Simon, Theodore, Alvin and Dave.


Original medium: Popular music
Produced by: Liberty Records
First Appeared: 1958
Creator: Ross Bagdasarian
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Every kid who ever fiddled with a multi-speed record player knows that when you speed up recorded sound, it sounds silly. Song writer/performer Ross Bagdasarian (under the stage name "David Seville") may have been …

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… the first person to become a millionaire because of that. His first attempt to cash in on the phenomenon was a popular song called "Witch Doctor", which he recorded in 1958 for Liberty Records. It sold over a million copies and is still heard, on rare occasions, as a moldie oldie. But he really struck it rich later that year with his Christmas hit, "The Chipmunk Song" (aka "Christmas, Don't Be Late").

The idea was to use his gimmick to represent animal voices — butterflies, birds, something like that. It was his children who suggested chipmunks. Bagdasarian did all four voices (including the David Seville character) himself, and named his chipmunks after Liberty Records executives Si Waronker, Ted Keep and Al Bennett — Simon, Theodore and Alvin.

Simon was characterized as good at what he does, a fast learner, and well aware of the fact. His response to "Dave" praising his performance was "Naturally". Theodore was kind of giddy, and not quite as smart. He giggled at Dave's praise. Alvin was a real cut-up — when Dave tried to criticize Alvin's performance, he had to yell just to get any response at all from the furry li'l critter. It was Alvin, of course, who became the star, and it was probably Alvin's participation that sent "The Chipmunk Song" to the top of the charts.

A new Chipmunk release, acknowledging Alvin's star status, was quickly prepared, and "Alvin's Harmonica" went on sale in February, 1959. This was followed by Let's Sing with the Chipmunks, an album containing both, plus Chipmunk versions of several other well known songs (including a rock'n'roll rendition of "Whistle While You Work", from Walt Disney's Snow White). Before long they were appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, with hand puppets designed and crafted by Bob Clampett (Tweety Bird, Beany & Cecil) representing the Chipmunks.

Their first foray into the toon world was in 1959, when Dell Comics devoted the 1042nd issue of Four Color Comics to their adventures. But it didn't become a series, and the Chipmunk design created for that issue, one with natural proportions and looking altogether more like real chipmunks than one would expect of cartoon characters, wasn't used again. They made their real transformation into toons a couple of years later when, on October 4, 1961, The Alvin Show debuted on CBS.

There were four segments in that show. Two of them (shorter than most cartoon show segments) had The Chipmunks leading viewers in sing-alongs, and one starred a crazy inventor named Clyde Crashcup. The lead segment featured the Chipmunk characters as kids with David Seville, their guardian, playing the role of Dad. Alvin was definitely the star, with Simon and Theodore in supporting roles — sort of like Wally to Alvin's Beaver. Again, Bagdasarian did all four voices, with Shepard Menken (whose voice is also heard in Chuck Jones's The Phantom Tollbooth) as Crashcup. It lasted only one season in prime time, but was rerun the next year on Saturday morning, and has since been seen in syndicated reruns.

Dell adapted the TV cartoon into a comic book, starting with a December, 1962 cover date. That version ran 28 issues, the last dated October, 1973. Dell even ran him for president in 1964, putting him in company with Andy Gump, Betty Boop and other toon presidential candidates. Even Crashcup had a Dell comic, at least briefly. And of course, there were T-shirts, coloring books and the like.

But it ran its course, and Bagdasarian retired. He died in 1972. Five years later, his son, Ross Jr., took the Chipmunks concept out of mothballs and tried selling The Chipmunks to a new generation. It took two years, but finally, NBC re-ran The Alvin Show on Saturday mornings, in its 1979-80 season. Simultaneously, a disk jockey's joke about an album called Chipmunk Punk led to Bagdasarian Jr. releasing an album of that name in 1980. The success of the album, plus NBC's rerun of the series, brought on a full-scale Chipmunks revival.

A new animated version, Alvin & the Chipmunks, debuted on NBC, September 17, 1983. The basic Chipmunk design was similar to the earlier show, but in a more up-to-date style; and the Chipmunks, like mortal folk, seem to have aged a little during the intervening years. One symptom of aging is the discovery of girls; and this show was equiped with three — The Chipettes, Jeanette, Brittany and Eleanor. The girls had a mentor, Miss Rebecca Miller, as counterpart to Dave. Bagdasarian Jr. did the voices of all the male characters except Theodore, while his wife, Janice Karman, did most of the others, with Dody Goodman (Mrs. Morgan on Punky Brewster) as Miss Miller. Tho their supporting role was recognized in the title, Simon and Theodore were still secondary characters. The show still had song segments, but Clyde Crashcup didn't make it into the new incarnation.

This time, The Chipmunks were even more successful than before. They remained on network TV until 1991, spawning a feature-length film, A Chipmunk Adventure (released May 22, 1987), along the way. They even got their comic book back, at least for a little while, as Harvey Comics reprinted five of the old Dell comics in 1992. More recently, they've been palling around with monsters (Frankenstein in 1999 and Wolfman in 2000) in straight-to-video animated features. More recently yet, they starred in a live-action feature from Fox 2000 Pictures and Bagdasarian Production, released December 14, 2007.

Not bad for a gimmick known by every kid who ever fiddled with a multi-speed record player.


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Text ©2002-08 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Bagdasarian.