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