Ross Bagdasarian, in 1956, was a struggling musical artist with only $200 to his name. Taking a gamble, he spent $190 of that on a top-of-the-line V-M tape recorder, one which could change tape speeds, and decided to sit down and write a novelty song that utilized this feature in a way that hadn’t been widely used in songs yet. Glancing at a book he owned titled “Duel with the Witch Doctor,” Bagdasarian wrote the song “Witch Doctor”, about a man who’s hopelessly in love and goes to see a witch doctor for advice. While most of the song is sung by Bagdasarian, the chorus parts feature squeaky high-pitched voices (all sped-up from Bagdasarian’s voice) mixed in.
The song was released by Liberty Records in 1958, becoming a huge hit for Bagdasarian, peaking at #1 and the #3 song overall on Billboard’s Top 100 for that year with over a million records sold (single-handedly saving Liberty Records from bankruptcy). His second song using this gimmick, “Bird on My Head”, didn’t do nearly as well, only peaking at #34. But it was his third song which struck gold and officially introduced the world to the act he’d be best known for; A Christmas novelty song entitled “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”, sung by the Chipmunks: Alvin, Simon, and Theodore.
The idea for the characters themselves came from Bagdasarian wanting to create personalities for the squeaky voices. He initially thought maybe they’d be reindeer (as their debut would be on a Christmas single), or gophers, or possibly even ostriches. On a drive through Yosemite, he stopped the car abruptly as he saw a chipmunk in the middle of the road, just sitting there on his hind legs, refusing to move. Bagdasarian thought the audacity this chipmunk displayed was great, so he made his squeaky-voiced stars chipmunks. The Chipmunks themselves were named after three of Liberty Records’ executives: Al Bennett, Si Waronker, and Theodore Keep. The Chipmunk Song also established their personalities: Alvin was the embodiment of that chipmunk Bagdasarian saw in Yosemite, Simon was the logical brainy one, and Theodore was always happy. Bagdasarian also created a stage name for himself to go along with them, “Dave Seville”, named after the Spanish city where Bagdasarian had been stationed during World War II.
To say that The Chipmunk Song sold well would be an understatement. Over just seven weeks, the single sold 4.5 million copies, selling so fast that Liberty barely had enough printing materials available to fill all the orders (which were sometimes half a million a day!). It was not just the best-selling Christmas song, but also the fastest-selling song to date. During those seven weeks, the Chipmunks made their first on-screen appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, performing The Chipmunk Song as a trio of puppets designed by Bob Clampett (former Looney Tunes animator who found fame in early television with his puppets Beany and Cecil).
Three years, several singles and albums, two Grammy awards, and 16 million records sold later (as well as one unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1960), Bagdasarian was looking for some way to expand his characters beyond just novelty songs; He envisioned his characters starring in a cartoon, but not one with comical violence or slapstick, rather a sort of animated musical variety show. Animation studio Format Films had recently been established by former UPA animator Herbert Klynn, and was in the process of creating brand-new Popeye shorts for syndication when they were approached by Bagdasarian about a Chipmunks cartoon.
The Alvin Show
October 4th, 1961 - September 12th, 1962
What came about was “The Alvin Show”, which premiered on October 4th, 1961 on CBS. Thanks to the success of the Flintstones, which premiered on ABC the year earlier, CBS was looking for their own primetime cartoon, so The Alvin Show got a nice 7:30pm timeslot on Wednesday nights. The slot was sponsored by General Foods, who produced Jell-O and Post cereals at the time (both of which the Chipmunks starred in commercials for).
The series would focus not just on the musical careers of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, but also their home life living with father figure (and manager) Dave Seville. The Chipmunks, in their initial appearances (on the album covers and the Bob Clampett puppets), looked more like real chipmunks to an unsettling degree. This new series gave them the appearance they’re more widely associated with: Softer, tan-furred, anthropomorphic bipedal chipmunks. Like with the records, Ross Bagdasarian voiced Dave and all three Chipmunks with the same effect (voices recorded slowly and sped up till they sound squeaky) that made them famous.
The Chipmunks also gained a supporting cast of characters, such as Stanley the Eagle (who is afraid to fly), Daisy Belle (a little girl who loves attention, voiced by June Foray), the snoody Mrs. Frumpington (voiced by actress Lee Patrick), and the shady character Sam Valiant (voiced by Ross Bagdasarian) who changes careers every appearance . These characters fleshed out the Chipmunks world and expanded them beyond their novelty act routes.
The segments detailing the adventures of the Chipmunks took up only the first seven minutes of the show. Following a Chipmunks segment, each episode would then go into a 3 ½ minute musical segment featuring the Chipmunks performing a song. While some of these musical numbers were of previous Chipmunk songs (“The Chipmunk Song”, “Alvin’s Harmonica”, “Alvin for President”, and even “Witch Doctor”), most of them were either public domain classics (such as “Yankee Doodle” and “Three Blind Mice”) or brand-new original songs written by Bagdasarian himself. Some have considered these segments to be early examples of what would later be known as music videos.
The third part of the show featured a brand-new character, also created by Bagdasarian, named Clyde Crashcup. Clyde is an inventor who, while enthusiastic about his inventions, only ever invents things that have already been invented (the one time he did invent something new was a "reverse time machine" which ended up causing time to be reversed on itself to the point where it was scrap metal). He created these objects not with conventional tools, but rather a magic pencil that could turn drawings into reality.
Usually Crashcup (voiced by radio actor Shepard Menken, doing an impersonation of Richard Haydn’s Edward Carp role) was the only character who spoke in these segments; He did have an assistant, a short guy named Leonardo, but Leonardo only ever spoke into Crashcup’s ear, low enough for the audience to never hear him. For the few times another character appeared (like Leonardo’s mother or the episode where Crashcup “invented a wife”), they were usually voiced by June Foray.
To close out the show, a second musical number from the Chipmunks would play.
The Downfall of the Chipmunk
Despite the notoriety that the characters had up to that point, The Alvin Show bombed in prime-time. One reason might be perhaps that the show didn’t exactly target the adult portion of the audience that networks look for in prime-time, feeling more like a show just for kids than one for all audiences. Another could have been that the Wednesday night schedule for CBS that year was incredibly weak, featuring reruns of a show that had been canceled the season before and two shows that would flounder in the ratings and be canceled as well. Perhaps the biggest reason, however, was that The Alvin Show was put directly up against the NBC western series “Wagon Train”, which would be the #1 rated show for the entire 1961-1962 season.
Needless to say, The Alvin Show only lasted one season. While it didn’t gain any additional episodes, CBS didn’t completely give up on it; Instead, in the fall of 1962, they moved it to their Saturday morning block at 10am, up against NBC’s Sheri Lewis Show, then moved it back to 9am the following season to make room for Tennesee Tuxedo and reruns of Quick Draw McGraw. On Saturday mornings, its reruns lasted three full seasons, before leaving in late 1965 (replaced by a Terrytoons compilation program).
Ross Bagdasarian released his final Chipmunks album, “The Chipmunks Go to the Movies”, in 1969. Feeling he had taken the characters as far as he could (even an officially endorsed Beatles cover album in 1964!), he permanently retired the characters. Three years later, on January 16, 1972, Ross Bagdasarian was found dead of an abrupt heart attack. The Chipmunks, it seemed, were destined to fade into obscurity, simply a set of novelty songs that had once flooded the airwaves during the late 50’s.
"It's Been a While, But We're Back with Style"
That was, until March of 1979, when NBC picked up airing rights to The Alvin Show (retitled “Alvin & the Chipmunks”) for a six month run on Saturday mornings over the summer. Around the same time, DJ Chuck Taylor for Los Angeles radio station KMET, as a joke, played the 1972 Blondie song “Call Me” at double speed and announced that it was a new Chipmunks song. Ross Bagdasarian’s son (Ross Bagdasarian Jr.) heard this joke, as well as the subsequent praise from callers who wanted to hear more. Bagdasarian Jr., taking on the role of the Chipmunks, recorded a new album entitled “Chipmunk Punk”, which was released in 1980.
Between the reruns of The Alvin Show and the first of many new albums, the Chipmunks were successfully revived from obscurity.
Ironically, while The Alvin Show tanked when it initially aired, perhaps what’s kept the Chipmunks alive most in the past 35 years are their on-screen appearances. 1981 saw the airing of the TV Special “A Chipmunk Christmas” on NBC, which led to a brand new animated series that lasted an impressive 8 seasons from 1983 to 1990 and subsequently reran on Cartoon Network from 1993 to 2001. This TV series also spun off into three movies, one theatrically (“The Chipmunk Adventure”) and two on video (released by Universal, crossing over with some of their stable of film monsters).
On the subject of films, Alvin and the Chipmunks eventually got a series of live-action films beginning in 2007, and is still going with its fourth installment, “The Road Chip”, releasing at the end of this year (2015). These are the only Chipmunk productions where none of the Chipmunks are voiced by a Bagdasarian, opting instead to go with celebrity voices (though Bagdasarian Jr. and his wife Janice Karman are still heavily involved).
Most recently, in 2015, the Chipmunks received a CGI series titled “ALVINNN!!! and the Chipmunks”, airing on Nickelodeon. It has so far received four seasons, with a fifth on the horizon.
For what began as an experiment using a tape recorder, the novelty of the Chipmunks has somehow managed to endure long beyond what Ross Bagdasarian could have ever possibly imagined back in 1958.