Ross Bagdasarian & The Chipmunks: The Armenian Story Behind One of America’s Most Iconic TV Dads

Ross Bagdasarian & The Chipmunks: The Armenian Story Behind One of America’s Most Iconic TV Dads

If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, Alvin and the Chipmunks was a permanent staple of your TV diet. And if you were an Armenian kid growing up in the diaspora, finding out Ross Bagdasarian created your favorite show as a teenager probably blew your mind.
How Armenian Immigrants Built an American Candy Empire

How Armenian Immigrants Built an American Candy Empire

  By Liana Aghajanian   This is a story about how six Armenian immigrants escaping looming atrocities in the Ottoman Empire, came to America and created a candy empire in small town Connecticut, winning a permanent place in confectionary history forever. It is a story about immigration, ingenuity and the quintessential American dream, except its coated in chocolate and filled with shredded coconut, of course. Armed with a huge bout of naive ambition, Peter Halajian's intrepidity gave America two of its most "indescribably delicious" inventions: The Mounds bar and Almond Joy. Yes, an Armenian-American immigrant is ultimately responsible for the single most contagious TV commercial jingle: "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't." Born in 1873 in Turkey according to United States Census records, Peter Halajian set off for America in 1890, just as large scale hostilities were increasing in Anatolia against the Ottoman Empire's Armenian community, in what later became known as the Hamidian Massacres. Peter Paul Halajian   As he settled in New Haven, Connecticut, Halajian found work in the rubber factories of a small community called Naugatuck. He realized that the local towns people were having difficulties in pronouncing his last name (sound familiar?), so he made the decision to legally change it to Peter Paul. But ever the entrepreneurial and stubborn Armenian, Paul wanted to make a name for himself running his own business, instead of working for someone else. After he finished his day at the rubber factory, he'd sell fruits and confectionary goods with his daughters by his side.  There was enough fanfare around his products that he decided to open his own shop in 1897 selling ice cream, sweets and an assortment of fruits.   Newspaper advertisement from 1897   "Although fruit is scarce and hard to get, Peter Paul has a large supply and the prices asked are very reasonable," read a 1901 newspaper ad. Though he had reached an unprecedented level of success, Paul's dreams were bigger and sweeter than just a fruit and confectionary shop in small town Connecticut. So in 1919, he gathered five of his closest Armenian friends who had also emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Armenian Genocide, and persuaded them to get into the candy business. George Shamlian, Cal Kazanjian, Jacob Chouljian, Harry Kazanjian and Jacob Hagopian agreed. The Peter Paul Candy Manufacturing Company was born. It was Shamlian, a chemist, who came up with the recipe in 1920 for what was to be known as the Mounds Bar - a dark chocolate bar with a creamy coconut filling named after the way it looked.     Just as the company was growing, Peter Paul Halajian passed away due to ill health in 1927. His brother-in-law Cal Kazanjian soon took over. Despite the fact that they were competing with other emerging candies on the market like the Oh Henry! bar and Milky Way, Peter Paul Manufacturing continued to expand - moving from cramped quarters to a big candy factory employing over 500 people. The company decided quickly that it wasn't interested in competing with other candy manufacturers by coming up with new products, but sticking to what it was already doing well: making the best coconut bars anybody could buy for 5 cents. Its products were generally sold through brokers who worked on commission. "Mr. Kazanjian used to carry a little box of 'Mounds' around with him,"wrote reporter Wesley S. Griswold in a 1935 article in the Hartford Courant, "When he entered the broker's office, he would take one of the coconut bars out of his pocket, remove its tinfoil cloak, deftly break the chocolate-covered confection and offer the broker a taste. Invariably this routine was awarded with an order."   Calvin K. Kazanjian   Peter Paul manufacturing plant in Naugatuck, Connecticut, 1930.   During the depression, the company took a risk and doubled the size of the Mounds bar at a time when many others were cutting back on products. They also repackaged the bar in cellophane rather than tinfoil to save money without compromising the quality of their product. The strategy was a massive hit. But by the early 1940s, another series of events forced the company to take another direction. Literally. When the Japanese invaded and occupied the Philippines - where Peter Paul was sourcing its entire supply of coconut - the company turned to the Caribbean. In order to evade German submarines, they used smaller, more discreet boats to transport coconuts - their most important raw material - to Florida. Though it had its international equivalents, the Mounds bar never appeared in the overseas market itself - except for one very unusual incident involving a Nazi prisoner of war extradited to the U.S. in 1945.   "German General Is Found to Be in Possession of Peter Paul Mounds,” read the headline in 1945.   The general, whose name remained unknown, was found to be in possession of the iconic red box after being searched by American officials when he arrived in New York, on his way to a prisoner of war camp. "Sticking out like a sore thumb among the array," the Naugatuck Daily News wrote, was [sic] A BOX OF PETER PAUL MOUNDS!!!!" One possible explanation for why a Nazi general would be in possession of an American candy bar could be encounters with Peter Paul's biggest customer at the time. The company was almost exclusively producing Mounds for the army, instead of civilians. Because the United States military regarded chocolate as both a morale boost and high-energy treat for personnel, Peter Paul was supplying 5 million Mounds bars to the U.S. army during WWII. The Centralia Enterprise and Tribune in Wisconsin soon called the firm the "largest manufacturer of coconut candy in the world." By this point, the company had achieved the kind of success that seemed impossible for a group of immigrants who came to America with nothing. But Peter Paul had more work to do. In 1946, they added a new product that would rival the Mounds bar and make the company one of the most successful candy manufacturers of the 20th century: Almond Joy.     Made with milk chocolate, coconut cream filling and a toasted almond on top unlike the plainer and darker Mounds, the Almond Joy turned out to be its predecessor's biggest rival and made Naugatuck synonymous with chocolate - instead of rubber factories - forever. Having long been considered candy manufacturing pioneers in the advertising world, Peter Paul recruited marketing jingle maven Leon Carr who came up with the lyrics,"Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't," an ear worm that has been going strong since it was debuted in the 1970s.     By 1976, the Chicago Tribune reported that the company had sales topping $87 million. But two short years later, Peter Paul was sold to British confectionary firm Cadbury. When Hershey acquired the U.S. operations of Cadbury, Peter Paul went along with it too. Thus, a once independently thriving company from Connecticut is now part of one of the largest candy manufacturers in the world. In 2007, the Naugatuck plant that had been running since the company's earliest days closed after more than 84 years, but the Mounds bar and Almond Joy are found across the country, having maintained their popularity for close to a century.  The company's mantra, "give the consumer top quality and honest value and your business will thrive," as quoted in a 1959 edition of the Naugatuck Daily News has proven true. And while other chocolate bars now seriously rival the creations of Peter Paul, the state where the company was founded has stayed loyal to the now long gone enterprising Armenian immigrants - Almond Joy is indeed the number one candy in Connecticut. This post is part of a new, ongoing series called "Dining in Diaspora: The Armenian-American Experience Through Food." Got any interesting food stories dealing with Armenians in America? Please get in touch  
Rock Aid Armenia: How Bonafide Rock Stars helped a Devastated Armenia

Rock Aid Armenia: How Bonafide Rock Stars helped a Devastated Armenia

  It was December of 1988 in snowy Armenia, but the cold wasn’t the only thing that brutalized the country that winter. At 11:41 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, a devastating earthquake measuring 6.9 on the richter scale ripped through the north, leaving nearly 25,000 dead and 400,000 people homeless in the cities of Spitak, Leninakan (Gyumri) and Kirovakan (Vanadzor) in Lori province.   (Photo by Peter Turnley)   Man scanning listed names of survivors & victims, searching for family members. (Photo by I.Gavrilov)   The Soviet Union was heavily criticized for failing to co-ordinate rescue work and acting promptly, but Armenia received aid from hundreds of countries providing supplies and rescue and search teams. Perhaps the most extraordinary, surprising and heartfelt outreach the small country received was the collective efforts by popular British rock bands who formed a humanitarian effort known as Rock Aid Armenia, raising money to help the hundreds of thousands of Armenians impacted by one of the largest natural disasters it had seen. Spearheaded by international charity campaigner Jon Dee, the Rock Aid Armenia project, which was initially known as Live Aid Armenia, saw the release of singles, an album and even a documentary starring the best of British rock industry in order to raise money for earthquake victims.      “I’ll never forget what I saw,” wrote Dee, recounting the horrors of the death toll, the family members left to deal with the aftermath and the thousands of coffins he saw lined up in the streets.   “I felt I had to do something, after helping with the immediate fundraising that was taking place in the UK, I decided to launch a fundraising push that would gather together people I know in the rock business.”     Dee enlisted the help of everyone from David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, Tommy Iommi of Black Sabbath, Brian May of Queen and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, among many others to help with the project.  The most famous single of the project was a re-recording of Deep Purple’s famous “Smoke on the Water.”    Brian May and Dave Gilmour recording for the Armenian earthquake appeal 'Rock Aid Armenia', at the Metropolis Studios in Chiswick, London, 8th July 1989.   “It is it the riff that launched a thousand guitarists, It is the lip-trembling air-punching Classic Rock Anthem of All Time,” wrote Q Magazine in 1989. “Now Smoke on the Water has been re-recorded with an all-star cast to raise money for the Armenian Earthquake Fund.”   Recorded in the historic Metropolis Studios in July 1989, the single went on to reach the UK Top 40 Singles chart and raise over $100,000 in aid to Armenia. In 1990, a presentation was held at the USSR Embassy in London for The Earthquake Album, which included Smoke on the Water and 14 other tracks  by Led Zeppelin, Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Rush, and Asia. The album was the first UK charity album to receive gold status.   For their efforts, many of the musicians involved received honors and accolades even years after the project. Brian May received an Order of Honor at the Armenian Embassy in London in 2010 and said that he was “very proud that he can consider himself a small part of Armenian history.”  When Tommy Iommi announced he had lymphoma in 2012, he received a letter from then Prime Minister of Armenia Tigran Sargsyan telling him;   “Here in Armenia we think about you. We know your spirit is strong as ever and we do believe the genius of your inspiration that guides you through the work on the new Black Sabbath album will transform into a boost of strength and energy that you need now, when things look tough.”  Perhaps the most impacted and involved in the project of the rockstars, Ian Gillan received a “Friend of Armenians” award at St. Vartan Cathedral in New York.   In 1990, Gillan had gone to Armenia to give four concerts and see first hand what had happened - a trip which left a deep impression on him.    At the Gold Disc presentation in London, Gillan remembered waking up at the crack of dawn in Yerevan and driving for hours to Spitak to survey the damage and meet people. When he returned and was asked what it was like, all he could do was burst into tears from what he had seen.   “The things I saw will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said. He recounted a story he was told in Spitak, about all the weddings that had taken place after the earthquake and how they had no music.   “So the general conversation was that maybe the music should start again in Armenia, whenever the people are ready.” Gillan played a part in helping the people of Armenia start this music again, when he visited the N6 School in Gyumri in 2009 on an invitation from Mediamax along with Iommi, and pledged to rebuild the school. Iommi and Gillan formed WhoCares, a music group that raised money for the school and sold more than 20,000 copies in Europe.    It was this activism that led Armenian President Serzh Sargsian to award Gillan, Iommi, Gilmour and May with "Orders of Honor,” telling the musicians, “We are grateful people and will not forget that after the devastating earthquake of 1988 you were with us.”    Though much work is still left to be done today in Gyumri and the surrounded areas, even 27 years after the earthquake, perhaps Gillan summed up the resiliance of the Armenian people when he said:   “It’s easy to be friendly with Armenia, with Armenian people. It’s easy. You make it easy. You have strong spirit.”     Original, concert T-Shirt from 1989: Smoke on the Water: The Rock Aid Armenia sessions: 
The Forgotten Armenians of Manchester

The Forgotten Armenians of Manchester

After weeks of anticipation, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the first Armenia international footballer in the English Premier League, much to the excitement of Armenian communities everywhere across the world.  The 27-year-old Mkhitaryan, who was born in Yerevan and is Armenia’s all-time top scorer was signed by one of the world's biggest football clubs, Manchester United. “I’m very happy that everyone can be proud of me because it’s an honor for me too, to be the first Armenian player in England,” the former Borussia Dortmund forward told Manchester United TV channel, MUTV. Though Mkhitaryan's impending arrival in Manchester is a first for the small, landlocked country of Armenia, Armenians have been leaving their mark on the city for almost 200 years, contributing immensely to its rich multicultural history. First settling in Manchester as silk merchants in 1835, Armenians from Constantinople and Smyrna set up dozens of textile businesses in the city, a testament to their entrepreneurial spirit.  Inside the Manchester Central Library’s archives are the documents of one such Armenian entrepreneur, Simpad Arabian, who grew up in Constantinople as part of the wealthy Armenian merchant class, left Turkey for Egypt during the outbreak of the First World War, and sought work in America before later moving to Manchester to become a textile shipping merchant. Certificate of identity issued to Simpad Arabian on 12. Sept, 1929 by the Home Office (Manchester Central Library Archives)   As their numbers grew after waves of persecution in the Ottoman Empire, first in the 1880s and then during the Armenian Genocide in 1915, they raised funds and established the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Manchester in 1870, the oldest Armenian church in Western Europe. The church also became a social center in addition to serving the community’s spiritual needs. Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Manchester, 1970   Rev. Haroutune Yegwartian, taken in 1896. (Manchester Central Library Archives)   In 1908, the Armenian Ladies Association of Manchester was established, pledging to help the social progress of Armenians in England and “help keep the inside of the church bright.” (Armenian Ladies Association of Manchester, Manchester Central Library Archives)   The history of the Armenian community in Manchester is still being unearthed today. In 2013, a volunteer at the Manchester Central Library archives began investigating the history of her home named “Massis,” later discovering its Armenian connection and the family who lived there. “Like many Armenians who moved to Manchester, Karnig Funduklian was a businessman, and the family textile/shipping business Funduklian & Sons benefited from the then booming cotton trade within the city,” she wrote. Family group showing Mr. K. Funduklian, his wife and 3 children, cousin, and servants in c.1900 (Manchester Central Library Archives)   Three years prior, artist and author Neil Roland discovered how one Armenian family had lived in the house built in the final years of Queen Victoria’s reign before he bought it. The Arschavir children, Arto, Adrine and Ara were born in the house. “Even now, 98 years after the birth of Arto and just three weeks since his death, this house is still offering up secrets and signs of their long and happy tenure here,” he wrote. Perhaps the most well-known Armenian-Mancunian connection in recent years comes in the form of David Dickinson (born David Gulesserian), renowned antiques expert host of the British TV show, “Dickinson's Real Deal.” Dickinson, who was adopted, discovered that his biological grandfather Hrant was an Armenian silk merchant who came to Manchester from the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s at the age of 16 to set up a thriving trading company. David Dickinson    Though the community has since dwindled, the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church of Manchester still exists as does the Armenian Taverna restaurant. Established in 1968, it serves traditional Armenian fare like Ishkan trout and the yoghurt and cucumber salad known as “Jajuk.” Just before last year’s Armenian Genocide centennial, BBC Radio produced a five part audio series on the Armenian Diaspora in Europe - with Manchester featured in the first episode. “Despite everything that history has thrown at this community, somehow the Armenians have managed to survive all around the world,” says writer Charles Emmerson in the program, as he shares insights from both established and new members of this forgotten community. "In England if you say 'I'm Armenian,' people will say 'what do you mean, aluminum?'" one man says. As Mkhitaryan gets ready to move up in the football world, his forthcoming contribution to Manchester is sure add to the city's significant Armenian history.   Ara the Rat / Mkhitaryan tee possibly in the works. Sign up to the Ara the Rat mailing list to be notified of our new products.  
Armenians Rule the U.S. Classic Animated Series

Armenians Rule the U.S. Classic Animated Series

The following is a translated article written in response to our The Armenians of Springfield blog post by a website based in Azerbaijan. It was launched by an NGO called "For Human Rights" in 2011. They refer to themselves as "an information, analytical and monitoring portal" and state that their mission is to educate society and fight for human rights.
The Armenians of Springfield

The Armenians of Springfield

The Simpsons has been running for 26 years and throughout that time a small number of unexpected Armenian references have been made. Here is a rundown of some of the familiar and not so familiar Armenian residents of Springfield. 

Forgotten Art: Soviet Era Armenian Movie Posters

'Chaos' (1974) By Karapet Eranyan   Though its glory days have faded into non-existence, Armenia cinema was once a robust, flourishing industry that began in the 1920s with the opening of Armenian film studio, “Haykino,” or “Armenkino” in Yerevan.   One fascinating byproduct of this almost 100-year history are the film posters designed by Armenian artists. They are a testament to the rich, cultural, cinematic heritage that once flourished in Soviet Armenia. Throughout the years following Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union however, many of these cultural artifacts were destroyed and others lost forever. The film department of the Eghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Art in Yerevan, perhaps the largest repository of Armenian manuscripts and books of the last 300 years, saved a small sample.    In 2006, filmmaker Vigen Galstyan returned to his native Armenia from Australia to complete his feature length documentary, “White Crow” and assemble 121 of these film posters, the last remaining treasures from Armenia’s filming legacy that are now long forgotten.   “It is time we open our eyes, before the destructive habits of ignorance and the process of modernization and progress claim the invaluable vestiges of Armenian cultural heritage,” he writes in the introduction of his book.    The posters presented here, all designed by Armenian artists of their time, are from this saved collection and Galstyan’s book.    They include the poster art for films such as “About my Friend,” which focuses on the life of three friends named Aram, Ruben and Gohar who go to Leningrad to study just as WWII begins and “The Thirteenth Apostle,” based on science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s stories, about the moral limits that science should not overstep. They were screen written, directed, edited and managed by film industry professionals in and from Armenia.     'Hello, it's me' (1965)By Karapet Eranyan     'A piece of the sky' (1980) By Rafael Babayan      'Die on the horse' (1980)By Karine Miskaryan   'Strange games' (1986)By Aragast Akhoyan   'The Thirteenth Apostle' (1988) By Hrant Komitasyan   '5 Brides' (1930)By Sargis Safaryan     'Another five days' (1978)By Karapet Eranyan     'About my friend' (1958)By Karapet Eranyan   'Why does the river roar' (1958)By Karapet Eranyan      (IMAGES POSTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR. PLEASE SHARE, DO NOT STEAL)  
Hye Superstars: Armenian pop records of yesteryear

Hye Superstars: Armenian pop records of yesteryear

   
Vintage Armenian Cigarette Package Designs

Vintage Armenian Cigarette Package Designs

Masis Cigarettes, Circa 1970s Sasuntsi Davit, Circa 1970s Armenia Cigarettes, Circa 1970s Yerevan Cigarettes, 1979   Ararat Smoking Tobacco, Made in Detroit, Circa 1930s Aurora cigarettes, named after a Russian armoured cruiser. Masis Cigarettes, Circa 1970s    © Ara the Rat. Please share, don't steal.