Marshall Fish is a remote trivia writer for Hasbro, Screenlife Games, and other pop culture websites.
It’s been over six decades since Ross Bagdasarian Sr. bought a tape recorder with 190 of his last 200 dollars, and by changing the machine’s speed, created the tunes “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)”. Both tracks became hits, and led to Bagdasarian bringing the characters Alvin, Simon, and Theodore into the world of music, TV, and merchandising.
In “Aaaaalllviiinnn!”: The Story of Ross Bagdasarian Sr., Liberty Records, Format Films and The Alvin Show”, author Mark Arnold recounts the history of Bagdasarian, better known as David Seville, the music label he recorded for, and most importantly the early TV history of The Chipmunks.
This 385 page book, published by BearManor Media, reveals unique information that many Chipmunks fans might not be familiar with. Bagdasarian was born Rostom Sipan Bagdasarian in Fresno in 1919. His family ran a 60-acre grape farm. He took the stage name of David Seville as he had served in the air force in Seville, Spain. Additionally, he liked the name David if he and his wife ever had another son.
Prior to his “Chipmunks” success, Bagdasarian and his cousin, famed writer and playwright William Saroyan, penned the 1951 Rosemary Clooney number one U.S. hit, “Come On-a My House”. The melody was based on an Armenian folk song. In 2019, Della Reese’s recording of the tune was used in a U.S. McDonald’s commercial. However, the big break for Bagdasarian came in 1958 when his record label, Liberty, was about to go out of business. The Chipmunks single “”Witch Doctor” was released in March that year, sold two million copies and helped save the company.
Arnold devotes a chapter looking into the background of the Liberty label. The company was started by Si Waronker, with Al Bennett as President and Theodore Keep as chief engineer. Thus, Bagadasarian took the names Simon, Alvin, and Theodore for The Chipmunks based on the Liberty Records top personnel. Eddie Cochran’s classic hit “Summertime Blues”, Bobby Vee’s number one U.S. single “Take Good Care of My Baby”, Jan and Dean’s “Surf City”, and Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” were all released on the Liberty imprint.
Bagdasarian made 16 albums for Liberty Records, with 12 featuring The Chipmunks in the title. It’s interesting to find out from the “Aaaaalllviiinnn!” book that beginning with 1964’s "The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles Hits”, Bagdasarian stopped providing the Chipmunks vocals on the albums. A group known as The Eligibles took over the work. The Eligibles also sang the theme for seasons two and three of TV’s “Gilligan’s Island” series. The band’s Ron Hicklin would go on to form The Ron Hicklin Singers, which provided the theme song vocals for such TV shows as “Batman”, “Flipper”, “Love, American Style” and “Happy Days”. The group performing most of the instrumentation for the 1960s Alvin and the Chipmunks records was famed L.A. session musicians The Wrecking Crew, whose credits included hits by Sonny and Cher, The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, and Simon and Garfunkel.
The Alvin Show
“The Alvin Show” TV series ran for just one season, in 1961 and 1962, on CBS. 26 shows were produced, with the broadcast dates, credits, characters and commercial sponsors listed in the “Aaaaalllviiinnn!”book. Bagdasarian provided the speaking voices for the Chipmunks as well as his David Seville cartoon character. The programs included a Chipmunks and Seville cartoon, two Chipmunks musical segments, and a toon starring madcap inventor Clyde Crashcup and his assistant Leonardo. The musical segments were in their own way a promotion for The Chipmunks records, too. Though the show ran in prime time for just the one season, Arnold mentions the program aired three more years as part of CBS’s Saturday morning lineup, before going into syndication.
Arnold goes over the history of Format Films, the studio that made “The Alvin Show” as well as a “Lone Ranger” cartoon series (when the studio was renamed Format Productions). The studio also made some Road Runner, Speedy Gonzales and Daffy Duck toons. In addition, Format animated segments for such 1960s shows as “I Spy”, “Honey West”, and “Hee Haw". Bob Kurtz, who designed the 1961 animated Chipmunk characters,“Alvin Show” story writer Dale Hale and supervising editor Joe Siracusa provide in depth details about the Format Films studio and their co-workers on the “Alvin” program.
The book provides a treasure trove of approximately 37 pages of “Alvin Show” images to enhance the story. Copies of “Alvin Show" production art including cels, drawings, a complete storyboard, and a press kit are included. Images of Alvin and the Chipmunks album covers are pictured, as well as various Alvin related news story clippings and record store ads. Unfortunately, some of the news articles are difficult to read. Perhaps the articles could have been enlarged to fit on individual pages. As with Arnold’s excellent 2009 book “Created and Produced by Total Television Productions" , the photos and artwork reproductions are all in black and white inside.
Examples of “Alvin Show” merchandise are also shown, such as a lunchbox, puzzles, comic books, greeting cards, coloring books, bubble gum, and more.
One minor quibble would be that Arnold didn’t get a chance to interview Ross Bagdasarian Jr. and his wife Janice Karman for this book. Portions of an interview with Bagdasarian Jr. by radio’s Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen) and the liner notes from the 1999 Chipmunks Greatest Hits CD “Still Squeaky After All These Years” are used for their comments. The couple has been handling all things Chipmunk related since 1980 when the “Chipmunk Punk” album was released. That started the ball rolling with the 1983-1991 “Alvin and the Chipmunks” TV shows, new albums, live action feature films in the 2000s with Jason Lee as David Seville, and much more. Bagdasarian Jr. and Karman would have added an extra perspective for the book. Or perhaps, Bagdasarian Sr.’s other children, son Adam and daughter Carol, might have been interviewed.
Since the focus is on Bagdasarian Sr. and “The Alvin Show”, just seven pages are devoted to the Chipmunks projects of the last nearly 40 years
Before this book, probably not too many people knew that rockers Canned Heat had teamed with The Chipmunks on disc in 1968 for a new version of “The Chipmunk Song". Furthermore, three years earlier, George Barris,designer of the Batmobile, modified a jeep called “Alvin’s Acorn” for Bagdasarian to go hunting in with pals such as Jonathan Winters.
Canned Heat and The Chipmunks-"The Chipmunk Song"
If you’re looking for a fun and informative book on Ross Bagdasarian Sr., Liberty Records, Format Films and “The Alvin Show”, Mark Arnold’s book is your best bet. Now, if we could only get the complete “Alvin Show” series on Blu-ray, DVD, and streaming services. But music rights are probably making that difficult.