Saturday, June 28, 2014

“Peanuts” interview: Hilary Momberger (Sally in Thanksgiving)

Introduction to the Peanuts interview series (including the list of interviewees).

How old were you when you portrayed Sally in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving?

I was nearly 10 years old at the time—it was recorded in late 1972 and it aired in 1973.

Where were you living at the time?

I was living in Southern California in the San Fernando Valley in a town called Tarzana.

Were you a Peanuts fan?

After I saw the first show…who wouldn’t become a fan? Just watching the show made you feel like part of the gang. It was about being a kid and life from a smaller person point of view—I identified.

Had you seen any of the previous animated
Peanuts specials?

Yes, the Christmas special. I remember clearly how excited my brothers and sisters and I were when it aired…not so much for the [particular] show as much as being able to watch cartoons at night.

How were you hired?

I was a hired in the Lee Mendelson studio on Sunset Boulevard. I was nearly 6 years old and it was my very first audition. It was so exciting. My mother tried her best to prep me for the audition. I couldn’t read well yet, so on our way to Hollywood my mother and I rehearsed the answers she thought I may be asked over and over. She’d snap her fingers in frustration, making sure I focused, insisting I look her in the eye and speak clearly. As she stressed the importance of being perfect, my mind wandered in a daydream about my pony Chocolate and I riding into Mulholland or we could stop at Carl’s Jr. on Ventura Boulevard on the way home.

We were greeted by a young woman at the front desk. My mother was told that I would be meeting them on my own. I was clenching with excitement the receptionist’s hand as she led me down the black foam padded hallway; I repeated in my mind each answer I had memorized in the car. She opened the last door at the end of the hall and ushered me inside. Sitting in a swizzle chair with a friendly smile was Bill Melendez.

It was nothing as I imagined—there were no lines to say or any of the questions my mother prepped me for. I didn’t have to act or be anyone but Hilary. He asked me questions about being in school, what classes I like best, [about] recess, about my sisters and brothers, what kind of candy I liked best. He was funny and animated. When we were finished he gave me a soda and said “It was a pleasure to meet you.” I thought “That was fun.” A few days later my mom got the call that I was going to be the next Sally.

What other shows had you appeared in?

The first
Peanuts show I worked on was It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, which was recorded in 1968 and aired 1969. In 1971, we did Play It Again, Charlie Brown; in 1972, Snoopy, Come Home (which was so much fun) and You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown. In 1973 came There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown and finally, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

Any funny stories from the experience?

I would have to say the first time that I met Bill Melendez—I loved seeing him. He was quirky, fun, and light-hearted, with a slight Latin accent. He had the greatest Salvador Dali mustache that he’d allow me to twist when we recorded. In my eyes, he was a cartoon character. He made the experience feel more like play than work…and he gave me as much candy as I wanted. It was a win-win situation.

Was anything hard about the process?

There was actually nothing difficult or taxing about the process. I always looked forward to going and seeing everyone at the studio. It was a very relaxed, playful environment and remains one of the most memorable jobs of my life…so far.

Did you record in the same room at the same time as the other actors?

Unfortunately we didn’t. The only time I recall working as a team was once when we all sang together. Normally we were worked with individually. I think that keeping us separate assured our characters’ individuality, and it was a smart decision on the part of Bill Melendez and Charles Schulz.

If you got to meet Charles Schulz, how was that?

I did and I will never forget it. I was so young that I didn’t know I was supposed to be impressed; I was just happy to meet a new friend to giggle with. Now my mother on the other hand was really excited.

He was a very gentle, soft-spoken, and kind man who could instantly make anyone feel at home. He would ask me lots questions about what I liked to do, my relationship with my siblings, and what games I liked to play. He asked questions in a way that compelled you to open up and tell him more. It was magnificent and a bit indulgent. He had a way of making me feel at ease and a knack for getting me to focus…which was a bit impossible at my age.

I didn’t have to perform, I didn’t have to dance, or sing, or memorize anything like I had expected. I just had to be a kid. So I giggled and laughed a lot. He didn’t require me to be Sally, he to simply required me to be Hilary.

What did you think of the finished show?

It was kind of odd to hear myself as Sally. I was secretly excited and thrilled, but I come from a really large family that liked to tease, and me being a public cartoon character was excellent sibling torture material. In retrospect I can laugh at the banter and appreciate it as an element that cemented our still very-close relationship. Kids at school referred to me as Sally Brown and teased me a lot, too, which toughened me up for my teenage years. I learned to laugh at myself and became really good at dodging verbal bullets.

What did your parents think?

My father didn’t care either way; he was just proud I was just his little girl. My mother on the other hand, she was over the moon—she was more proud of getting me there than I was of being there.

What did your friends think?

The greatest thing about real friends is that they care more about who you are than about what you’ve done. They saw and heard me on television and thought it was cool, but thankfully it wasn’t the reason they loved me.

What were you paid?

I’m sure I was, yet I don’t have a clue how much. Unfortunately I was one of those kids who never saw the money. What I do have are the amazing memories and a gratitude for being a part of a slice of history. That’s priceless.

Peanuts special you worked on is your favorite, and why?

My favorite was Snoopy, Come Home, not only because it was fun to work on but because it was so big—not TV big but motion picture big. There was a real premiere at a real movie theater in Hollywood with a real red carpet and I got to dress up! To this day, out of all the premieres I’ve attended, nothing will ever hold a candle to that event. It was the most memorable and the most surreal.

Did you or your family stay in touch with anyone else from the cast?

We never met as children. Kinda crazy. Occasionally, as I was entering or leaving the studio, I’d see children file in and out; [we would glance] with wonder at one another but never connect. Fortunately, I met a few of the cast members at Comic-Con a few years back [2008] which was a privilege and a thrill. It was like a family reunion of long-lost siblings. We all swapped fond memories and joked about our shared experiences. It was such a warm feeling to finally connect with them in person.

Have you had any fun
Peanuts moments since (a reaction when someone you meet discovers you had a role in it, Halloween costume, etc.)?

As a kid, I really didn’t want to be treated differently. I was pretty shy about being the voice of Sally. Even though most kids in school knew that I was, I didn’t talk about it because I wanted to be like for being Hilary.

I work in the entertainment industry and have for nearly my whole life, and it’s common for people we work with to look each other up on IMDb, so at some point conversation inevitably segues to me having played Sally. They normally ask me to repeat my favorite line from a
Peanuts show. After I say “You blockhead, Charlie Brown,” the [response] is normally the same thing: “Is that the same voice you used?” I’m pretty proud and I embrace how fortunate I’ve been. It’s like people find out I was Sally and our relationship shift from stranger to being a childhood friend.

Did you do any non-
Peanuts voice work/acting after this?

I worked nonstop until I was about 12. I did nearly 40 commercials on camera, modeled for a few clothing catalogs, voiced a character in White Christmas for Hanna-Barbera, and was lucky to be the voices for a few Mattel dolls: Tiny Tears, Hi-Dotti, and Baby Beans. I was even Buddy Greco’s favorite Valentine for two seasons in a row. I had a great run.

I’ve recently re-entered the industry as an on-camera commercial actress and am pursuing voiceover work too. I’ve tried to keep the same attitude I had when I was a kid: enjoy meeting new people and have fun, which seems to be working.

Tell me more about what you are doing these days.

When I was a young adult I shied away from the industry. I wanted to cultivate the fond memories and separate myself from the painful ones. I went to nursing school, worked as an LVN and a drug rehab counselor, then realized that the arts was when my heart lay.

So I got a degree in graphic art and worked as an artist in a company that made movie advertisements. Long story short, I gravitated back into the industry, took a class for script supervising, and it’s history from there. I have been a script supervisor for feature films, television, and commercials for the last 24 years. I’ve had the good fortune to work on projects like The West Wing, Being John Malkovich, and Fast & Furious 7. It’s been a lot of fun! I love that being behind and in front of the camera are both home to me.

I also write as a hobby and as a very personal form of expression. I’ve recently completed my manuscript
Peanuts to Percocets: Story of a Hollywood Childhood. I’m hoping that the next chapter of my life can be to be an inspiration to young girls and women.

What has been your career highlight so far?

I’ve had an amazing career. Exciting, successful, joyful, sad, painful, interesting, and most certainly colorful. Being given the opportunity of being a world-known cartoon character on
Peanuts…honestly that pretty much tops it. ;)

It definitely opened up eyes to a world in which I can do anything that I make my mind up to do by just being myself. It allowed me to grow up in a culture permeated by imagination, guiding me to see that every day is an opportunity to live any way I want. I learned early that work can be fun even though it is work. And today I bring that same attitude into every job regardless of what it looks like or where it appears to be going. I believe anything is possible and if I think it will change, it usually does.

Where do you live?

I live in Los Angeles. I moved out of state a couple times in my 20s, but I couldn’t stay away! I love California.

If you’re married, what was your future husband’s reaction when he learned you were part of this cultural institution?

I am not married at the moment, but when my boyfriends find out that I was Sally Brown they usually comment that they can “see the resemblance.” If I get sassy or out of line, I blame it on Sally…great “get out of jail” card.

Kids? If so, what do they think of your
Peanuts connection?

I haven’t had any children. My nieces and nephew love it and brag up a storm. They’re proud of their Aunt Hilary. :D

You have one of the most curious last names of anyone I’ve interviewed. What’s the origin of it?

It’s German. A last name that warrants teasing. I’m open to changing it. ;)

What did you think when you first heard from me?

I recently decided to circulate my memoir again in the hopes of getting it published, and a couple days later, your email arrived. I call that not just flattering, but serendipity.

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

I’ve been interviewed for small papers and radio shows yet this interview is stellar. Thank you, Marc.

My pleasure! Do you still have any ongoing connection (professionally or personally) to

I don’t, but occasionally people will ask for an autograph and I joyfully sign away.

Have you appeared at any fan conventions to sign autographs? If not, would you?

I attended the San Diego Comic-Con few years back with a few other characters [
Peanuts voice actors]. It was so exciting and fun. We answered questions at a panel and signed autographs. I was pleasantly surprised what an impact the Peanuts comics and movies had on people, and still have today. It’s pretty wonderful to be a slice of history.

How do you look back on the experience?

I feel pretty lucky and grateful to be a part of such American history.

Anything you’d like to add?

I hope to publish my memoir
Peanuts to Percocets. It’s a about being a Sally, being a childhood star, and about my journey of reinventing and moving forward, finding happiness regardless of what you do or where you’re from. I had it, lost it, and my character is still standing. I hope to inspire and add to the world in a fiction to a nonfiction way. [In other words], throughout the book, I have a number of Charlie Brown quotes that coincidentally describe feelings and thoughts through my life: “[from] fiction (cartoon) to non-fiction (life).”

Next: Christopher deFaria—Peppermint Patty (Thanksgiving).

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