SANTA BARBARA -- The house that Chipmunks built sits atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Ross Bagdasarian Jr. lives here in the wealthy Montecito area with his wife, Janice Karman. Their offices house four Apple iMacs, gold Chipmunks records, Grammys, branded bubble gum, toothbrush holders, caps, at least one eight-track tape and dozens of CDs.
All was wrought from a single kooky musical idea, “The Christmas Song,” dreamed up by Bagdasarian’s father, Ross Sr. -- and the stubborn, hard-nosed business sense that’s kept Alvin, Simon and Theodore in the family. And now in movie theaters.
The holiday comedy “Alvin and the Chipmunks” took in a whopping $44.3 million at the box office last weekend. It stars Jason Lee of “My Name Is Earl” as David Seville, a struggling Los Angeles songwriter who discovers the ‘munks and rescues them from an evil music executive.
In real life, Seville was the stage moniker for Bagdasarian, who became a Hollywood songwriter after previous jobs as an off-Broadway director and actor (he’s the piano player in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”).
He wrote tunes for Rosemary Clooney and Dean Martin before hitting it big on his own with “Witch Doctor” in 1958. That song’s catchy, sped-up “ooh ee ooh ah ah” chorus, combined with Christmas pleadings from Ross’ youngest son, Adam, inspired the Chipmunks’ first song, an instant hit.
In several months, it sold more than 4 million records and spawned a massive merchandise trade. So was born a one-hit wonder that would endure for nearly 50 years.
Evil music executives, take note: Bagdasarian says the key to his father’s success was his insistence on owning his own master recordings and copyrighting the Chipmunks characters. Bagdasarian rejected Walt Disney’s advances, the son says, and got busy doing Chipmunk versions of everything from “The Twist” to Beatles hits.
By the mid-'60s, though, Bagdasarian was over the Chipmunks. He bought a winery, Sierra Wine Corp., that supplied Gallo and other brands. “He was a person certainly of short attention span,” his son says, “but also incredibly focused, really, really smart, and very funny.”
Bagdasarian, a smoker, was found dead of a heart attack at age 52 on Super Bowl Sunday in 1972. His will passed the winery and the Chipmunks franchise to his wife and three children.
Ross Bagdasarian Jr. helped run the winery for several years and decided with his future wife in 1978 to try to revive the ‘munks. There were no takers until, as family lore goes, a bored radio DJ on the East Coast sped up a Blondie song and called it the Chipmunks version.
The furry creatures hit record stores again with “Chipmunk Punk,” followed by country songs in “Urban Chipmunk” and then by a Saturday animated series.
(Take note, fans: No helium has ever been used to create the distinctive high-pitched voices. At first it was a sped-up tape player; now it’s computers.)
Bagdasarian and Karman held tight creative and financial control, voicing nearly all the characters and using family money to pay for production. Bagdasarian, a law school grad, pored over each contract.
“You don’t protect what you’ve created unless you know the business side of it,” he said. “We’ve all heard these horror stories of these really talented people having their work stolen out from under them. I wasn’t willing to be one of those people.”
Indeed, there has been no equivalent for Bagdasarian to Disney’s 13-year legal dispute over Winnie the Pooh merchandising rights. The closest: a deal with Universal for a Chipmunks movie went sour, leading to a legal fight over the contract. Bagdasarian and Karman won out.
“For us, it was a custody battle,” Karman said. “They finally realized ‘OK, these two are really fighting for their kids.’ ”
In the mid-'90s, Bagdasarian bought the Chipmunk rights from his brother, a writer, and sister, a stay-at-home mom, to take complete control.
Bagdasarian was surprised to find himself following in his father’s footsteps. “I revered my dad, but I didn’t want to do what he had done. That was his creation. Had he remained alive, I never would have done this. But when he passed away suddenly, it was a way of keeping my dad alive, and keeping what he created alive.” Which leads to the movie, an origin story that features hip-hop-flavored Chipmunks tunes. Making a guest appearance is the actual piano Ross Sr. used when writing “Christmas Song.” Bagdasarian and Karman say they voiced the Chipmunks before studio marketing executives decided to have younger actors play the voice roles for publicity reasons.
Next for the ‘munks? Karman is developing a puppet show called “Little Alvin,” aimed at preschoolers. “And we have lots of ideas,” Bagdasarian said. They’ll simply approach each potential partner with caution.
“The business world is not getting kinder by the year. So you have to be mindful that if it doesn’t work out, how do you make sure you still have your underwear at the end of the day?”