MONTECITO, Calif. Children often inherit the family business. But not everyone takes over a company built on the antics of three bickering, animated furry brothers, Alvin, Simon and Theodore, known as Alvin and The Chipmunks.
Ross Bagdasarian Jr. and his wife, Janice Karman, have been the creative force behind the trio since since his father, Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who created the animated characters, died in 1972.
The couple has been working almost nonstop for 18 months on a new direction for The Chipmunks. "Little Alvin & the Mini-Munks," an 80-minute DVD, looks at the The Chipmunks and Chipettes as preschoolers. The DVD is available now through the company Web site at www.chipmunks.com.
The elder Bagdasarian's first taste of fame was as co-writer of "Come On-A My House," a huge hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1951. He claimed more fame as the songwriter and performer named David Seville for the 1958 novelty song "The Witch Doctor."
The same year he wrote and performed "The Chipmunk Song," also as David Seville. It was a No. 1 hit and created a sensation.
The Chipmunks quickly became stars of television shows, recordings and merchandise.
On the new DVD, The Chipmunks are presented through puppetry rather than animation. The trio appear in a live-action story that is designed to be entertaining and educational.
Karman, who appears in the live-action film as La Lu, consulted child psychologists while working on the project, hoping to make a product that would educate the whole family.
"I often wonder if Ross' father would be proud of what we are doing. I think he will be. He knows I am trying," Karman says.
The video was filmed at their Mediterranean-style home, nestled in this affluent community a whisker away from Santa Barbara. A brick driveway winds up a small hill to the main house, where the couple live with their two children, Vanessa, 17, and Michael, 13. A few steps away from the front door is the two-story building that is the center of Bagdasarian Productions.
The building is part office, part museum. Framed album covers of "A Chipmunk Christmas," "Urban Chipmunk" and "Chipmunk Punk" adorn the walls.
Boxes stuffed with animation cels used to create the 26 episodes of the television series "The Alvin Show" in 1961 and the updated version of "The Chipmunks" from the '80s are stacked in a corner.
Ross Bagdasarian Sr., born in Fresno, Calif., in 1919, spent most of his early years working in local vineyards. He was a songwriter at heart. In 1950, when Ross Bagdasarian Jr. was 1, the family moved to Los Angeles.
"We are sitting here today because of what he created 45 years ago against all odds," Ross Bagdasarian Jr. says. The success of The Chipmunks now spans three generations.
The new DVD is the fourth incarnation of Alvin, Simon and Theodore.
On the album cover for the 1958 introduction of the trio, "The Chipmunk Song," Alvin, Simon and Theodore look like real chipmunks wearing letter sweaters. The more human characteristics did not appear until the TV series in 1961.
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And the 1980s brought a new street-smart version of the trio.
John Karwin, curator of the Fullerton Museum and an expert in television animation, explains that "The Alvin Show" was a hit because it used a proven situation comedy formula: a father and three mischievous sons with very different personalities.
The Chipmunks creator was told by his first record label, Liberty Records, that his name sounded too ethnic. It also was too long to fit on a record label. He selected "Seville" because of his love of the Spanish city. "David" just sounded right.
The Chipmunks were named for Liberty Record executives Al Bennett, Si Warnoker and recording engineer Ted Keep.
Bagdasarian Jr. took care of the business after his father's death.
"My dad told me to go to law school. … After his death, I understood why he wanted me to study law. People started coming out of the woodworks trying to get a piece of the company," Bagdasarian says.
The younger Bagdasarian began an earnest attempt to revive "The Chipmunks" in 1978.
"My whole thing after my father passed away was that I didn't want The Chipmunks to pass away prematurely with my dad. We went everywhere: toy shows, television networks, record labels. No one was interested," Bagdasarian says.
Renewed interest came from an unusual place: a small Philadelphia radio station. In February 1980, a disc jockey working the graveyard shift decided to play the Blondie tune "Call Me" at a higher speed.
The song was announced as the latest recording of The Chipmunks. Listeners called. They wanted to buy the record.
Executives with Pickwick Records, a small publishing company in Philadelphia, heard about the incident. They contacted the younger Bagdasarian with an offer to record a new album.
"I would like to tell you there was this big dramatic pause and I said We will have to see.' But I actually just shouted Yes, we would love to!' " Bagdasarian says.
The result was "Chipmunk Punk." It sold more than 1 million copies. It also ignited interest in a new version of The Chipmunks.
In 1983, "Alvin & the Chipmunks" TV show debuted as part of NBC's Saturday morning lineup. More than 100 episodes were produced and aired through 1991.
Bagdasarian's office remains a shrine to his father. He's seated near the original tape recorder his father used to create The Chipmunk voices. Nearby is the upright piano his father used to write all of his hit songs.
"I feel my father's presence all the time," Bagdasarian says.