Animation: The History of the Chipmunks

Alvin Show

I got my start in animation at Bagdasarian Productions producing the NBC Saturday morning Chipmunks series, so I’ve always been interested in the history of the Chipmunks. It’s a real-life rags to riches story.

David Seville

Ross Bagdasarian Sr. (who went by the stage name "David Seville") was an actor who appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and on Broadway in William Saroyan’s Time of Your Life. He wrote novelty dialect songs, including Rosemary Clooney’s huge hit "Come On-A My House", and released a few records but his successes never seemed to result in very much money in his pocket. He bought a tape recorder with his last $200 and played around with shifting the speeds, coming up with a novelty song titled "Witch Doctor". He got the single released and two weeks later, he found himself appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show performing the song.

Chipmunk SongChipmunk SongThe success of "Witch Doctor" gave him the idea of creating characters with sped up voices, so he quickly knocked out a Christmas demo titled "The Chipmunk Song" and took it to record executives Simon "Sy" Waronker, Theodore "Ted" Keep and Alvin "Al" Bennett at Liberty Records. The label was close to bankruptcy, but Bagdasarian convinced them that they might as well press Chipmunk singles with the leftover vinyl pucks and labels in their warehouse rather than just turn the unused stock over to the bank when the business went under. Production commenced and in just a few months leading up to Christmas of 1958, the record shot to the top of the charts, becoming one of the best selling singles of all time. Bagdasarian won two Grammy Awards, Liberty Records was saved from bankruptcy, and the Chipmunks became a household name with children all over the world.

Chipmunk LP

In 1962, the string of successful Chipmunk LP records led to a television series produced by Format Films. Story man Leo Salkin was the Associate Producer, working closely with Bagdasarian and a team of story artists to sketch up animated adaptations of the record routines and new stories featuring the characters. In his youth, Bagdasarian would take road trips across country with his cousin William Saroyan, singing songs and coming up with wild stories the whole way. One eccentric character they came up with on one of these trips was Clyde Crashcup, an inventor who only invented things that had already been invented. Salkin expanded on the premise and created a regular feature for it on the show.

Record Cover

Ross Bagdasarian Sr. sat alongside Music Director Johnny Mann on the piano bench humming out tunes for Mann to pick out on the piano and write down as musical notation. Jules Engel was the Art Director for the series, creating simple stylized backgrounds that set the tone for the whole series. Alan Zaslove, Gil Turner, Rudy Larriva and Osmond Evans directed the series, substituting clever rhythmic timing and spirited poses for inbetweens and smooth animation.

Jules Engel The Alvin Show

Even though it only ran for one season, The Alvin Show was one of the best television cartoons of the era. It was unique because it didn’t rely on the crutch of dialogue to make up for the limited animation. Instead, the show was built around music, clever timing and design. Like UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing Show, many of the musical segments featured abstract animation and modern background paintings. But unlike the Gerald McBoing Boing Show, The Alvin Show always remained entertaining and fun- never didactic or self important. The voice cast included Bagdasarian as David Seville and the Chipmunks and Shepherd Menken as Clyde Crashcup. along with June Foray, Don Messick and Joe Besser as incidental characters.

Alvin Show

Ross Bagdasarian Sr. retired the Chipmunks in 1969, but by then he was a very wealthy man with a booming grape growing business. At one point, Bagdasarian’s fields were the largest supplier of grapes to Gallo Wines. He passed away from a heart attack in 1972. His son, Ross Jr. took over the franchise in 1980, creating more records- including the album "Chipmunk Punk", an NBC television series, prime time specials, and an animated feature- The Chipmunk Adventure. The character designs have varied widely over the years. The current CGI models look similar to the first incarnation of the characters, which appeared on record covers in 1958 and 1959. This Christmas, Fox will be releasing a new Chipmunks movie, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

"Are you all ready, Chipmunks?" "OOOOOoooooKAYYY!"

ALVIN SHOW PRESSBOOK

Alvin Show
Alvin Show
Alvin Show
Simon may have read the dictionary,
but he still can’t spell "incidentally" correctly!

Alvin Show
Alvin Show
Alvin Show
Alvin Show
Alvin Show

ALVIN SHOW GREETING CARDS

Alvin Show
Alvin Show
Alvin Show

Stephen Worth
Director
Animation Resources

Animated CartoonsAnimated Cartoons

This posting is part of the online Encyclopedia of Cartooning under the subject heading, Animation.

21 Responses to “Animation: The History of the Chipmunks”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi, I'm not an expert on animation, but I was a big 7 year old fan of the ALVIN SHOW! Thanks for the background and photos, Art

  2. Kip W says:

    Back around 1970, my best friend had a book based on "The Chipmunk Song." It clearly came out before the character designs had been conceived, because the characters had no resemblance to the TV crew at all.

    I still have one or two of those singles (one of them backed with "Maria from Madrid," a non-Chipmunk tune by Seville) that we bought new. I have to say, though, that my favorite version of Witch Doctor is a truly psychotic-sounding version from Mexico, which I think is still available on a music blog called "Mexicovers" as part of an album.

    If they do a DVD, I hope it will include the ads they did. "We made Jell-O with Alvin in it!"

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi! Great post!

    My mentor in college was an animation instructor named Ruben Apodaca. He would show us some old school draawing of when he worked on the show and I was curious if he had a hand in the design process. He'd always joke around that the A stood for Apodaca LOL. Any info be appreciated.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I remember having those CHipmunks cards in the photos…

  5. Movietime says:

    What a wonderful tribute to one of my favorite tv

    cartoon shows.

    I grew up watching the antics of"Alvin",his brothers and "Mr.David Seville" and laughing at the way the three boys.As they did everything imagable to louse
    up poor "Mr.Seville".

    I also enjoyed the inventions that "Prof.Crashcup"tried to create,even though they didn't always work..or they were already in use.

    I miss this type of entertainment..I'm also sorry that I never got to meet Mr.Bagdasarin,Sr…when he was alive.

    His son tries to recreate the success of the original? But..No one will ever top"The First Alvin Show".

    Kevin S.Butler.

  6. BrettJ says:

    Alvin and his pals were one of the first cartoons I have HAPPY, WONDERFUL memories of and I watched the first-run episodes. Here in Canada, they aired on one Channel's noontime cartoon show (*sigh – miss those days*) for years. Never could get used to the PC, sanitized cutesy version. I always liked the edge and fun of the earlier version.

  7. Cristian says:

    I think I am beginning to see the beginning to the end of my childhood fialiacies . Please welcome all of those takers to the new end of the line.

  8. Steve says:

    I still have three of the Chipmunk albums and occasionally play them. They were my favorites when I was a kid.

  9. Zaphod says:

    So who were the real singers whose voices were used to create the songs that were speeded up into "Chipmunk" voices?

  10. Zaphod says:

    So who were the real singers — you know, the ones whose voices were sped up to create the "Chipmunk" voices?

  11. bigguy1960 says:

    Who owns the rights to the original Alvin Show? I have waited for years for it to come out on DVD, or even VHS! There were some of the original song sequences available in the Disney 'Sing Alongs' back in the 90's, I have shortened episodes taped from Nickelodeon (one song was cut from each episode to make room for more commercials), and there is a current DVD available with ONE original episode and two of the modern cutsie-poo specials. What's holding up a full release?

  12. Stephen Worth says:

    Ross Bagdasarian Sr did the singing for the Chipmunks.

  13. Anonymous says:

    thank you for honoring Ross. This series is truly amazing.

  14. Andy 7 says:

    The very first album I ever bought was "The Chipmunks Play The Beatles", and of course David Seville yells at Alvin during "Twist and Shout". Great record!

    Ralph Bakshi did a terrific parody of Alvin and The Chipmunks ("The Tree Weasels") on the 1990's Mighty Mouse Show.

  15. Samantha Blain says:

    I want to respond to the Anonymous person asking about Ruben Apodaca. I have on good authority that YES the "A" on Alvin's sweater DID INDEED stand for Apodaca as a way of Mr. Apodaca "making his mark". Back then the animators were commissioned for their work and recieve little to NO rights to their work. So, the "A" does NOT stand for Alvin… it stands for APODACA. There is even an episode of I think Insider Edition where he even states the fact on national television during an interview. There is a copy that tape belonging to Ruben's son.

  16. Stephen Worth says:

    I'm afraid that the "A" on Alvin's jersey predates Ruben Apodaca's involvement. If you look in the article above, the very first Chipmunk single depicts the Chipmunks with letters on their pajamas to identify them. This single was released several years before the Chipmunks were animated. By the time the TV show began, the letter A had already been established as part of Alvin's costume.

  17. Stephen Worth says:

    I'm afraid that the "A" on Alvin's jersey predates Ruben Apodaca's involvement. If you look in the article above, the very first Chipmunk single depicts the Chipmunks with letters on their pajamas to identify them. This single was released several years before the Chipmunks were animated. By the time the TV show began, the letter A had already been established as part of Alvin's costume.

  18. [...] Engel, used to work at Format Films, the studio that produced the original television version of Alvin and the Chipmunks. I remember that when I first learned this, I was somewhat shocked and disillusioned. How could [...]

  19. bob kurtz says:

    the A on alvin was leo salkin idea. i did the design of the chipmunks. russ liked my characters on the storyboards. i also was a writer on the show. i shared a room with t.hee,cal howard and dick shaw. it was a crazy time!

  20. Ramona Apodaca Kelley says:

    Just to clear the air about the ‘A’ for Apodaca or Alvin. Yes the A predates my father’s, Ruben Apodaca, involvement as an animator at Format working on the production. He knew Ross would choose his Alvin character design for the large ‘A’ and bold color, among the other designs submitted by Format artists. Plus Ruben designed Alvin to look like the smart Alec kid that the voice portrayed, not the cute, furry animal. My father knew he’d never make a cent in royalties or anything else. His way of putting his mark on his design was making the existing ‘A’ big and bold on Alvin’s long shirt. He knew Ross would choose his character over all the others and he was right.

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