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Friday, October 09, 2009

Animation: The History of the Chipmunks

Alvin Show
Two of my best friends, Michael Woodside and Danny Young, are hard at work at Rhythm & Hues putting the finishing touches on animation for the upcoming Alvin & the Chipmunks "squeakquel". I got my start in animation at Bagdasarian Productions producing the NBC Saturday morning series myself, 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
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
Alvin Show
Alvin Show
I've posted on this show here in the past, so I am pulling together links to some of that older material into this post to give you a passel of great Chipmunk stuff to enjoy. Click through and check out all the amazing art...

Jules Engel The Alvin Show

Alvin Show Pilot Board

The Alvin Show
The Alvin Show

Stephen Worth
Animation Archive

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At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Kip W said...

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!"

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger BrettJ said...

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.

At 6:16 AM, Blogger Cristian said...

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.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Steve said...

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


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