Saturday, 2 June 2012

Cartoons Without Tails

The 1950s were the era of the novelty record and one man turned it into a jillion-dollar franchise that’s still paying off today.

Songwriter Ross Bagdasarian came up with a silly-talk number-one hit in summer 1958 called “Witch Doctor.” Bagdasarian did the verses straight, but the harmonic voices in the chorus were sped-up, sounding like chipmunks on Warners and Disney cartoons.

Chipmunks. Hmmm.

Bagdasarian followed with “The Chipmunk Song” just in time for Christmas and won two Grammys for it in 1959. How to top that?

Chipmunks. Cartoons. Hmmm.

Combining cartoons, songs and chipmunks was a brilliant idea, at least as Bagdasarian envisioned it. If his cartoon chipmunks sang Bagdasarian’s new songs, they could create hits—along with the bucks to Bagdasarian to go with them.

If nothing else, the Chipmunks have had staying power. They’re still hugely popular, with new generations getting new spins on them and subsequent movies. But the new versions still don’t beat the simple, original cartoons that were produced in conjunction with Format Films in 1961. They were packaged into that season’s craze, the prime-time animated half-hour, and given a great opening. Lead chipmunk Alvin was a jerk and insufferable to me as a kid viewer, but I sure liked Clyde Crashcup and Leonardo.

Here’s a syndicated columnist from October 23, 1961 giving space to Bagdasarian’s story.

His Chipmunks Have No Tails
Grape Grower Turns to Song Writing
HOLLYWOOD—In 1959 singing chipmunks were the rage on record row. Now they’ve invaded TV-land and can be seen Wednesday nights, 6:30 p.m., in animated cartoon form on CBS’ “The Alvin Show.”
The stars are three chipmunks without tails—Alvin the ringleader; Theodore, the fat one who loves to eat, and brother Simon, tall, thin and studious.
The chipmunks share billing with song writer David Seville, pen name for Ross Bagdasarian, the Armenian who wrote “Come On-A My House” with first cousin William Saroyan, in addition to the big selling “Chipmunk Song.” David, or Ross, will have new lyrics for the youngsters and, naturally, he wants another record hit to come out of the show.
“This is a variety show,” says Ross, while he offered a cluster of big, green grapes grown on his ranch. Eating grapes gives Ross inspiration.
“We’re not following any other cartoon show format. We have segments on the chipmunks, then we’ll go into a musical bit—say, music of other countries. From there we’ll look in on Clyde Crasscup [sic], an inventor who dreams of the obvious. This man even invents baseball.
“After a musical bridge come the animal characters. There’s Stanley the Eagle who doesn’t know how to fly, an ostrich who sits on sports car, and lots of others.
“WE HAVE zany ideas—way out and way in.”
Mr. Ross, his chipmunks, music and delicious grapes are being backed up by a skillful group of cartoonists, many of whom worked on TV’s first animated half-hour programs, the “Gerald McBoing-Boing Show,” which cost CBS a small fortune and lasted one season, but was the forerunner to “Huckleberry Hound,” “Flintstones” and all the other animated programs on this year.
The point is, “The Alvin Show” is going to get good art work, and it should have imaginative story lines which might amuse adults if they can stand singing chipmunks here and there. These chipmunks really look like kids. They stay out of trees, wear pants and pester David Seville.
Naturally, Ross and CBS are counting on those 12 million fans who bought chipmunk records to form a base. Ross figures he’s really pre-sold and that he comes on the air with an edge. “We didn’t even have to make a pilot to sell Alvin,” he said. “We just showed sponsors our story boards on the chipmunks, Clyde Crasscup and, snap, we were booked.”
THE SPONSORS were also probably snowed by Bagdasarian’s persuasiveness and charm. He’s short, dark, bouncy and energetic. The talk flows and he becomes more excited.
Ross grew up in Fresno, California, the Armenian and raisin belt in the golden poppy state made famous by cousin William Saroyan’s stories. Like his father, Ross was expected to become a raisin farmer, but Saroyan’s influence was too strong. Dreams of the big town sent Ross to New York where, through
nepotism, he played the pinball player in Saroyan’s Broadway play, “The Time of Your Life.”
Bagdasarian proved he had talent when he and Saroyan wrote “Come On-A My House.” Before Rosemary Clooney’s version turned that into a best-seller, Ross had returned to Fresno and raisins. In 1949 he culled a bumper crop only to see the bottom drop out of the raisin market.
This loss made the song writing business look very tempting, and Mr. Ross took the giant step, loaded his wife and two kids into the car and came to Hollywood to peddle “Come On-A My House.”
Mr. Bagdasarian is not just a two song man. He’s also turned out “Hey Brother, Pour The Wine,” “Witch Doctor,” and “What’s The Use,” among others.
Ross even has one about his name which nobody can spell or pronounce. “When the kids went to school, I gave them a little song to sing, telling the teacher how to spell our name,” said Ross. “After the song neither the kids nor the teachers had any trouble. It worked so well we’re putting it in the show credits. Then everybody can sing it.”

CBS announced the show in late March 1961 and it debuted October 4th. What did the critics think? I’ve only found one review, one the next day at the end of Fred Danzig’s TV column for United Press International.

SOMETHING'S NUTTY in a house where the child has to go upstairs to do homework while his old man sits down to watch a cartoon show about three chipmunks and an eagle that won't fly. And to compound this felony, I found myself enjoying "The Alvin Show."
The new CBS-TV cartoon thing displayed an inventive use of music, some cute characters and sprightly situations. Once I got used to the ruptured voices on the sound-track, I found the half-hour to be lively inconsequential fun.
OF COURSE, the cartoon segments merge into the cartoon commercial segments and it's sometimes hard to know where one leaves off and the other begins. And a few of the little stories just seemed to trail off without an ending. The orchestrations, for which Johnny Mann and the "Alvin" creator, Ross Bagdasarian get the credit, make the show different enough from its predecessors to be welcome.

“The Alvin Show” did about as well as could be expected against the number one show that season, “Wagon Train.” It was cancelled. And like almost every cancelled prime time cartoon show, it was moved to Saturday mornings the following season, and later into syndication. And the Bagdasarian family continued to milk the cash cow, er, rodent. The Chipmunk Punk album in 1981 was a surprise success and that begat third-rate cartoons with some unnecessary “chipettes” and then a hoodied, attitudinal Alvin in the 2000s, something the original show would have rightly ridiculed.

Here’s a muddy, black-and-white upload of the show’s closing credits, complete with the cute little jingle for the sponsor that went back to the Jack Benny show in the 1930s. If you’re familiar with classic animation, you’ll see some familiar names from Warner Bros. and UPA cartoons in the roll.

The Alvin Show end credits


  1. For anyone who disses THESE chipmunks, please go home!

  2. Some of the Format Films staff also did time at Columbia's Screen Gems division on the early 1940s, and the Clyde Crashcup and Leonardo shorts come across as a re-thought and improved version of the Professor Tall and Mr. Small cartoons that studio did (one of the rare cases where the made-for-TV product actually came out better than the higher-budgeted theatrical source material).

    One thing that probably hurt the show a bit was the same problem that plagued Famous Studio's Screen Songs -- unlike the original Fleischer versions that had access to then-current songs (and singers), the revival used mostly public domain material, and the same was true with The Alvin Show. Once you got past the songs Bagdasarian did in 1958, everything else was familiar tunes, with sped up voices (Ross Jr. didn't make the same mistake in '81, licensing more current songs which, combined with the 20-year gap and a new generation of kids, helped revive the franchise).

  3. In the comic book version, Alvin wasn't always a jerk -- in one story he helped make peace for rival E.T. civilizations.

  4. To Chris:
    RIght on./

    To J.Lee:
    But yea gotta admit, the publkic domain material was cheap to use! Of course, though, the 80s Alvin, and it was 1983, not 1981, was "politcall correct" in terms of violence....Steve

  5. Oh..and ROsemary Clooney, while not venegful as SInatra on these Columbia Recoridngs of novelties [with fellow novelty lover Mitchell Miller there as A&R man], had long hated recording "Come on-a My House" but in her later years seemed to have been more appreciative of fans requesting it, if still throughly humiliated.

    And Yowp, on orchestrations, don't forget...
    "...and Alvin!"Steve

  6. I interviewed Alan Zaslove couple years back. He said that he directed the Crashcup segments on "Alvin Show".

  7. And oddly enough, Rudy Larriva directed on the '80s as well. One of the few people who worked on both shows.