Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars
by John Cawley & Jim Korkis
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Superstar Summary
THE STARS: Alvin and the Chipmunks
YEAR OF DEBUT: 1958 ("The Chipmunk Song)/1961 (THE ALVIN SHOW)
STUDIO OF DEBUT: Format Films for Bagdasarian Films
SIGNATURE: "Aalll-vinnnn!"

KEY CREW BEHIND THE STARS: Ross Bagdasarian, Sr (creator/voices)

CAREER HIGH: THE ALVIN SHOW (1961) - The recording stars become prime time animated TV stars.

Alvin and the Chipmunks are one of the few animated characters to begin their long career as recording stars. The Chipmunk music albums of the Fifties were so popular, that by the time the Chipmunks reached animation in the Sixties, they were already well loved and known characters.

It was their transfer to animation, though, that established distinctive personalities and appearances for the characters that are still loved today. Alvin was always the star of the group. Simon was the tallest, and smartest. Theodore was the short, fat, good natured one. David Seville, a human, was their guardian and manager. However, they have had two different looks: the Sixties Chipmunks and the Eighties Chipmunks.

As mentioned, Alvin was always the lead singer of the group. He wore a long red turtleneck sweater that reached all the way down to his shoes. On the sweater was a huge yellow letter "A" that made him stand out from his two brothers. He wore a red baseball cap. The huge letter and the bright red attire were a physical representation of Alvin's egotism and self-centeredness. Even in the Chipmunks debut, "The Chipmunk Song," Alvin's desires override all other concerns.

Alvin was mischievous although he really never meant any harm by his actions. He was clever and inventive. He was aggressive and fool hardy. More so than his brothers, he was girl crazy. Alvin played the harmonica, one of his prize possessions, quite well. More stubborn than disobedient, he obviously loved and respected his surrogate father, David Seville. However, that never prevented him from doing what he wanted when he wanted.

Simon was usually attired in a long blue turtleneck sweater that reached his shoes. He wore large round rimmed glasses and was the smartest of the chipmunks when it came to factual information. Although he didn't have the cleverness of Alvin, he got the best grades, knew the right answers and was the most studious. He was the voice of reason but was continually overpowered by the outgoing Alvin.

Theodore was usually distinguished from his brothers by wearing a long green turtleneck sweater that reaches his feet. Especially in the beginning, Theodore loved food and was extremely interested in eating. In today's more health conscious society, that aspect has been downplayed. He was the least bright of the Chipmunks. It seemed to take him longer to grasp ideas and he was very easily led by Alvin. He was shy and hid from the spotlight. One of his distinctive qualities was his frequent giggle, either through embarrassment or as an unselfconscious reaction to something that was happening. Like many simple characters, he had a very good heart and seemed to be especially in tune with nature and animals.

The Sixties Chipmunks seemed to be about elementary school age. David Seville was their guardian and manager. The Eighties Chipmunks seem to be in the last year or so of Junior High and David Seville is now identified as their father. The Chipmunks even use the Seville last name.

David Seville was a caricature of Bagdasarian himself and in fact, it was Bagdasarian's stage name. Unlike Bagdasarian, Seville was a bachelor and never seemed concerned about getting married. However, like Bagdasarian, Seville was a reasonably successful songwriter with three children. Seville was a gentle character and definitely more patient than most. He cared about music and he cared about the Chipmunks. He dressed simply, often in just a short sleeve white shirt with black pants. In the Sixties, he lived in a fairly average suburban house. The Eighties series has upgraded his standard of living.


Ross Bagdasarian was a first generation Armenian-American. He came from Fresno, California where his family was associated with the wine business. He became a songwriter and wrote the popular song "Come On-a My House" which was a hit for singer Rosemary Clooney.

By 1956, he had adopted the stage name David Seville. However, in late 1957, the 39 year old Bagdasarian and his family, which now included three children, were almost broke. Bagdasarian used their last $190 to buy a tape recorder. He hoped to use the device to come up with a new song hit.

One day, while fooling around with the recorder, he sang into the machine while it was running at half speed, and played it back at full speed. The high, funny sounding voice that resulted was an inspiration. Bagdasarian composed a song entitled "The Witch Doctor."

In the song, David Seville asks his friend the Witch Doctor for advice on how to win his true love. The Witch Doctor "told him what to say" and "told him what to do" using nonsense words. That advice not only worked for the narrator of the song it catapulted the record to a hit, selling 1.5 million copies. Bagdasarian provided the voices for Seville and the pygmy Witch Doctor by using the speeded up voice gimmick for the native Doctor.

Bagdasarian tried to make lightning strike twice by using the same "speeded up" voice in another song, "The Bird on My Head." This time it was a bird who had the high funny voice but the record buying audience wasn't impressed. He then developed a technique where he could record three speeded up voices and be able to play them back at the same time.


He debated about the type of animals to make these voices and seriously considered butterflies. Supposedly, while driving in Yosemite National Park, Bagdasarian was impressed by the behavior of a chipmunk in the road that showed an audacious spirit. In actuality, he played the voices for his three children and they labeled the sound as chipmunks. It has been suggested that they may have been influenced by Disney's Chip 'n' Dale, who also spoke in high, speeded up voices.

As an inside joke, Bagdasarian named the Chipmunks after three executives at Liberty records. Alvin was for Al Bennett, Liberty Records, president. Simon was for Si Waronker, vice-chairman of the label. Theodore was for Ted Keep, Liberty's chief recording engineer. Bagdasarian did all the voices himself.

He recorded "The Chipmunk Song" in 1958. Bennett was unimpressed but released the song anyway. In the first seven weeks, they sold 4.5 million records! At the time, it was the fastest selling record in history. "The Chipmunk Song," perhaps best known to listeners as "Christmas Don't Be Late," featured a selfish Alvin who kept insisting that he wanted a Hula Hoop, a popular toy of the time. David Seville's irritation with Alvin was often expressed by stretching out the sound of Alvin's name. The "Aaalllvvinnn!" gimmick actually came from how Bagdasarian would yell at his son, Adam, when the young boy was making too much noise.

The Chipmunks had another popular hit the next year with "Alvin's Harmonica" in 1959. Once again the stubborn little Chipmunk kept interrupting the song. This time the reason was that he wanted to play his harmonica.

The first Chipmunk long playing album was SING ALONG WITH THE CHIPMUNKS (later reissued as LET'S ALL SING WITH THE CHIPMUNKS). It featured the two previous hits as well as the Chipmunks singing their versions of a number of popular songs. There was the "Old MacDonald Cha Cha Cha" and a rock and roll version of "Whistle While You Work." The album had The Chipmunks drawn to look like actual chipmunks although they wore sport coats. Alvin was already sporting an "A" on his coat.

Chipmunk songs were hugely popular and eventually the Chipmunks released 11 albums and won five Grammy Awards. The Chipmunks racked up several gold and platinum records for high sales. They were so much in demand that Bagdasarian got together with Bob Clampett and created hand puppets of the three characters so that they could perform their musical hits on shows like THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Clampett, a former Warner Brothers director, had achieved success with his own hand puppets of Beany and Cecil.


Bagdasarian knew he could further broaden the Chipmunk success story if could get them into animation. However, he had no desire to start his own studio. He contacted Format Films. Format Films was created in 1959 when Herb Klynn and Jules Engel left UPA taking with them dozens of talented people. So even though they were a new studio, they had experience in TV and limited animation.

Working with the staff, Bagdasarian redesigned the Chipmunks into the appearance that is known today. THE ALVIN SHOW premiered October 4, 1961 in a prime time evening slot on CBS. Each show had four segments. The first was a fairly standard cartoon adventure, usually a domestic situation. Two other segments were built around songs that the Chipmunks sang in sort of an early music video format where a storyline framed the song. The third segment featured an inventor known as Clyde Crashcup who invented things that already existed like the wheel and the bathtub. THE ALVIN SHOW would be well received by parent watch dog groups today. It was a show that was generally non-violent and often educational. When David Seville and the Chipmunks visited foreign countries, there was always accurate information provided about cultural aspects of the country. Either Seville or Simon was the source for these informational insights.

Many of the regular segments emphasized that these were kids and that troubles and adventures can occur in their own backyard. One time the Chipmunks encounter a friendly eagle who cannot fly. They teach him by strapping cymbals to his wings and telling him to clash them together. Another time, they battle a neighbor's dog who is intent on destroying Dave's garden. A common storyline, used no less than three times, has Alvin planning to leave home.

The Chipmunks were also travelers. Stories found them visiting a number of countries including Italy and Spain. They also went camping, took cruises and visited a haunted house. The musical segments not only featured songs that Bagdasarian wrote but favorites like "Home on the Range" and "While Strolling Through the Park." Only one season of shows was made and after that first season, the series was moved to Saturday morning where it was continually rerun until 1965. Bagdasarian never considered a Chipmunk feature and this was before the time when animated specials flooded the airwaves.

The last Chipmunk album was released in 1967. Bagdasarian retired and devoted more time to his real estate holdings and his vineyards. The popularity of the Chipmunks continued to decline with no new material being released. Bagdasarian died in 1972 and most people felt that was the end of the Chipmunks.


In 1977, one of Bagdasarian's sons, Ross Jr., took over the family business and decided to revive the Chipmunks. He began working with Janice Karman, who later became his wife, in developing new material for Alvin, Simon and Theodore. He was genuinely surprised to find there wasn't much interest in the Chipmunks. Finally they found a receptive audience in Fred Silverman who agreed to rerun THE ALVIN SHOW for the Fall 1979 season on NBC Saturday morning. The show was well received.

Ironically, it was a stunt by a radio disc jockey that revived strong interest in the Chipmunks. The DJ took a new wave record, boosted the speed, and played in on the air as an example of "Chipmunk Punk." The gimmick struck a chord with listeners and radio shows and record shops were flooded with requests for this "new album" which really didn't exist.

A small record distributor contacted Ross Jr and the result was the release in June 1980 of the first new Chipmunk album since 1967, CHIPMUNK PUNK. It was a collection of top tunes "sung" by the Chipmunks. The new voices were supplied by Ross, Jr. and wife Janice. The album went gold by August 1980. By April 1981 it went platinum. It received the National Association of Recording Merchandisers' award for best selling children's album. RCA signed the Chipmunks to an exclusive recording contract. The next album, URBAN CHIPMUNK, released the Summer of 1981, also went platinum. More albums followed including A CHIPMUNK CHRISTMAS and CHIPMUNK ROCK.

Following the new-found success of the Chipmunks, the Bagdasarians were able to convince NBC to produce a prime time animated special starring the trio. December 14, 1981, saw the return of the Chipmunks to TV in A CHIPMUNK CHRISTMAS. The special was a pleasant Christmas story about Alvin giving his harmonica to a seriously ill child, only to have to replace it in time for a big holiday show.

This special featured a new design for the Chipmunks. Chuck Jones was involved in the early stages of production and helped soften the look of the Chipmunks. Also softened were their personalities. The special was directed by Warner's veteran Phil Monroe. Writers Bagdasarian, Karman, Hal Mason (and Jones), aged the Chipmunks slightly, making them less frantic and childish. Even the music had slightly changed. In the Sixties, the Chipmunks did "hip" rock and roll versions of songs. For the Eighties, the Chipmunks took modern rock songs and made "kiddie" versions of them.

The special was successful and there was discussion about doing an animated special using music from the URBAN CHIPMUNK album to be titled URBAN CHIPMUNK or THE CHIPMUNKS AT OPRYLAND. However, this special was never made.

L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley officially declared October 25, 1982 as "Chipmunk Day" in honor of Alvin, Simon and Theodore and the release of their new album, CHIPMUNKS GO HOLLYWOOD. There was even a "paw print" in cement ceremony at the parking lot of Tower Records using costumed characters. December 1982 saw the repeat of their Christmas special.


In 1983, the Chipmunks returned to Saturday morning TV in a brand new show for NBC. This time, Ross Jr. contracted with Ruby- Spears to provide the animation. Former Hanna-Barbera writers, Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, who were instrumental in the development of Scooby-Doo, formed their own studio which was responsible for Saturday morning shows like FANGFACE, DRAGON'S LAIR and SUPERMAN. The Chipmunks' designs were further softened into rounder, cuter images. The Chipmunks also become more clothes conscious, wearing a number of costumes. Also, the Chipettes, female mirror images of the Chipmunks, were introduced to add sexual equality to the show. Janice Karman claims she conceived of the females because as a young girl, when she watched the original series, she thought there should have been girl Chipmunks. The Chipettes were christened Brittany, Jeanette and Elenore. The new Chipmunks were, once again, an immediate hit and became one of the top rated series on Saturday morning.

The new series sometimes featured one story during the half hour and sometimes two different stories. There were no seperate music videos, as in the first series, but the new Chipmunks used plenty of music. At the drop of a hat the Chipmunks, the Chippettes or all six could break into an abbreviated version of some new or classic rock song. There were Chipmunk versions of such tunes as Chuck Berry's "Surfin' USA," Michael Jackson's "Beat It," and Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl." Bagdasarian and Karman also wrote new songs for the show, including the theme song, "We're the Chipmunks."

1984 saw the release of another Chipmunk album, this time featuring songs sung on the series. These were the complete renditions of the songs, not the abbreviated versions heard on the show. That February also saw the Chipmunks second prime time special, A VALENTINE SPECIAL (first broadcast as I LOVE THE CHIPMUNKS, VALENTINE SPECIAL). The story featured an upcoming dance and the Chipmunks' attempts to get the Chippettes to join them. Naturally, Alvin is the exception and doesn't want to invite anyone. His brothers put a tape recorder under Alvin's pillow and talk up his "Don Juan" personality. This causes Alvin to become a sleep walker who disguises himself as Captain Chipmunk. Alvin develops an identity crisis, but it all works out in the end. Captain Chipmunk later became a recurring character on the Saturday morning show.

Around a year later, in April of 1985, another prime time special debuted, A CHIPMUNK REUNION. This special dealt with where the Chipmunks came from. It was actually a follow-up to one of the Saturday morning episodes ("The Chipmunk Story") that showed how David Seville found the Chipmunks abandoned on his doorstep and adopted them. In the special, the Chipmunks are able to discover their natural mother. However, they return to David, who is the only family they've known. (Though they do say they'll visit their natural mother from time to time.) Daily Variety found the special to be a "surprisingly thoughtful and touching half-hour." The Chipmunks Saturday morning show continued to be one of NBC's strongest shows, always rating in the top ten. In 1987, Alvin was chosen to host the prime time preview of the new Saturday morning series. ALVIN GOES BACK TO SCHOOL (9/12/86) featured a costumed figure of Alvin taking over a school and attempting to "turn every morning into Saturday morning."


However, one of the biggest years for the Chipmunks was 1987 when THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE debuted in theatres across the country on May 22nd. THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE was written by Janice Karman and Ross Bagdasarian Jr. It was also directed by Karman. The film was backed with a $17 million campaign that included tie-ins with Burger King, K-Mart and General Mills.

The story was loosely based on Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 days. In it, a couple offer to pay for a race around the world between the Chipmunks and the Chipettes. As proof of their journey, the youngsters are to leave dolls at each stop. What they don't know is that the dolls contain stolen diamonds. From the seas of Bermuda to the snow capped Alps, the travelers face all kinds of perils and ultimately have a showdown with the crooks.

Throughout the film, the Chipmunks and Chipettes break into song. The songs were mostly new, but a few old favorites, like Ross Bagdasarian Sr.'s "Come On-a My House," were heard. A soundtrack album was released by Buena Vista (Disney).

In 1988 another change came to the Chipmunks. DIC began supplying the animation for the series. DIC is one of the largest suppliers of TV animation including THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS and INSPECTOR GADGET. Meanwhile, the Ruby Spears shows were put into syndication in 1988 where they proved as popular as ever. In 1989 the new series began appearing on home video. The Chipmunks were part of the cast of CARTOON ALL STARS TO THE RESCUE (1990), the famous substance abuse animated special that was simulcast on all three networks on Saturday morning.

NBC planned a prime time live action/animated special "Salute to Five Decades with the Chipmunks" for November 1990 release which would celebrate everyone from Elvis and the Beatles to Michael Jackson. Also a new Chipmunk album, already released in Canada and Australia, will be released in the U.S. Entitled BORN TO ROCK, it features the Chipmunks singing the music of New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul and Bruce Springsteen.

THE CHIPMUNKS have lasted seven seasons on Saturday morning and have been renewed for an eighth. The eighth season, which begins in the Fall of 1990 will introduce a new format for the show: ALVIN GOES TO THE MOVIES. It will feature parodies of blockbuster films like BATMAN, BACK TO THE FUTURE and STAR TREK. In the approximately 30 years the Chipmunks have been around, they have won five Grammys (out of 15 nominations), had 11 gold and platinum albums, album sales totaling over $35 million and merchandising sales nearing the $300 million mark.


Not surprisingly, the most frequent recurring characters were female.

In the original series, a frequent visitor was Daisy Belle. Daisy was a blonde, human girl about the same age as the Chipmunks. She was fond of David and the Chipmunks, but had a crush on Alvin. Unfortunately, this was unrequited love because Alvin regarded here as merely a friend. Alvin seemed to be more interested in older women like teenage girls. Also, Daisy and Alvin were at an awkward age where expressing feelings are difficult. June Foray provided the voice for Daisy. (June Foray supplied voices for most major animation studios and is perhaps best remembered as the voice of Rocky, the flying squirrel.)

Other regulars in the early series were Sam Valiant, "Private Nose," a detective. Sam not only was hired by Dave on occasion, but the group bumped into him frequently. Mrs. Frumpington was a self claimed cultural leader who thought Rock and Roll should be banned. Finaly Stanley the eagle popped up in several episodes. In the new series, the Chipmunks are matched with three girls known as the Chipettes. They are three female chipmunks who are the mirror image of the Chipmunks. Brittany is as vain and self- concerned as Alvin. Jeanette also wears glasses like Simon and is the more reserved and studious Chipette. Eleanor is plump and simple minded like Theodore. According to one episode, the Chipettes came from Australia. In Australia, they were the "pets" and friends of a little orphan girl named Olivia. Olivia lived at Miss Grudge's Orphanage and Miss Grudge desperately wanted to have a successful singing group so she kidnapped the Chipettes right before Olivia was adopted. Fortunately, the Chipettes escaped and made their way to the U.S. where after a variety of odd jobs they got to demonstrate their singing prowess. As successful singers, they got to meet the Chipmunks. There is an underlying rivalry between the two groups although more often than not they work together to solve problems.

OTHER MEDIA There were Sixties Chipmunk toys ranging from puppets and dolls to bath toys filled with "Soaky" bubble bath. There was a game called "The Big Record." The Barris Company built a custom car called "Alvin's Acorn" which was shaped like an acorn and had a little TV set and stereo.

Dell Publishing released over two dozen issues of an Alvin comic book between 1962 and 1973, with a special ALVIN FOR PRESIDENT issue in 1964.

The Eighties Chipmunks were especially popular on school related items like lunchboxes, notebooks, calendars, etc. That area is targeted for further expansion in 1990 when Target Stores, nationwide, plan to showcase over 250 exclusive Chipmunk products. These items range from sportswear and footwear to linens and backpacks. The Chipmunks have also signed a marketing agreement with Del Monte food products. Negotiations are in progress for a Fast Food outlet promotion in 1991.

In any discussion of other media featuring the Chipmunks, it is necessary to mention the almost two dozen albums recorded by the singing group many of which have become gold and platinum records. Some of those albums are: LET'S ALL SING WITH THE CHIPMUNKS, AROUND THE WORLD WITH THE CHIPMUNKS, THE CHIPMUNKS SING WITH CHILDREN, THE CHIPMUNKS SING THE BEATLES, THE CHIPMUNK SONGBOOK, CHIPMUNK PUNK, CHRISTMAS WITH THE CHIPMUNKS, CHIPMUNKS A GO GO.

SUPERSTAR QUALITY Alvin and his musical menagerie are one of the few animated series to experience a successful revival after years of non- work. In fact, the Chipmunks have had several careers: recording stars, prime time animation series stars, TV special stars and Saturday morning stars. There is something intrinsically appealing about this singing family and it seems that Chipmunk music is once again here to stay.


"My dad created the characters that captured the fancy of the public. We've tried to continue that theme of fun and love that children and parents seem to respond to." - Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.

"I want to play my harmonica!" - Alvin

"They were great. They were fun." - Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. describing the original Chipmunks

"(My dad) liked the sound that he'd come up with in ("The Witch Doctor") and decided to make characters. He didn't know whether to make them into hippos or elephants or beetles or what." - Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.

"(My dad) came up with the idea of the Chipmunks when he was driving in Yosemite and this chipmunk almost dared him and his huge car to drive past." - Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.

"I'm still hounded by fans wherever I go, swamped by the paparazzi, unable to go anywhere without being recognized, I've got no private life." - Alvin in THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE presskit.