Alvin, Chipmunks stay in the family
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The house that the Chipmunks built sits atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Ross Bagdasarian Jr. lives here in the wealthy Montecito area with his wife Janice Karman. Both work in a separate office building off a downhill path, which houses four Apple iMacs, gold Chipmunks records, Grammys, branded bubble gum, toothbrush holders, caps, at least one eight-track tape, and dozens of CDs.
All wrought from a single kooky musical idea, “The Christmas Song,” dreamed up by Bagdasarian’s father, Ross Sr. ó and the stubborn, hard-nosed business sense that’s kept Alvin, Simon and Theodore in the family.
The Chipmunks enter theaters Friday for the first time, in the live action-CG holiday comedy “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Jason Lee of “My Name is Earl” stars as David Seville, a struggling Los Angeles songwriter who discovers the ‘munks and later rescues them from an evil music executive.
In real life, Seville was the stage moniker for Bagdasarian, who became a Hollywood songwriter after previous jobs as an off-Broadway director and actor (he’s the piano player in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”).
He wrote tunes for Rosemary Clooney and Dean Martin before hitting it big on his own with “Witch Doctor” in 1958. That song’s catchy, sped-up “oh ee oh ah ah” chorus, combined with Christmas pleadings from Ross’ youngest son Adam, inspired the Chipmunks’ first song, an instant hit.
In several months, it sold over four million records and spawned a massive merchandise trade. So was born a one-hit wonder that would endure for nearly 50 years.
Evil music executives, take note: Bagdasarian says the key to his father’s success was his insistence on owning his own master recordings and copyrighting the Chipmunks characters. Bagdasarian rejected Walt Disney’s advances, the son says, and got busy doing Chipmunk versions of everything from the Twist to Beatles hits.
By the mid-60s, though, Bagdasarian was over the Chipmunks. He bought a winery, Sierra Wine Corp., that supplied product to Gallo and other brands. “He was a person certainly of short attention span,” his son says, “but also incredibly focused, really really smart, and very funny.”
Bagdasarian, a lifelong smoker, was found dead of a heart attack on Super Bowl Sunday in 1972. His will passed the winery and the Chipmunks franchise to his wife and three children.
Ross Bagdasarian Jr. helped to run the winery for several years, and decided with his future wife in 1978 to try to revive the ‘munks. There were no takers until, as family lore goes, a bored radio DJ on the East Coast sped up a Blondie song and called it the Chipmunks version.
The furry creatures hit record stores again with “Chipmunk Punk,” followed by country songs in “Urban Chipmunk,” and then by a Saturday morning animated series.
(Take note, fans: No helium has ever been used to create the distinctive high-pitched voices. At first it was a sped-up tape player, and now computers do the work.)
Bagdasarian and Karman held tight creative and financial control, voicing nearly all the characters themselves, and using family money to pay for production. Bagdasarian, a law school graduate, pored over each contract.
“You don’t protect what you’ve created unless you know the business side of it,” he said. “We’ve all heard these horror stories of these really talented people having their work stolen out from under them. I wasn’t willing to be one of those people.”
Indeed, there has been no equivalent for Bagdasarian to Disney’s 13-year legal dispute over Winnie the Pooh merchandising rights. The closest: a deal with Universal for a Chipmunks movie went sour, leading to a legal fight over the contract. Bagdasarian and Karman won out.
“For us, it was a custody battle,” Karman said. “They finally realized ‘OK, these two are really fighting for their kids.'”
In the mid-90s, Bagdasarian bought the Chipmunk rights from his brother, a writer, and sister, a stay-at-home mom, to take complete control.
Bagdasarian was surprised to find himself following in his father’s footsteps. “I revered my dad, but I didn’t want to do what he had done,” he said. “That was his creation. Had he remained alive, I never would have done this. But when he passed away suddenly, it was a way of keeping my dad alive, and keeping what he created alive.”
Which leads to the new movie, an origin story and features new hip-hop flavored Chipmunks tunes. Making a guest appearance is the actual piano Ross Sr. used when writing “Christmas Song.” Bagdasarian and Karman say they voiced the animated Chipmunks throughout, before studio marketing executives made the decision to have younger actors play the voice roles for publicity reasons.
Next for the ‘munks? Karman is developing a puppet show called “Little Alvin,” aimed at preschoolers. “And we have lots of ideas,” Bagdasarian said. They’ll simply approach each potential partner with extreme caution.
“The business world is not getting kinder by the year,” he said. “So you have to be mindful that if it doesn’t work out, how do you make sure you still have your underwear at the end of the day?”
Alvin, Chipmunks stay in the family