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The Chipmunks and David Seville.

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  • mrcooby
    Behind new Chipmunks DVDs there s a true Hollywood story September 26, 2006|By Louis R. Carlozo, Tribune staff reporter The true-life, rags-to-riches, 100
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 17, 2014
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      Behind new Chipmunks DVDs there's a true Hollywood story

      September 26, 2006|By Louis R. Carlozo, Tribune staff reporter

      The true-life, rags-to-riches, 100 percent Hollywood story of Ross Bagdasarian begins in 1958, with the modestly successful songwriter skipping a grocery run for his young family to plunk down his last $200 on Tape-O-Matic's "Voice of Music" reel-to-reel recorder. This two-track machine is so ordinary that you might find one at a garage sale today, mistake it for a retro piece of luggage and buy it for 10 bucks.

      But with it, Bagdasarian -- a former farm laborer known by his showbiz moniker David Seville -- made magic, and entertainment history. Using the variable speed feature on the recorder, he created a squeaky-voiced gremlin who starred in the novelty hit "The Witch Doctor," which sold 1.5 million copies in two months.

      Then came what is still the oddest -- and most enduring -- Christmas novelty tune in all pop music. "My brother, who was about 4 at the time, kept asking if it was Christmastime yet," recalls Ross Bagdasarian Jr. "It was the summer of 1958, and my dad loved the idea of a kid who can't wait and keeps asking, and keeps asking. That became the basis of `The Chipmunk Song'" (actually "Christmas Don't Be Late").

      The smash made "Me, I want a hula hoop!" a modern catch-phrase and sold more than 4 million copies in seven weeks. It also introduced us to the Chipmunks -- Alvin, Simon and Theodore -- stars of "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Trick or Treason" (Paramount Home Video, $14.99) and "A Chipmunk Christmas" (Paramount Home Video, $19.98). The latter title bows this week.

      In his Santa Barbara office, Bagdasarian Jr. still has his dad's Tape-O-Matic machine, long since retired. But its spirit remains: Chipmunk voices are still produced on tape, not computers. And the son now voices Alvin, Simon and the David Seville character; his wife, Janice Karman, is Theodore and writes the scripts.

      "When we started, we had all sorts of auditions," recalls Ross Jr., a lawyer by training. "I grew up with Charlie Brown, and it always bothered me when they had to change people and I could hear the difference in the voices. As we were auditioning people, I was in the recording booth listening and Janice was giving direction, and I said, `Oh, my God, that's Theodore.' She said, `That was me.' I said, `I don't care, that's perfect, you're Theodore.' And she said, `I won't do it unless you're Alvin and Simon.'"

      Unlike so many properties absorbed by big studios and assigned to hired-gun actors, Chipmunks production remains the family affair it has always been. But that career path was not set in stone for the younger Bagdasarian.

      That all changed after his dad -- a jovial Armenian who talked his way into bit movie parts, such as the obsessed piano player in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" -- died of a heart attack in 1972, days shy of his 53rd birthday.

      "He was just so filled with zest and good humor that you were sure he was going to live to be 102," his son says. "I was 22 at the time and -- God -- talk about your world just changing. At that age, I really wanted to do my own thing. It was only when he passed away so suddenly, that as a way of really having him in my life I would go to his office and play all the old Chipmunks songs. I just thought it would be a shame for the characters to die prematurely with him. And I very naively thought, `I've got to keep those guys going!'" Not that TV execs agreed; everywhere he went, Ross Jr. was shown the door.

      Then came another freak break: the 1980 novelty album "Chipmunk Punk," spurred by a Chipmunks tune that didn't exist. A Philadelphia deejay had played Blondie's "Heart of Glass" at double speed, causing callers to jam the station switchboard asking where they could buy "that new Chipmunks song." Word reached Bagdasarian Jr., who rushed out "Chipmunk Punk" -- though the artists covered, including Billy Joel, were not exactly punkers.

      The album sold a million copies instantly. After the 1981 country disc "Urban Chipmunk," the Chipmunks were re-animated: "A Chipmunk Christmas" celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and features a pre-"Simpsons" Nancy Cartwright as one of its stars.

      "It was a phenomenally fun time to see the second incarnation of the Chipmunks be just as successful, if not more successful, than the first time," says Ross Jr., who hopes to resurrect his dad's old TV shows -- many of which have never been released, even on VHS. "For a really small independent business like us, it's like trying to sell a really good cup of coffee when there are 8 billion Starbucks right around you."

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