Ross Bagdasarian & The Chipmunks: The Armenian Story Behind One of America’s Most Iconic TV Dads June 18, 2017 09:54 1 Comment
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.
But the story behind Bagdasarian and how he created a beloved cartoon which went on to achieve worldwide fame is as much of a good story as the chipmunks themselves.
Airing for almost a decade, the animated series followed the adventures of three rambunctious chipmunks - Alvin, Simon and Theodore and their adoptive father and manager David Seville as they tried to make it in the music business. Virtually every episode includes a frustrated Seville yelling “AAAALVIN!” after the trio cause havoc, led by their trouble-making brother Alvin.
It was Ross’s son, Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. who's responsible for the version that nostalgic late millennials remember well, incorporating his own father’s story into the character David Seville.
“My dad was the Armenian version of Zorba the Greek” he recalled in an interview. “You felt that he was going to live to be 8,000 years old, so when he passed away that was like an episode of The Twilight Zone for me. The way for me to have my dad around was to resurrect the Chipmunks.”
But the events that led up to the creation of the three rodents and their firm but fair father happened decades before we ever got introduced to them.
David Seville was in fact, Bagdasarian’s alter ego, one he created in the late 50s at the request of Liberty Record executives, who thought his real, Armenian name sounded too ethnic. Bagdasarian ended up choosing “Seville” because he was stationed in Seville, Spain during World War II.
He was born Rostom Sipan Bagdasarian to Armenian parents in Fresno who escaped the Hamidian Massacres and growing troubles for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire to emigrate to the U.S.
Ross Bagdasarian, front row, 2nd from left. Fresno High School Yearbook, 1936
Bagdasarian first went in the family business - growing grapes - but he gave up running a 60-acre grape farm to pursue his passion.
“The business was terrible and my mom and dad said, the music business can’t be any tougher than grapes and raisins, let’s at least follow our dreams,” Bagdasarian, Jr. later recalled in an interview.
He first found success in 1951, when “Come On-A My House,” the song he co-wrote based on an old Armenian folk song about Armenian hospitality with his cousin, playwright William Saroyan, became a hit for Rosemary Clooney.
Bagdasarian’s song writing strategy was more Armenian-influenced than people know. He and Saroyan rented an office in Beverly Hills and tried to extend their success by taking Armenian material that had fallen in the public domain and converting them to songs for the American mainstream.
“All of the material was based on Near Eastern Themes,” authors Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford write in the book, “Saroyan: A Biography”
Oh! Beauty” had been “Akh, Yavroos” in the original Armenian, though it failed to replicate the success of “Come On-a My House,” with its recitation of delights including the most Armenian of produce items, the pomegranate.
Even Clooney was cajoled into giving “Come On-A My House” an Armenian spin:
“Now the fact that it was an Armenian folk song, he wanted an accent. I don’t know how to do an Armenian accent, so I used what I laughingly called an Italian accent, because that was the band I sang with, an Italian band, Tony Pastor.”
After “Come On-A My House” hit the waves, Bagdasarian moved his family to Los Angeles, thinking that it would be easier to try and make it in Hollywood than California’s Central Valley, but the reality of LaLa Land was as much of slog as farming in Fresno.
He received minor roles in classics like Alfred Hitchock’s “Rear Window” and Elia Kazan’s “Viva Zapata!” among others, but attempting to navigate the white-dominated film industry as an Armenian was tough.
Alfred Hitchcock and Ross Bagdasarian on the set of Rear Window, 1954
“Because he is dark and of Armenian descent, the movies cast him as heavy,” the Indianapolis Star reported in the 50s. “This did not suit his natural exuberance and Ross was not an overnight success.”
In 1958, Bagdasarian, desperate to hold onto his dreams, took his last $200 and bought a state of the art tape recorder, which allowed him to change speeds on the sounds he was recording.
He eventually wrote “Witch Doctor” with the help of this new technology, garnering another hit record under his belt. He reportedly drew his inspiration from a book “Duel with the Witch Doctor,” and the fact that teenage records at that time that were selling seemed to have one thing in common, he said - you couldn’t understand any of the lyrics.
Bagdasarian’s fortunes were now looking up, and people were noticing - a far cry from the typecasting he endured because of his ethnic background.
“Hey! How’s the Richest Armenian in Hollywood?” shouted actor Eddie Albert at Bagdasarian once while he was having lunch with a Los Angeles Times reporter.
Bagdasarian was back in the game, and soon Liberty Records came calling for a new novelty hit. Interested in making a longer lasting impact than his previous attempts, he decided to add characters into the mix, but wasn’t sure what species of animal to go with. A chance encounter with a chipmunk as Bagdasarian was driving around Yosemite in 1958 settled the debate. The chipmunk fearlessly jumped in front of his car and Bagdasarian found the tenacity of this creature hilarious and endearing. That chipmunk inspired the main character Alvin, who was ready to go on any adventure or take any risk.
He then added Simon and Theodore in the mix. The three were named after Liberty Record executives, Alvin Bennett, Simon Waronker and Theodore Keep.
Bagdasarian released “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” under his more American sounding name, David Seville, which went on to sell 4 million copies in seven weeks and win two Grammy Awards. He voiced all three chipmunks by using his tape recorder to produce the squeaky voices.
The chipmunks were then animated for the first time in a TV series called “The Alvin Show” in 1961 which only lasted a year, but had Bagdasarian continuing to voice all the characters and was also intent on not using a laughter track or showcasing violence, which appeared in other cartoon series like “The Flintstones.”
In 1964, he set his sights on collaborating with the most popular band in the world: The Beatles. After meeting with them in London and receiving their blessing, he produced a Beatles cover album called “The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles Hits.”
By the mid 60s, Bagdasarian took a break from the Chipmunks and in a way, went back to his grape farming roots by buying a winery.
“He was a person certainly of short attention span,” Ross, Jr. said in a 2007 Los Angeles Times article, “but also incredibly focused, really, really smart, and very funny.”
When Bagdasarian passed away from a sudden heart attack in 1972 at the age of 52, The Chipmunks remained on hold until Ross, Jr. and his wife, Janice Karman tried to revive the series.
“A way of still having my dad around was to resurrect Alvin and Chipmunks,” he said. “I thought this won’t be hard, it wouldn’t take but a year or so.”
Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.
The attempts were largely unsuccessful until a Philadelphia disc jockey sped up Blondie’s “Call Me” one night in 1980 and joked it was the Chipmunks. The response was massive and soon Ross, Jr. got a call asking if he’d be interested in doing a new album.
“Chipmunk Punk” was born in 1980, and its success ultimately led to a renewed interest in the three rodents.
In an interview with the Providence Journal in 2010, Ross Jr. said he was surprised that he ended up following in his dad’s footsteps.
“I revered my dad, but I didn’t want to do what he had done. This was his creation. Had he remained alive, I never would have done this.”
In 1983, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” launched on NBC and Ross, Jr, following in his father’s tradition, voiced the characters of Alvin, Simon and David Seville.
The series ended in 1990, only to be resurrected on the silver screen in 2007, a film dedicated to the elder Bagdasarian. The end credits read: “This film is dedicated to Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who was crazy enough to invent three singing chipmunks nearly fifty years ago.”
This was followed up by sequels in 2009, 2011 and 2015. In August 2015, an animated TV series called “ALVINN!!! And the Chipmunks” premiered on Nickelodeon.
With a zeal for the American Dream and a lot of immigrant drive, Ross Bagdasarian’s genius has managed to remain an integral part of America’s pop culture lexicon, inspiring generations of Chipmunk lovers across the world to this day, including Ara the Rat.