BEING SHOWBIZ PARENTS CAN HAVE ITS drawbacks. Sure, it’s nice to see the kids make good, but the responsibilities never end. Ask Ross Bagdasarian Jr., and his wife, Janice Karman, who at the moment are discussing a product endorsement recently offered their famous progeny.
“A breakfast cereal,” says Janice. “It was going to be that sugar-filled stuff, and we just couldn’t let them do it. There are enough sugar cereals out there. So we said no.”
Not that the Bagdasarian brood would ever have tasted the stuff. They are, after all, chipmunks—the Chipmunks—Alvin, Simon and Theodore, whose maddeningly high-pitched voices and cartoon images were created by Ross Bagdasarian Sr. and are once again thriving under the care of Ross Jr. and Janice. Since their vocal debut 35 years ago with “The Chipmunk Song,” the animated trio has generated some $45 million in record sales. Add their take from a TV cartoon show, a collection of home videos and assorted Chipmunk merchandise, and their income over the years amounts to a staggering $300 million.
At the moment, the recording rodents are riding higher than ever. With Ross, 43, providing the voices for Alvin, Simon and their fictitious comic foil, David Seville, and Janice, 37, doing Theodore and the backup Chipettes, the group’s newest album, Chipmunks in Low Places, ran up over a million in sales, hit the Top 10 on the country charts and even earned a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. Guest stars including Billy Ray Cyrus, Tammy Wynette and Aaron Tippin made recording Low Places a high time, says Bagdasarian.
“Tammy was sick, but she told us her kids and grandkids grew up on the Chipmunks, so she’d be thrilled to help out,” he says. “Billy Ray Cyrus said he’d grown up with the Chipmunks too. He was so excited.” For Tippin, the offer to record with Alvin was “like being asked to have supper with the President.”
Back when Alvin & Co. were first created by Bagdasarian’s father, the idea was simply to put food on the table. In 1957, Ross Sr., a sometime actor and occasional songwriter (among his creations: Rosemary Clooney’s 1951 hit “Come On-A My House,” cowritten with his cousin, playwright William Saroyan), had la ken the last $200 of the family’s savings, bought a tape recorder and started tinkering. After recording his voice at half speed, then playing it back at normal speed to raise its pitch, he made a novelty record titled “Witch Doctor” with the memorable mantra “Oo ee, oo ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang.”
When the single sold more than a million copies, Bagdasarian began looking for other characters to fit the voices. Enter Alvin, Simon and Theodore. Before long the trio was earning 87 million a year.
The burgeoning Chipmunk empire didn’t hold much appeal, though, (or the children of Bagdasarian and his wife, Armen). Daughter Carol became an actress and house wile: younger son Adam, 38, became a fiction writer. As for Ross Jr., he collected an English degree from Stanford in 1972, the year Ross Sr. died of a heart attack. “I just worshiped him,” he says. “When he passed away, I thought, ‘Gosh, lie was a talented man who did wonderful things, and they deserve to live on.’ ” Fulfilling a promise to his father, Ross Jr. earned a law degree from Southwestern University in 1975 before turning his attention back to the Chipmunks.
Trouble was, when he tried to sell the idea of a revival, the names Alvin, Simon and Theodore seemed to lack the old magic. Producers “said this was history,” Ross remembers. “Ancient history.”
Bagdasarian did find one true believer—an aspiring actress named Janice Karman. The couple met at an L.A. health-food restaurant in 1975, and shortly afterward, says Janice, “Ross brought me into his dad’s old office and played some of the old tapes. My mother wasn’t big on letting us watch television when I was young, but the Chipmunks’ show was one she’d let us see.” Janice liked the tapes, Ross liked her, and five years later they were married.
About the same time, a Philadelphia deejay revived Ross Sr.’s old recording gimmick by speeding up popular rock tunes to produce Chipmunk-like vocals. Inspired, two Minneapolis record executives, with Bagdasarian’s approval, produced an album titled Chipmunk Punk, featuring hits of the day including Blondie’s “Call Me” and the Knack’s “My Sharona.” It sold more than a million copies, and in 1981 Bagdasarian and Karman scored with a follow-up, Urban Chipmunk, and a CBS special, A Chipmunk Christmas. By 1983 the Saturday-morning cartoon series Alvin and the Chipmunks was back on the air (it can still be seen in syndication), and Karman and Bagdasarian were working hour days.
Thanks to the profits they’ve squirreled away since then, the couple now live in a palatial, French-style villa on the Santa Barbara coast with daughter Vanessa, 6, and son Michael, 2. With the Chipmunks on the charts again, “I think we’ll be doing a lot more records now,” says Bagdasarian, who is already at work on a 35th-anniversary album for release next fall. Now that Alvin and the boys are back on top, the rewards are more than financial, says Bagdasarian. “We know that what my dad created in 1958 is still valid today,” he says. “That’s the best feeling of all.”
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Santa Barbara