death, they still earn $25-$30 million per year in royalties! Good grief.