Saturday, 2 July 2016

Alvin Might Have Been a Rabbit

If it weren’t for Herb Klynn, we might only know the Chipmunks today as novelty characters in an old gimmick record heard around Christmas time.

Klynn was the owner of Format Films and worked out a deal in 1961 to put the Chipmunks in an animated cartoon series. The Alvin Show may have lasted only one season in prime time, but it showed the characters were valuable as animated properties and that eventually led to today’s Chipmunk empire.

Not bad for taking someone’s voice and speeding it up electronically.

The voice in question didn’t belong to Klynn or anyone on his studio’s staff; their involvement ended after producing the original cartoon series (the characters were designed by Bob Kurtz). It belonged to Ross Bagdasarian, who was not only an actor and songwriter but proved to be a pretty canny businessman. He wasn’t content with making a quick buck by jumping on the silly record bandwagon. He knew he had something bigger, and he (and after his death, his family) ran with it and built it, step by step.

Prime time animated shows were the hot thing in 1961, thanks to the success of The Flintstones. Networks wanted them. Producers and animation studios sprung into action. Thus, The Alvin Show was born. There was some irony in this—the series came after the creation of a syndicated cartoon show starring the Nutty Squirrels. The Squirrels were a sped-up voice novelty record group invented after the first Chipmunks LP. Do you follow all that?

There was plenty of publicity at the start of the fall 1961 TV season for the various cartoon shows that made it to air. Here’s what is supposed to be a publicity piece for The Alvin Show in the October 1961 edition of TV Radio Mirror magazine. But it reads more like a publicity piece for Ross Bagdasarian himself. Still, he tells the story of the non-simultaneous invention of David Seville and of the Chipmunks.
DAVID SEVILLE: Brings Alvin to TV
"Anyone who thinks my songs are nuts," says David Seville (in real life, Ross Bagdasarian), "is only half right. Raisins had just as much to do with the success of my musical concoctions." In these words, the composer of such weirdies as "Witch Doctor" and "The Chipmunk Song" refers to the fact that he was born January 27, 1919, in the grape (and raisin) country of Fresno, California. His father was in the vineyard business and, for a while, it looked as though Ross would follow in his dad's footsteps.
Two things saved him for show business: The first, of course, is talent. The second, being the cousin of playwright William Saroyan. "Through Bill, I got to play the pinball maniac (type casting, if there ever was any) in his 'Time of Your Life' hit on Broadway. Then came the war."
After four years in the Air Corps, Ross returned to Fresno, met a local lovely named Armen, and settled down to raising a family and grapes—with the customary by-products of wine and raisins. He had three lean years, then, in 1949, produced a real bumper crop. Alas, it was then he discovered the bottom had fallen out of the grape market. "That's when I decided grapes were for the birds. I took my wife, two children, $200 and an unpublished song, 'Come On-A-My House,' and headed for Hollywood."
Ross had composed this song almost ten years before, with the help of cousin Saroyan, when they were driving from New York to Fresno after the closing of Bill's play. Both had forgotten about it until Ross came across the manuscript while packing. Columbia Records decided it was right for Rosemary Clooney. It was a smash hit.
"But you don't get rich on one song, so I kept acting," Ross explains. His movie parts got bigger, better. He appeared in "The Proud and the Profane," Hitchcock's "Rear Window," and "The Deep Six." He kept writing songs, too—among them, "Hey, Brother, Pour the Wine," "What's the Use" and "Gotta Get to Your House." In 1956, he decided to record some of his own work under another name. Listening to his version of "Armen's Theme" (written for his wife), the name David Seville simply popped into his head. "It seemed to fit the mood," he recalls.
For some time, he had been casting about for a wacky novelty number. One afternoon in January, 1958, he glanced up from his desk and saw a book entitled "Duel with the Witch Doctor." Ross says. "Since many of the top records at that time had the craziest sort of lyrics. I figured it might be fun to have the Witch Doctor give advice to the lovelorn in his own gibberish." Having recorded the orchestra track, he spent two months trying to get a "witch doctor's voice." One day, he sang the words at half-speed into his tape-recorder, then played it back at normal speed. Before the first "wallah-wallah-bing" had sounded. Armen and children were in the room, fascinated and tickled. Ross knew he'd struck gold. At Liberty Records, president Si Waronker flipped over the piece. It sold close to two million.
No story about Seville-Bagdasarian can be complete without some mention of the chipmunks. Trying for a Christmas novelty, Ross was whistling melodies into his tape recorder (his method of remembering tunes, since he can neither read nor write music). His idea was to depict the ringers as animals or insects, "just to be different." Finally, he taped a song, the introduction in his normal speed voice, and the rest in his half-speed "little voices." His "little voices" came out, he thought, like mice or rabbits, but his children disagreed. They heard them as chipmunks.
Still, something was missing for a real click. He spent months searching for the answer. Finally, Si Waronker and Al Bennett of Liberty, along with Mark McIntyre, a long-time friend, suggested his having an argument with the chipmunks. Thus, Simon (after Waronker), Theodore (after engineer Ted Keep) and Alvin (after Bennett) came to fame and fortune. Moreover, they've become such hams, they have insisted on squealing and squawking through several new songs and now will be seen over CBS-TV every Wednesday night in The Alvin Show.
Ross, who signs fan mail and pictures as David Seville, lives in Beverly Hills with Armen and their three children, Carol, 14; Ross Jr., 12; and Adam, 7.
Bagdasarian must have realised what a goldmine the cartoon series could be if it took off. Not only did he get paid for voicing the characters, and not only did he get paid for the theme song (which, at the end, spelled out his name musically), but he could use the show to cross-promote other Chipmunks records he was making for Liberty. Things didn’t quite work out that way. CBS announced the cancellation of the series by January 31, 1962, less than four months after it debuted. But since the network had rights to rerun the show, it moved Alvin to the Sunday ratings wasteland where it wouldn’t eat up valuable prime time air.

Format Films went on to other projects; among other things, it received a contract to make Roadrunner cartoons for Warners theatrical release. And, as we know today, the Chipmunks carried on, too.

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