Snoopin’ on Snoopy: exploring Santa Rosa, Charles Schulz's hometown

Charlie Brown and Snoopy live on in the new Peanuts movie. And the spirit of the comic strip’s creator, Charles Schulz, survives in a museum in Santa Rosa – exactly the sort of town you’d expect to find these all-American heroes

Charles M Schulz
Charles M Schulz. Photograph: Alamy

The faithful recreation of Charles Schulz’s office, installed in the museum bearing his name at 2301 Hardies Lane, Santa Rosa, California, is enough to make a lump form in your throat. Behind the desk and drawing board on which Schulz created one of the world’s most popular cartoons hang photos of his family. Schulz, unlike some artists, wasn’t driven by power, or sex, or money: he was driven by family. And the desire to make people laugh. Broadcasting legend Alistair Cooke called him, “probably the greatest American humourist since Mark Twain”.

At the side of Schulz’s desk lies a basketball and a TV, two defining objects of modern American culture. He is the face that America perhaps wants to see when it looks in the mirror: friendly, gentle, successful. And that’s why this charming museum continues to attract visitors to the California town where Schulz moved in 1969, and stayed until his death 15 years ago.

His Peanuts comic strip appeared in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, and in 21 languages. Its popularity continues with a new movie released on 21 December, Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie.

Schulz’s desk at the museum, Santa Rosa.
Schulz’s desk at the museum. Photograph: DJ Ashton

The Charles M Schulz Museum isn’t just a simple hand-clapping session: its displays of his original sketches and art inspired by the strips (sculptures of characters and walls of repeated Snoopy motifs) make you ponder more about Linus and Charlie and Lucy and Patty – and that most dashing of dogs, a beagle called Snoopy. Because Peanuts, which began in the 1950s, wasn’t a bread ‘n’ butter comic strip. Schulz zeroed in on the malady of the modern man (and woman).

The unrest and uncertainty which Charlie and Snoopy suffered from was fuel for big laughs. But it also asked Americans to look inside themselves and the society they had created in the era of Nixon, Johnny Carson and Dolly Parton, when Peanuts was at its most popular. Umberto Eco wrote of Peanuts cartoons that “they concentrate in miniature all the neuroses of all the adults everywhere”, and Lucy’s famous stand bearing the waggish advert, “Psychiatric Help – 5c” is wonderfully recreated at the museum in adult size – the perfect postmodern photo opportunity.

Visitors explore some of the original Peanuts comic strips on display in the Charles M Schulz museum, Santa Rosa, US
Visitors explore some of the original Peanuts comic strips on display in the museum. Photograph: Getty Images

A five-minute walk from the museum, along West Steele Lane, brings you to the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, which Schulz owned, and loved to skate at – a hangover from his upbringing in the frostier climes of Minneapolis. The pseudo-Bavarian wood-panelled design of this ice-rink is goofily charming, so is the Warm Puppy Cafe inside, where you can order a Beagle Burger or a Peppermint Patty Hot Chocolate. If you think Santa Rosa is a bit starstruck, you’re right. There are lifesize Peanuts characters all over town and the airport is even named after Schulz – its logo features Snoopy piloting his doghouse … sorry, his Sopwith Camel.

From the ice-rink you can meander east under the 101 overpass, which runs on south to the Golden Gate bridge and, eventually, San Francisco. The highway is an artery lined with motels and gas stations – cookie-cutter California’s one imposition on an otherwise chi chi town. Walk down Mendocino Avenue and you reach Courthouse Square, the city’s centre. Few of the buildings are older than 1906, the year that the Great Earthquake levelled a nascent Santa Rosa.

Snoopy’s Gallery and Gift Shop, Redwood Empire Ice Arena, Santa Rosa
Snoopy’s Gallery and Gift Shop at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena Photograph: DJ Ashton

There are plenty of places to sample Sonoma County’s bounty of wines on the square – like Flavor, a European-style bistro (in the sense of cooking) where you can nibble cheese and sip wines by the glass from nearby vineyards, like a pinot noir from Paul Hobbs’ Crossbarn Winery – just west of the city limits, in Gratton.

Santa Rosa might be forever associated with Snoopy, but it always makes me think of Back To The Future. With its town square, its Empire Building clock tower, its one mall, its quaint air and modern buildings, and its former railway station, it could almost be Hill Valley. That station, incidentally, is currently a museum dedicated to the former Northwestern Pacific Railroad which ran through here. The streets surrounding the so-called Railroad Square teem with antiques stores and boasts the historic Hotel La Rose, a 19-room boutique bolthole that’s been welcoming travellers since 1907.

Hotel La Rosa, Santa Rosa, California, US
Hotel La Rosa. Photograph: Alamy

The railway will rise again next year when it reopens down to San Francisco Bay – no doubt encouraging Silicon Valley’s new money elite to start sniffing around. For the moment, though, Santa Rosa is exactly how you’d expect the home of Charlie Brown to look.

  • 2301 Hardies Lane Santa Rosa, California, Open Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri 11am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-5pm. Admission adults $10, under 18s $5


Christopher Beanland

The GuardianTramp

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