“Alvin and the Chipmunks”? In Armenian history, really? That was a cartoon first, and then a series of films. But the creator of the characters was Ross Bagdasarian Sr., first cousin of William Saroyan, the celebrated Armenian American writer.
He was born Rostom Sipan Bagdasarian in Fresno, California, on January 27, 1919. As many Armenians in the San Joaquin Valley, his father was a grape farmer. Bagdasarian debuted in Broadway in 1939 playing the role of newsboy in Saroyan’s famous play, “The Time of Your Life.” He was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and was stationed in Seville (Spain) in 1941-1945. This was the source for his stage name David Seville.
He tried his hand at songwriting. His adaptation of an Armenian folk song, together with Saroyan, became “Come On-a My House,” which after the original recording by Kay Armen (1950), became a million-selling hit in 1951 by Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s mother), which launched her career and sold 750,000 records in a month, reaching number one on Billboard charts.
While playing minor roles in various films from 1952-1956, such as “Viva Zapata!,” Bagdasarian launched his own career as singer. He raised to prominence with the song “Witch Doctor,” released in 1958 under David Seville’s name, which became a Billboard number-one single, selling 1.5 million copies. The song was a duet between his real voice and an accelerated version, which he created after experimenting with the speed control of a tape recorder.
On the same year, Bagdasarian created his trio of Chipmunks, which debuted with “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” in November 1958 and became a number one hit by New Year, selling 4 million records in the first few months, topping Billboard charts for four weeks before and after New Year’s Day, and winning three Grammy Awards. The Chipmunks continued releasing several hit songs from 1959 to 1964, including “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” in 1962 and the album “The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits” in 1964. Bagdasarian produced “The Alvin Show,” a TV cartoon on CBS, in 1961-1962.
Ross Bagdasarian died of a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills on January 16, 1972, and was cremated in Los Angeles. He bequeathed the Chipmunks franchise to his wife and children. His elder son, Ross Jr., resumed activities of the franchise in the late 1970s with his wife Janice Karman and became the sole owner after buying the rights from his brother and sister in the mid-1990s. After the movie “The Chipmunk Adventure” in 1987, seven more feature-length films were released between 1999 and 2011.