For more than 60 years, the dulcet, high-speed tones of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore Seville have resonated with generations of fans. Alvin and the Chipmunks have made records, starred in numerous animated series and films, and even have their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For more on the history of this talented rodent trio, take a look at some facts on everything from their earliest recordings to the punk album that won them a whole new audience.
1. The Chipmunks owe a debt to The Wizard of Oz.
In the late 1950s, actor and musician Ross Bagdasarian was down to his last $200. Supporting a family of five, he decided to buy a tape recorder for $190 and record a song he felt would be in tune with the fast and sometimes indecipherable lyrics of modern music. “The Witch Doctor” featured Bagdasarian muttering gibberish that he sped up, ostensibly from a master of dark magic. The idea came in part from the unusual voices created by reel-to-reel tape recorders for the Munchkins in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. To capture the distinctive pitch, Bagdasarian recorded at half-speed, delivering the lyrics slowly. Played at normal speed, it sounds like he had been on helium.
The playful tune was a hit in 1958, reaching number one on the charts. Bagdasarian credited himself as Dave Seville, taking the advice of executives who thought his real name would be hard to pronounce. He also ditched the witch doctor gimmick, but kept the high-speed squeak and attributed it to three chipmunks: Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, which he named after executives Alvin Bennett, Simon Waronker, and Theodore Keep at his record company, Liberty Records. Performing each of the roles as the Chipmunks, Bagdasarian scored a holiday smash with “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” later that year. The single earned three Grammys and sold a staggering 25 million records over the next few years. Chipmunkmania had officially begun.
2. They performed on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The earliest live-action incarnation of the Chipmunks came in 1959, when Bagdasarian appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show alongside a trio of Chipmunk hand puppets. Some of the footage still exists and can be viewed in the video above.
3. Their first cartoon was short-lived.
Following the success of the albums, Bagdasarian accepted an offer for an animated series from CBS. Debuting in September 1961, The Alvin Show focused on the group’s domestic adventures and musical sessions and had a supporting cast that included manager (and Bagdasarian's alter ego) Dave Seville and non-human friends like Stanley the Eagle. The musical numbers are considered by some to be an early example of music videos, with melodies set to footage. Unfortunately, The Alvin Show failed to find an audience in primetime, airing opposite the popular Western series Wagon Train. It lasted just one season before being relegated to reruns on Saturday mornings.
4. “Dave” had to pack a pistol during recording sessions.
Bagdasarian was soon in the Chipmunk business full-time, recording a string of albums, sometimes with supporting vocalists. One of them, Ron Hicklin, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018 that the team was recording in Hollywood when the Watts riots between police and residents broke out in 1965. Fearing some kind of violent encounter, Hicklin said Bagdasarian carried a pistol while walking from the studio to his car. “I remember laughing later how here we were inside recording Chipmunks and then going outside with Ross, who’s packing a pistol,” he said.
5. The Beatles were big fans.
In 1964, Bagdasarian released The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits, an album-length compilation of covers from the Liverpool band. While it might have been permissible to perform them as parody without permission, Bagdasarian had the group’s blessing. They were reportedly big fans of the Chipmunks and of the technical challenges involved in creating their distinctive warble. “They were just amazed he was able to do the voices of Alvin and Dave and Simon and Theodore and then the music, and keep bouncing tracks back and forth," Ross Bagdasarian Jr. told Variety earlier this year. "The engineering feat of that was what impressed the Beatles so much that they gave him the authorization to do The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits."
6. Chipmunk Punk gave the group new life.
Bagdasarian was a man of many interests. After Alvin and the Chipmunks had given him a measure of financial security, he focused less on the records and more on his winery, Sierra Wine Corporation. After Bagdasarian died in 1972, his three children inherited both the winemaking operation and the Chipmunks. After spending most of the 1970s keeping the group on ice, Ross Bagdasarian Jr. decided to see if the public was still charmed by their singing.
He had trouble finding a deal until a disc jockey played a high-speed version of Blondie’s “Call Me” and said it was a new Chipmunk track. When that took off, Bagdasarian Jr. put together Chipmunk Punk, a collection of contemporary tunes like the Knack’s “My Sharona.” That led to a new Saturday morning series, Alvin and the Chipmunks, which ran from 1983 to 1990. Bagdasarian Jr. took over the vocal duties for Alvin, Simon, and Dave. His wife, Janice Karman, performed Theodore and the all-female Chipettes.
7. The cartoon predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In one 1988 episode of Alvin and the Chipmunks, the gang appeared in a dream sequence in which they find themselves near the Berlin Wall and using the power of music to tear it down to help reunite a family. Strange as it might have been to see a cartoon tackle communism, it was even stranger to see how it predicted the fall of the actual Berlin Wall just two years later in 1991.
8. Robert Zemeckis almost directed an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.
The Chipmunks have traditionally been depicted in animation, though they did appear in puppet form in the 2003 direct-to-DVD special Little Alvin and the Mini-Munks, an educational release that featured the group as preschoolers. But their first live-action appearance was supposed to be in the mid-1990s, with Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis planning a feature film. When that failed to materialize, the Chipmunks bided their time until a 2007 CGI feature, Alvin and the Chipmunks, was released. Three sequels followed, including 2009’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, 2011’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, and 2015’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.