Saturday, 23 January 2021

Making the Alvin Show

ABC decided in December 1959 to pick up The Flintstones for its fall 1960 prime-time schedule, and that resulted in a mini-boom in night-time animated shows, only to quickly die when they never found the audience the shows needed.

One of them was The Alvin Show, the result of songwriter Ross Bagdasarian turning a production studio gimmick (voices sped up on audio tape) into a huge novelty record hit in 1958. He gave chipmunk personas to three voices and proceeded to cash in big-time by making them into animated cartoon characters.

That’s where Format Films came in.

There was a huge rift at UPA between owner Stephen Bosustow and a bunch of his staffers. Dozens left in a shake-up. On October 26, 1959, Herb Klynn, Bud Getzler and Jules Engel announced the formation of their own animation company, Format Films. The Hollywood Reporter chronicled its growth; all dates below are from that paper unless otherwise specified. Klynn quickly signed UPA director Ozzie Evans (Nov. 2), and started hunting for TV commercial business.

Midas Mufflers was an early client (Feb. 5, 1960) with June Foray hired to voice spots. Gold Bond Stamps, Adorn Hairspray and Folger Coffee followed (Feb. 25). But Klynn had his eye on TV cartoons. On April 6th, Klynn announced a contract with Al Brodax of King Features to make 100 Popeye shorts under producer Jack Kinney, and had hired Ed Friedman, Volus Jones, Ken Hultgren, Harvey Toombes, Noel Tucker and Bob Givens to work on them. Assistant animators Harris Steinbrook, Doris Collins and Ruben Apodaca and background artist Boris Gorelick were hired within a week (April 12).

Plans were made to move the studio’s staff of 62 from Burbank into a larger building in North Hollywood (May 17). Klynn was ambitious. And on August 10th, it was announced a deal had been signed to produce The Alvin Show starring David Seville and the Chipmunks. The staff kept growing. Storyman Bob Kurtz, animators Bill Southwood and Jack Parr jumped aboard (Aug. 26). Shep Menkin was signed as the voice of Clyde Crashcup (Oct. 18). Chuck Harriton, Dan McRae and Fred Calvert were poached from New York (Back Stage, Aug 11, 1961), Hal Ambro was inked as a director (Aug. 14) as was Gil Turner (Sept. 5).

Meanwhile, Format announced a deal on September 28th for a second half-hour animated show, The Shrimp, based on Sy Gomberg’s short stories. Leo Salkin was named story editor; June Foray, Ross Elliott and Kathleen Freeman were tabbed as voice actors, and Klynn was meeting with potential sponsors by November. There was talk in Variety on March 1, 1961 about CBS airing Alvin and The Shrimp back-to-back, but it never happened. The Shrimp was delivered to Four Star (March 21) and there it sat forever. The studio also was sub-contracted by Creston Studios to make some Calvin and the Colonel cartoons for prime time (Aug. 31, 1961).

General Foods (Jell-O) signed for alternate week sponsorship of Alvin (Variety, March 8) while General Toy pulled out (Variety, May 31) because CBS didn’t expect finished footage to show the company until July. So the show was only half sold going into its American debut on October 4th; Sponsor magazine of Sept. 25th reported each show cost $43,000 to make.

That brings us to this story from the Valley Times of North Hollywood of November 18th. Its reporter chatted with Klynn about the making of the series and the potential problem with its time slot.

Alvin, Pals, Cavort in Valley Cartoon Plant
Valley Times TODAY TV-Radio Editor

Among the Valley’s mushrooming television facilities is Format Films Studios on Laurel Canyon boulevard presided over by a dynamic North Hollywood man, Herb Klynn.
It is here that creator-producer Ross Bagdasarian’s “Alvin Show,” featuring the chipmunks, Alvin, Simon and Theodore, is fashioned into the animated cartoon series you see on Channel 2 each Wednesday night at 7:30.
The chipmunks are not worried over the fact that their show is spotted opposite the block-busting Western, “Wagon Train” on NBC, and the rapidly improving “Steve Allen” affair on ABC.
“We may not achieve the rating of a Wagon Train, but according to the Nielsens we get our fair share of the total audience,” Klynn told me when I visited his studio. (He meant that more people per sets-in-use watch Alvin than is indicated by the rating. Maybe little people, but still people, he explained happily.)
Klynn took me on the 40-cent tour of this modern, animated film cartoon plant and it proved to be an entire revelation. I am sure that no one, except in the business, has any idea of the complex manner in which a half-hour cartoon is turned out for television on a weekly basis.
“I will take you to the story department first,” he said, “because all shows, like anything else, must start with ideas.”
Never having been in a cartoon plant I expected to enter a room and see maybe a couple of writers sitting in front of typewriters waiting for inspiration, It is nothing like that.
In this story department the writers must think in pictures, instead of words.
Instead of a script, each of these writers, and I believe there are eight, gets his idea, then draws a small picture of the action and puts words descriptive of the action underneath.
These are then pinned, in sequence, onto a “story board” about four feet high by eight feet long. The Alvin Show is composed of two 3½-minute segments, and two 7-minute segments.
Each 7-minute segment requires of the “writer” 160 key drawings, with accompanying captions. The completed 30-minute segment of the Alvin Show contains 17,000 individual drawings!
It is impossible for a layman on a quick trip through the studio to entirely interpret what he saw into lay language.
But as near as I could make out, the next step is to record the dialogue.
Subsequent operations find animators completing each of the 160 original key drawings so that each will give the effect of motion when seen on the television screen.
Other artists paint in the background, be it a house, tree or what have you.
Inasmuch as a number of complete Alvin shows are in work at the same time how do you keep track of the progress of the 17,000 drawings necessary to each complete production?
This is done by what is known to the cartoon fraternity as an exposure sheet. The exposure sheet is the keynote of the industry. Each artist in all the various stages and departments notes the progress of each individual drawing on this sheet as it comes to him for his part of the work. It is comparable to a bill of lading on a railroad or a dispatch sheet in an aircraft factory, only terribly more complex.
While all this is going on, various key personnel make checks and color checks to see that every one of the drawings is perfect and will jell when fused into the whole production.
Final stage is the filming. Two cameras work two 10-hour shifts to film the 17,000 drawings the artists have already completed. These cameras are valued at $30,000 and $20,000 apiece.
Producing an animated cartoon is a very painstaking and costly proposition. Competent artists and animators are paid between $250 and $300 a week. Completion of an Alvin takes more than four months from story department to camera. The budget is somewhere between $65,000 and $70,000 for each episode.
The length of time in production is quite surprising when you consider that regulation one-hour filmed TV dramas are turned out, so far as the actual production at the studio is concerned, in five or six days.
Klynn’s Format Studios have moved three times in the past several years, each time to a larger plant. He now employs 160 animators, artists and others and most of them are working on Alvin, the studios No. 1 project.
There’s a lot more to it than this, of course, but I hope you have at least a sketchy idea of how an animated cartoon is turned out by now.
Whatever the eventual fate of the chipmunks and their pal, David Seville, may be, of this I’m sure: executive producer Herb Klynn is sparing no expense, even to the inclusion of a live orchestra which often numbers 28 pieces, instead of canned music as used by many of the big “regular” shows.
When I first met cartoon men Bagdasarian and Klynn at the studio I quipped “Okay, so draw me a picture.”
It didn’t seem so funny to me after I had been privileged to see the magnitude and scope of the operation.

Alvin’s debut beat Steve Allen for second spot in the ratings, with 32 share, compared to Wagon Train with a 48 share. By November 8th, Variety was opining the series was in trouble. Broadcasting was reporting rumours along agency row that the cartoon might be switched to a cheaper Sunday 6:30 p.m. time slot. There was even talk two days later in the Hollywood Reporter of a meeting between Klynn and Bagdasarian about a Clyde Crashcup spinoff. But it was finally announced on April 17, 1962 that CBS would move The Alvin Show to Saturday mornings in the fall with a mix of repeats and first-run shows it hadn’t blown off yet.

Format kept busy before the prime-time failure of Alvin. From issues of the Reporter:

● Sept. 22, 1960: Klynn meets with Burl Ives meets to talk about a live action/animation feature,
● Oct. 21: Format signs Ray Bradbury to produce theatrical short Icarus Montgolfier Wright,
● Dec. 1: Studio contracted to make opening titles for The Hathaways, a sitcom with Peggy Cass,
● Dec. 2: Studio joins with Kinney and Brodax to produce Barney Google cartoons for syndication,
● Jan. 19, 1961: Half-hour animated series Keemar, the Invisible Boy announced, with Alan Zaslove directing from a Klynn and Engel concept.
● Jan. 24: Shep Menken and Ross Martin to voice Keemar,
● Jan 26: June Foray and Kathleen Freeman to voice Keemar, Dennis Farnon to supply background music, Mel Leven to write theme,
● Feb. 13: Animated inserts to be made for a Secret Life of James Thurber TV series from Four Star Productions,
● Mar. 1: Opening/closing commercial inserts to be made for the Danny Thomas Show,
● July 6: Prep work begun on feature animated/live action The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury.

Some of Format Films kept busy before the prime-time failure of Alvin. From issues of the Reporter:

Some of Format’s work after Alvin is better known. In July 1964, DePatie-Freleng signed a contract to revive Warner Bros. cartoons, some of which were subcontracted to Herb Klynn & Associates, Format’s new name as of the previous January, which became Format Productions by December. In January 1966, CBS and Jack Wrather Productions agreed to bring a half-hour animated Lone Ranger to the small screen. Wrather hired Format, which announced in April that none other that former Disney genius Bill Tytla would be directing sequences. In the meantime, it created main titles for I Spy, Honey West, The Smothers Brothers, Hey Landlord, Rat Patrol, Glory Guys, and a show originally titled Everywhere a Chick Chick (later Accidental Family). The company would later add the animated inserts on Hee-Haw to the list in 1969.

There were all kinds of failed projects, too, including an animated half hour with the Mamas and the Papas (Variety, Sept. 16, 1966), The Polar Treasure, an adventure feature live-action production (Variety, May 11, 1967) and Hubird a comedy cartoon short in association with Warner Bros. (Variety, July 17, 1967).

Klynn left Format in 1982. Though this is not a complete filmography, someone will scream if I don’t mention Klynn’s The Duck Factory sitcom in 1984 about a cheap animation studio. He died in 1999. By then, Format Films was a memory. Those chipmunks were still harvesting cash aplenty for the Bagdasarian family.


  1. This is a great article. Some many great details about the production as well as the cost per episode.

  2. Great article and overview on Format!

    4+ months to make a single episode still seems pretty fast. Shows like "The Simpsons" reportedly takes 9 months to make, and I heard similar figures for other newer cartoons.

  3. Format did the animated titles and bumpers for "Hee Haw."

  4. Wow! A great chunk of cartoon history!

  5. For more, you can read my book called "Aaaaalllvvviiinnn!!!"

  6. Herb also did elaborate pitches for animated series based on DOC SAVAGE and THE LOST WORLD. He showed them to me. He also had a machine that could synch mechanical lips with audio tracks.

  7. There is a picture out there for the "half hour with the Mamas and the Papas" (the Hollywood Bowl) - I've seen it online. google "animated mamas and papas."

  8. Format's 1960-62 period and its problems were like Hanna-Barbera on steroids, in that the studio in such a short time bit off way more than it could chew creatively. But even with the weakest of the H-B product by 1962, you didn't feel like the people making them were totally disinterested in the product and/or held the characters they were working with in contempt, as was the case with Format's efforts for King Features, with the Popeye TV shorts and the Snuffy Smith and Krazy Kat pilots -- all of the studio's energy at the time was focused on the prime-time Alvin Show for CBS.

    (Format's UPA pedigree may also have played a role here in the problems, as well as with the later Road Runner efforts sub-contracted from D-FE. UPA staffers made no secret in the 1950s of their disdain for other studios theatrical product as mindless cartoon violence. Giving those same people contracts to them do cartoons with the others studio's characters was just asking for a tepid product, in the same way MGM contracting with ex-UPAer Gene Deitch to do Tom & Jerry wasn't the best pairing in the world between artist and characters.)

  9. Hans Christian Brando24 January 2021 at 06:38

    Animavens like to dump on these assembly line cartoons, but considering the budgets and the deadlines the artists were working under, it's a wonder they're as good as they are. After all, they're still remembered and studied. At least the primary poses were still strong and the backgrounds often interesting. And the voices!

  10. One factor that had to hurt "The Alvin Show" competitively was CBS's resistance to color telecasting. Not only were Walt Disney's show and "Bullwinkle" in color on NBC, but I'm fairly sure ABC had their prime-time cartoons on in color by then.

    The first color equipment ABC bought were film chains, so they could air their feature movies, cartoons, and sponsors' commercials in color. They didn't have color floor cameras until a couple years later; their first set was installed in the "Hollywood Palace" theatre for that series, and other color series like Lawrence Welk and game shows were hauled in and out of that facility for color taping.

  11. Thanks! Fun ideas,I have your book. I still love no LOVE the original Alvin show sc